Concordia Public Scholar Trish Osler wants to pinpoint inspiration in creative thinking

The doctoral candidate in art education connects ways to link the neuroscience of creativity to arts pedagogy

What is going on in someone’s brain when they have a “eureka” moment? How do ideas materialize and where do they come from?

This is the focus of Trish Osler’s research: the origins of creative inspiration and how educators can help learners make critical connections through artistic processes.

“I’m constantly inspired by the act of creativity, but the magical moment when a brilliant idea materializes is elusive,” she says. “I want to know what will increase the chances for inspiration to occur. Igniting creativity may change the way we teach in the future.”

Osler is a PhD candidate in art education and the director of academic research at the Convergence Initiative. She has collaborated with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is currently co-editing two books on museum education.

‘Humans are born to imagine – everyone is innately capable of thinking creatively’

Is it accurate to say that your research is about trying to facilitate creative expression?

Trish Osler: Yes. As both an artist and educator, I am intrigued by the way our creative and critical minds engage with a subject. What sparks an idea in one person may go unnoticed by another. I study how we can apply insights about creativity from artists and neuroscientists to make that “aha!” moment easier to reach.

Inspiration can lead to innovation, but the process often seems elusive. How is it that some people seem remarkably creative while others claim not to be? In fact, humans are born to imagine – everyone is innately capable of thinking creatively.

You write that “there has never been a more critical time for problem-solving and problem-finding.” Why do you think this is?

TO: Progress in areas like human productivity can be achieved through small improvements, but some global challenges related to the environment, social justice, education and the role of art in society require quantum shifts in thinking and feeling in order to make a meaningful difference. The urgent peril presented by the climate crisis is clearly an area that will require significant innovation.

There is reason for optimism. Creative thinking has allowed us to collaborate on resolving some of the more critical challenges in society. The recent global pandemic presented a huge challenge given the initial lack of information. Addressing it on a scientific and social level demanded rapid creative solutions. On a different scale, access to the arts moved almost exclusively online, which forced performing artists to create new ways to share their work.

Could you tell us a bit about the “neuroscience of creativity”? What are some of the scientifically observable characteristics of the creative brain?

TO: Creativity involves a number of cognitive processes, neural pathways and emotions. The brain operates as a series of networks working together to generate and evaluate new ideas to arrive at what we think of as an “aha!” moment, an epiphany of sorts. 

If an idea excites all three of your brain’s networks, dopamine is released into its reward centre, giving us that rush of success. This seemingly instantaneous event is actually a combination of ideas or questions residing in long-term memory looked at in a new way.

This means that inspiration doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s usually an answer to a long-standing question that your brain has been keeping on ice, waiting until the right dance partner comes along.

How can disruption spark creativity?

TO: Disruptive learning activities can inspire scientists and artists to think differently. By introducing new and seemingly unrelated things to a problem, there can be a shift in perspective that allows novel solutions to emerge. Art-science collaborations such as the Convergence Initiative provide a forum to disrupt conventional patterns of thinking and explore creative processes together.

Scientists, thinking like artists, are discovering that using visual metaphors and other artistic methods can alter their approach to complex ideas. Artists, exploring findings from neuroscience, discover ways to disrupt their creative process. It’s important to be persistent and open-minded. Don’t reject bizarre solutions right away. Let your mind wander and play with ideas.

Could you tell us a little bit about your work with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts?

TO: I worked with the museum’s Innovation Lab on interactive technologies in a remote outdoor museum space, the Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens. Although the project initially sought to develop an app, they subsequently pivoted to a site-based interactive installation. It was fascinating to observe the evolution of the creative process across the team as we selected and tested the first digital prototype.

What’s next for you?

TO: With the Artful Xchanges project, I’m co-editing two books on museum education, one Canadian-based and the other international in scope. Themes around curation versus education, voice, choice and inclusion of underrepresented groups form some of the challenges of present-day and future museum programming.

On a personal level, I’m very excited to continue analyzing the data I acquired for my dissertation research and write up the findings. I will continue to investigate art-science initiatives internationally in order to understand creativity and learning across disciplines. I hope to serve a useful research role exploring the creative mindset and possibly effecting changes in the way we teach and learn.

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