How to Use Conflicting Thoughts to Spur Creativity

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.

Sometimes conflicting thoughts lead to great discoveries. Take time to reflect! This photograph, called Contemplation, is available at Schwebach Arts

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

  1. Creativity is the process of generating something original – always involving imagination.
  2. Creativity is purposeful: it is imagination put into action toward an end.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

To shop for fine art, visit Schwebach Arts, and my Etsy shop.

2 Replies to “How to Use Conflicting Thoughts to Spur Creativity”

  1. Dear Lynn,

    Your remarks about creativity are very readable — nice English. Your understanding of my ideas on creativity and cognition has hit the nail on the head. Nice job.

    I have one major comment. I say “comment’ and not “criticism,” because I realize that you can’t cover everything in a single post. Creativity is also heavily dependent upon non-cognitive factors such as motivation (risk taking, preference for complexity, urge to go beyond the conventional), attitudes and values (such as finding exposure to uncertainty good or enjoying discovering problems), and personal factors (such as openness to new ideas, or self-image
    as being capable of generating effective novelty).

    You may be interested to hear that in a manuscript I recently submitted to a major psychological journal as part of a collection of invited papers on the topic of ensuring the replicability of research findings, I argued that the real problem is that media reports often distort findings, so that the real solution is to improve the way findings are transmitted to the public. As an example of good practice I gave the action of a UK blogger who sent me a forthcoming text and asked me if this accurately reported or distorted my views. Thus, you will understand that I appreciate hearing from you for reasons going beyond mere exchange of views on creativity. Whether or not my comment will be published I do not yet know.

    Keep up the good work.

    Arthur Cropley

    PS: You may find our book “Creativity and crime” (Cambridge University Press, 2013) interesting.

    1. Dear Professor Cropley,

      Thank you for your considerate reply. I am fascinated in all facets of creativity, and I am quite pleased that you took the time and interest to read and respond to my blog post.

      I would love to interview you for possibly a couple of additional articles on the topics you mention: the non-cognitive attributes of creativity and also your current research as represented by your invitation to submit a paper on the “media’s distortion of findings.”

      I envision two very interesting future blog posts!

      Thank you again. I will e-mail you at to see if you are interested in a Skype and/or e-mail interview.

      Best regards,
      Lynn S. Schwebach

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