A Basic Understanding of Imagination, Creativity, and Divergent & Creative Thinking
The word “imagination” comes from the Latin “imaginari,” a verb meaning “to picture oneself.” To me, imagination is the ability to readily picture non-reality in their mind’s eye. Although it does not directly involve the use of one’s senses, it’s inspired by the senses. In other words, things that develop in our imagination are grounded in our senses and perception of the world around us. Not everything that we can imagine has an obvious connection to reality, as it may be something that is clearly not real (i.e. unicorns). However, even these things came from a real source. For example, although they are not real, unicorns were believed to be real during the Middle Ages. The source of thought about the existence of unicorns is the imaginations of the ancient Greeks… perhaps combining the features of a narwhal and a horse – both real animals –led to the vision of the unicorn in the mind’s eye. Imagination can be a very personal experience as well as a public one (i.e. fantasy novels, movies, etc.).
Creativity is very closely linked to imagination, I think. From a standpoint of a definition, I think that creativity is a physical version of imagination. If imagination is a mental version of creativity, then creativity itself is the application of imagination to the real world. For example, if I imagine a unicorn in my mind’s eye, I can introduce that unicorn into something real using creativity. I can make a clay model of a unicorn, I can write a story about a unicorn, etc. The most interesting thing about creativity is how varied it can be from one person to another. Everyone has different ideas roaming their imaginations, and even if these ideas are similar, their physical manifestations – brought into the real world by creativity – can be very different. This is an important part of creativity as well: everyone has a different approach, a different view, a different opinion, about how they bring the things in their imaginations to life. With that being said, just as imagination is a very personal experience, so is creativity.
I think that divergent thinking and creative thinking are one in the same. Divergent thinking is the opposite of convergent thinking: convergent thinking involves a linear, straight path from a question to an answer, whereas divergent thinking involves coming up with as many different answers as possible to a single question. For example, suppose you’re trying to build a makeshift table. You are at a junk yard full of potential supplies. Initial thinking would be along the lines of “Okay, I have these supplies. What is a table? What does it consist of?” A table requires a flat surface and legs to stand on, to keep the surface supported off of the ground. The next question would be “How can I use these supplies to make a flat surface with supporting legs?” At this point, you can take two paths: convergent thinking, where you keep asking questions in a logical and straight-fashioned order until you have a table, or divergent thinking, where you try to tackle the question in various approaches. It’s like trying to build a table from wooden planks and wood glue, or build the same table from cardboard boxes and duct tape. Both means produce the same result (a functional, makeshift table) but one is not as obvious as the other.
An Interesting Example of Divergent Thinking & Innovation
Just as I suggested that creativity and imagination are inextricably linked to each other, so are divergent thinking and innovation. Divergent thinking is the mental process for the physical manifestation of innovation. Although other kinds of thinking can be utilized to bring about innovation, it seems to me that divergent thinking is the best means of getting there, just because one idea can spawn so many different ideas (and this is the goal of innovation, is it not?). Therefore, I decided to choose one example that displays both divergent thinking and innovation: the swing-blade pencil sharpener.
As you can see by the incredibly sharp pencil and the curly pencil shavings, this is a pencil sharpener. However, what immediately strikes you is that it’s not a conventional pencil sharpener – a tube set-up with a spinning blade. This swing-blade pencil sharpener does the same thing as one with a spinning blade, but the key here is that it does so in a whole new way. Using divergent thinking, a pencil sharpener’s aspects and goals are broken down into simple ideas. What is a pencil sharpener composed of? How do these parts work together to sharpen your pencil? And from an innovation standpoint, how can these parts be combined in new ways? Can the shape or functions of the parts be changed or improved upon? This example is markedly different from exemplars of vertical thinking because although a pencil sharpener’s components are the same from one sharpener to another, putting them together in new and different ways is what divergent thinking is all about. Convergent and divergent thinking may break up a problem into simpler components, but where convergent thinking takes one approach to solve the problem, divergent thinking examines each simpler component and seeks to piece them together in a multitude of ways to solve the problem, leading to a multitude of solutions.
You can see the innovation process — which involves divergent thinking — from this picture. Many designs were developed for this pencil sharpener along the way in order to reach a solution.
The reason why I chose this example is far from my science-y background. Sure, I’m in school to become a physician, but that’s not the only thing I’m interested in doing. I’m also an artistic person, and I like drawing and designing things and coming up with new ways to represent old ideas. So, when I came across this example, I was amazed and excited at how well a new means of thinking can serve you, in more ways than one (i.e. educational, artistic, etc.). As for my field of interest – medicine – this example clearly demonstrates innovation. The designer broke down the sharpener’s parts into simpler elements, examined each element, and pieced them back together to create a minimalistic yet fully functional pencil sharpener. In medicine, a doctor breaks down a patient’s health into symptoms, examines each symptom to find a cause or correlation, and pieces the symptoms together to come up with one or multiple diagnoses. Diagnosing patients should never be a convergent process because something important about the patient or their health might be missed along the way, resulting in an incorrect diagnosis and possibly harmful consequences to their health.
Imagination and creativity greatly influence the processes of divergent thinking and innovation. You can’t think in a lateral manner without using imagination and creativity to think of and physically develop new ideas. There’s no set process for innovation, of course, but I think it involves some general steps: 1) imagination helps you come up with the branches of divergent thinking, 2) creativity helps you connect these ideas to things that you can do in reality (or things that you can’t do but will try anyways), 3) divergent thinking helps you if you mess something up, etc. At every step of the innovation process, divergent thinking is there to help you backtrack and go in a different direction if imagination and creativity give you an idea that you can’t work out. This in itself is innovation: coming up with new ideas when the old ones don’t work.
Derringer, Jaime. “The Swing Blade Pencil Sharpener.” 16 June 2011. Web. 1 March 2013. http://design-milk.com/swing-blade-pencil-sharpener/.
Perdue, Katherine. “Imagination.” 2003. Web. 1 March 2013. http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/imagination.htm