by Lynn S. Scwebach
When Irish playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh went to Bruges, Belgium for a short holiday, he found himself at first enchanted with the city’s cultural beauty but after only a few hours, McDonagh wondered why he was bored.
McDonagh said it was as if two sides of his brain were arguing within him, one side finding the city stunningly attractive, and the other side screaming dullness. He noted this during a DVD special features interview, also stating that from that internal quarrel came the idea of two characters, two guys, who find themselves in Bruges, one loving the city and the culture, the other hating it.
Driven to create a story out of this unique situation, McDonagh had to figure out why these two men had to be in Bruges in the first place—which led his thoughts to the unlikelihood of two gangsters, two hit men, in this city that isn’t known to harbor underworld characters.
The genesis of McDonagh’s story and subsequent writing of the film “In Bruges” exemplifies how the creative process unfolds. Associations are merged and fused into a plot that might at first appear unlikely or improbable, but because of its creative construction and excellent writing, become intriguing and gratifying for viewers.
Taking this creative thought process a step further, neuroscientists explain that how McDonagh gave birth to this film exemplifies a type of cognition or thinking pattern that describes how creativity unfolds at the physiological level.
Individuals combine current or new ideas and events within networks of ideas and knowledge already stored within memory. In other words, individuals assimilate these new experiences into what they already know, broadening ideas and generating new combinations. The more information stored in memory, and the more cognitive flexibility an individual possesses, the better able the individual is to create new, original – highly creative – combinations.
This type of combinatory thinking applies to every person working in occupational fields that require complex problem-solving skills. Entrepreneurs especially should note the importance of using conflicting thoughts and emotions to assimilate them to spur novel products and business solutions.
Arthur J. Cropley, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hamburg, has studied and written extensively on how cognitive processes facilitate creative thinking.
He writes about these processes or mechanisms in the article “Creativity and cognition: Producing effective novelty” in the Roeper Review. Novel, creative thought involves:
- Selecting from masses of information available at the moment;
- Relating new information to what is known or already stored;
- Combining elements of new and old information;
- Evaluating newly emerging combinations;
- Selectively retaining successful combinations;
- Communicating the results to others.
Cropley cites other researchers who take this cognitive framework a step further by stating that truly novel or original combinations also require highly random associations. For example, instead of placing his gangsters in a story in the usual, bigger cities of New York, Chicago, or Berlin, the screenwriter McDonagh placed his characters in the unlikely historical city of Bruges, Belgium.
Colin Farrell, one of the main characters starring in “In Bruge,” was quoted in the DVD’s special features as saying that McDonagh’s story was the most original screenplay he had ever read in addition to being the best written. The writing eventually won McDonagh a British Academy Film Award for best original screenplay.
And originality is an essential part of every definition of creativity. Since the mid 20th century, several researchers developed numerous definitions on creativity, but all include originality or novelty. Here is one definition the U.K.’s National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE):
Definition of Creativity
- Creativity is the process of generating something original – always involving imagination.
- Creativity is purposeful: it is imagination put into action toward an end.
- Creativity produces something original in relation to one’s own previous work, to a peer group or to anyone’s previous output in a particular field.
- Creativity has value in respect to its applied objective. Creativity involves not only the generation of ideas, but also the evaluation of them, and deciding which idea is the most adequate one.
The example of how McDonagh generated his screenplay debunks the oversimplification that all creative activity is right-brain activity, and all analytical, logical thought occurs in the left brain. Instead, scientists define creativity as a combination of processes distributed by circuits throughout all areas of the brain.
So the next time that you unwrap an argument occurring within yourself, realize that it’s a good thing. Stop and take note what the two sides of your brain are articulating—you might be on the road to the next acclaimed movie. Or, more importantly, you just might be on the verge of solving an important problem within your field.