It used to be held that the cure for writer's block was to gaze fixedly at a blank sheet of paper until beads of blood formed on your forehead

It used to be held that the cure for writer’s block was to gaze fixedly at a blank sheet of paper until beads of blood formed on your forehead. Nowadays, the sufferer is more likely to play solitaire on the computer until the brain is completely and utterly drained. Then, with any luck, the vacuum created will allow ideas to pop into existence in a process analogous to that in which paired matter/anti-matter particles are continually materialising in the emptiness of outer space.  

The technique does seem to work for many people. Why else would highly paid business executives play solitaire interminably on their laptops on long-haul flights? But there is a caveat. The lifetime of paired particles is vanishingly small. Similarly, the existence of an idea is fleeting at best and it must be seized. Even a momentary hesitation and the idea is gone forever, and with it who knows what? - a Nobel prize, a lucrative patent, even a letter to the editor of Chemistry World.  

All of which prompts the question: since creativity is rightly prized, can it be artificially stimulated? Numerous techniques have been employed over the years to try to do this. I dimly recall many years ago a technique called Synectics being tried in an establishment where I was working. It suffered from a crucial defect when used on chemists because one of the rules was that nobody was allowed to criticise anybody else’s suggestions. Expecting chemists to refrain from criticism is akin to asking them to stop breathing.  

Then there is brainstorming. I only took part in one such session in a chemistry laboratory. The maximum suggested time for a session is half an hour and I knew it was doomed when it took us that long to agree who was going to run it. The only resulting idea was that we should stop yakking, repair to the bench and synthesise some mind-expanding substances. We would then test what these could do for the creative juices, especially when washed down with beer. 

I believe that there are courses out there that purport to teach lateral thinking. I have never attended one myself, not since my chemistry professor told me rather pointedly after finals that my thinking processes seemed to be polarised at 90? to the rest of humanity’s and perhaps rotated into a fifth dimension to boot.  

Although I cannot remember any of them ever amounting to much, I have seen interesting ideas generated by some of these techniques in such fields as business management and product development. But I cannot recall a single idea of potential generated by such means in chemistry. Why that should be so I don’t know. Probably my sample is too small to allow meaningful conclusions to be drawn. Or maybe there is something intrinsic to chemistry that means that the only effective stimulation is coffee consumed while talking to colleagues, or a drink after work with lab mates. Or perhaps such methods can only help us to apply the fruits of chemistry. 

Group participation techniques are not the only aids. For example, there are more books telling you how to be creative than you can shake a stick at. There are also innumerable institutes panting to teach you to innovate. And the internet is in on the act too. You can download a so-called hunch engine, whose genetic algorithm can evolve co-operatively to generate ideas to solve specific problems. For all I know, you can probably buy ideas on eBay too.  

All of which notwithstanding, I personally suspect that, while it is of course vital to cultivate a prepared mind in case serendipity strikes, when it comes to creativity you either have it or you don’t. The best we can do is to avoid beating creativity out of those who happen to be born with it, as if it were some sort of sociopathic behaviour. Now if our educators could just think of a way to do that. 

Brian Malpass