By James Rickman

New rules for fulfilling your creative dreams:

  1. Work when you're tired
  2. Work when you're buzzed
  3. Forget everything you learned in school

We've already blogged about studies showing that fatigue and a cocktail can kickstart your right brain. Last week, Jonah Lehrer upped the ante in his Frontal Cortex blog, suggesting that intelligence can actually make you dumber. The weird thing is, he illustrates his point with the same brain-teaser that appeared a few months ago in that fatigue study.

Oh yes, the lilypads are back. Here's Lehrer's version: "In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?"

Scientists have noted a correlation between high scores on tests like the S.A.T. and low success rates in solving this kind of problem. But what the fatigue study points out, and Lehrer's post doesn't, is that the lilypad problem measures "insight." It's more about spotting the logical pitfall than doing the math. (Give up? Find the answer here.) The fact that both studies use the same problem allows us to make a tentative connection: if intelligence gets in the way of creative problem solving, does it get in the way of plain old creativity? Are the "biases" that Lehrer talks about—"a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead [people] to make foolish decisions"—killing our inspirado?

And if this is true, how does it apply to real life? I'm reminded of the "brain dump" exercises that sometimes kick off creative writing classes: ten or fifteen minutes of nonstop writing, even if you spend most of that time scribbling the same Simpsons quote over and over. One of my grad school teachers, spotting a stilled pen, used to bark "Don't think—write!" Brain dumps are great for bypassing the doubt and deliberation of conscious thought. But then, who on earth wants to read them?

Intelligence—sober, focused intelligence—has to step in at some point. Even if it's riddled with biases and blind spots, as Lehrer says, nine times out of ten it's the only thing that's going to transform that raw material into something that tells and connects. I guess what I'm taking from Lehrer is the sense that the boundary between instinct and intelligence, like most dichotomies, is much blurrier than we might think. Writing doesn't pass through one into the other; if we're lucky, it swirls between them throughout the creative process.

"Duh," you say? Fair enough. But it might be worth following all this confounding research and looking for "bias blind spots" in our own creative projects—although Lehrer also quotes Richard West and Keith Stanovich's finding that "people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them."

I wish I could tell you how to become that perfect creative vessel—the early-rising middlebrow boozer—but I can't. I'm too smart.