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What is the classic creative process?

There are many different takes on what the creative process involves. This article looks at the classic creative process.
© CQUniversity 2021

If you google ‘creative process’ you will get over 3 billion results! This goes to show there are many different takes on what this process involves.

Here, we will look at a classic process and identify how the principles of neuroscience fit in with said processes.

You will see that many are linked, but often we are not aware of this.

The classic creative process

In 1926, Graham Wallas created what is still a good reference and accepted model of the creative process (Botella, Zenasni & Lubart 2018, Walsh 2011, Gell-Mann 1994). Wallas was one of the co-founders of the London School of Economics and identified four creative steps in his book ‘The Art of Thought’.

The steps suggested by Wallas are preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. Even though not a contemporary read, the steps are still very useful but also debated. Sadler-Smith 2015 argues for example that there is a missing step (intuition) and Marion, Zenasni & Lubart (2018) identified 12 steps for creative art students. However, the four steps here are still core and evident in the most creative processes in one form or another.

a diagram of the flow from prep, to incubation, illumination and then verification

Wallas makes it clear that these steps often occur in an overlapping way. Some even at the same time.


Here we research and explore the problem in different contexts and from different perspectives in a conscious way. It is a learning phase when we try to expand our space of possibilities. If we look at the mental processes identified in the last step, this is when we want inhibitory control. We want to stay focused on the task. For a person with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), inhibitory control is particularly difficult, but it can also be difficult if our mobile phone is nearby or we are trying to rush.


Here we let everything sink in. It is a more unconscious step and can appear a bit more mysterious since the intention is not to focus on the problem anymore, either by focusing on another problem or doing nothing. This will then allow the brain to relax and ‘incubate’ all the learnings achieve in the preparation stage. It is clearly related to the mental process incubation, identified in previous steps. This is sometimes referred to as the mind-wandering stage and we know that it is crucial for creativity. Remember what Simonton said, ‘even a simple walk in the park can stimulate creativity’ (Simonton 2019, p. 144) or just get your mind doing something else for a bit.


Illumination is the stage when your brain comes up with great ideas, connecting pieces that you had been looking for, causing you to leap out of your chair and scream “EUREKA!” These “lightbulb moments” happen at all sorts of awkward places – in the shower, just before you fall asleep, on the long walks alone or on the solitary drive in the car.


With verification, your brain takes that beautiful, shining lump of clay and moulds it into the perfect statue. It evaluates the idea, verifying that it is a realistic idea and starts building the framework around it to bring it to life.

One common test for the creative process is the brick test. See the video below for more information.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

© CQUniversity 2021
This article is from the free online

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