The Secret Language of Creativity

It has been estimated that the vast majority of human communication is not only non-verbal it is also non-conscious.

We often think about non-verbal communication simply in terms of body language, but in fact, it plays a major role in all forms of human communication… particularly in areas such as the visual arts, cinema, theatre, music and dance.

Research suggests that the unconscious mind processes information far more quickly and efficiently than the conscious.

Indeed, it has been shown that the conscious mind is in fact a small bandwidth data processor, which can only process around 40 bits of information per second; whilst the unconscious mind is, effectively, a massive­­­ bandwidth data processor capable of processing over 13 million bits of information per second.

And since it processes over 13 million bits of information per second, our unconscious mind experiences much that is beyond the comprehension of the conscious mind.

Creative ideas come in all shapes and sizes, and we often refer to those ideas that have the greatest cultural impact as being ‘Big Ideas’. All creative ideas are processed in the unconscious before they surface in the conscious mind, but ‘big ideas’ tend to require a proportionally larger amount of unconscious processing.

One of the first to recognise the importance of the unconscious in the creative process was the French mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré (1854 –1912). Through a process of trial and error, Poincare found that consciously considering a complex problem, would only get him so far and that it was only after putting the task aside for a while, that the answer would come to him. Saying ‘it is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover’, Poincaré developed a daily routine based on this insight, consciously working for just two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, giving over the remainder of the day for the unconscious to mull things over.

Using this technique, and by harnessing the processing power of the unconscious mind, Poincare was able to imagine mathematical structures of the most extraordinary complexity.

Indeed, his ideas went on to form the basis of Complexity Theory, a branch of mathematics that could only begin to be visualised in the late 1970’s when computers were finally invented with enough processing power to bring Poincaré’s ideas to life.

By harnessing the power of the unconscious mind, Poincare was capable of imagining mathematical structures that could only be visualised half a century after his death, with the arrival of computers with significant processing power in the late 1970’s. Pictured is one such computer generated image known as a ‘Mandelbrot Set’.

Poincaré’s ideas about creativity were to influence an entire generation, including such important Modernist figures as Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, but one person who was particularly influenced by Poincaré’s understanding of the role of the unconscious in the creative process, was an English social psychologist called Graham Wallas (1858 – 1932).

In 1926, Wallas published a book called The Art of Thought, in which he presented a model of the creative process, based on Poincaré’s method, which consisted of four consecutive, stages:

The Wallas Four-Stage Creative Process: 1) Preparation: The stage at which the problem is consciously ‘investigated in all directions’ 2) Incubation: The stage at which the problem is put to one side in favour of unconscious processing 3) Illumination: The stage at which the creative idea surfaces into conscious awareness 4) Verification: The stage at which the idea is consciously verified, and then applied.

With minor modifications, this four-stage process of PREPARATION, INCUBATION, ILLUMINATION and VERIFICATION has since been widely recognised as the standard model for the creative process.

As Wallas’s four stage process indicates, creative ideas appear after a conscious period of PREPARATION, followed by an unconscious period of INCUBATION; and the amount of time and effort that has been  devoted to the problem at these two critical stages is usually reflected in the scale, complexity and ultimately value of the result.

When evaluating creative ideas, I believe, therefore, that it is useful to place them on a spectrum with Low bandwidth ideas at one end of the scale and High-Bandwidth ideas at the other… depending on how much non-conscious processing power has been brought to bear on the problem.

An extremely Low-Bandwidth idea is one that has been quickly produced by the 40 bits per second conscious mind whilst, at the other end of the scale, an extremely High-Bandwidth idea is one produced over time by the 13 million bits per second non-conscious mind.

bandwidth slides.012

In some instances the creative process may simply represent the investment of the odd hour here or there, in others it may represent weeks, or even months of work, whilst, in truly exceptional circumstances, the realisation of a creative idea might represent the work of a lifetime.

So, for example, the kind of work that does not demand much unconscious processing – such as creativity within a pre-determined template, like a ‘Painting by Numbers’ kit or a simple tweak to an existing redipe – can be characterized as ‘Low-Bandwidth Creativity’.

Whereas the kind of work that draws on the wider resources of the unconscious – such as a novel, a screenplay, a great painting, or a symphony – can all be characterized as ‘High-Bandwidth Creativity’.


Thus when we experience High-Bandwidth Creativity in the form of a great movie or a profoundly moving piece of music, it is largely the subliminal elements, the ones that speak to us ‘below the radar’ of consciousness that decide how we actually experience the work.

In this way, ‘Big Ideas’ not only require a greater amount of unconscious processing power, they also communicate with the unconscious mind of the audience on a much broader bandwidth, and therefore have a greater cultural impact.

At their best, ‘Big Ideas’ are those which communicate across the full spectrum of consciousness. Addressing not just the tip of the iceberg that is the conscious mind, but also the vast submerged part that is the unconscious mind.

It is only in this manner that we can begin to communicate with the whole of our being, and to hope to express what it is to be fully human.

By Mike Garner

A highly experienced creative practitioner, Mike Garner is also a strong creative leader with a deep understanding of the effective use of creativity in all aspects of communication.

With widely recognised creative abilities, combined with a practical understanding of commercial requirements, Mike has an exceptional track record in helping start up and grow a number of highly successful creative businesses.

Over the past thirty years, Mike has played a key role in establishing and building three separate (and creatively and financially successful) creative agencies from scratch. These are: Saatch&Saatchi/Equator (1991), OgilvyOne Worldwide (1993) and Chemistry (1999)

One of the most highly awarded creatives in Ireland, Mike has won a vast number of national and international advertising awards, including Cannes, D&AD, The One Show, and ICAD as well as awards in more specialist disciplines such as sponsorship, direct response and direct mail.

With a strong set of practical craft skills that include, art direction, print design, packaging design, typography, copywriting, photography and film direction, Mike is a keen believer in leadership by example, and is happy to getting involved in any aspect of the creative process

Unusually, for someone with such a strong creative reputation, Mike also has formidable strategic planning skills. Having developed and implemented many highly successful strategic planning solutions for a wide variety of brands, he has also he has won two ADFX Advertising Effectiveness awards. (Including Gold, Silver and Bronze for Lidl at ADFX 2018).

Mike has always been a champion of a highly integrated approach to communications, at all times arguing for an active role for the brand, and always placing the consumer at the centre of things. With his diverse skill set, Mike provides the link between initial research, insight and strategy, right through to concept and final execution.

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