If you’re staring pleadingly at a blank page willing creativity to make an appearance, give up now. Creativity is like the girl you fancy that thinks you’re just a little too nice. Chasing after her, begging for a date and eventually crying about your defeat will get you nowhere, fast – she’s after a bad boy. Play hard to get, however, and both the girl and creativity will come running to you.
It’s not often that people will enviously paw over the monotony of folding clothes or stacking shelves, but if research into creativity is anything to go by these repetitive activities could soon become highly coveted by people searching for blissful moments of insight.
Although still in its infancy, research has found that creativity is formulated from several connected but different constructs: insight, improvisation and divergent thinking.
Insight is that Eureka moment when an idea arrives like an animated light bulb above your head. It’s concocted in a different area of the brain to analytical thinking, and due to the broader reach of creative neurons (more on that later!) more connections can be discovered between unrelated ideas.
Improvisation is another key area of creativity, and since our daily behaviour is generally unscripted, this is good news for people who tend not to consider themselves creative. In terms of creativity the ability to improvise is right up there: whether it’s playing music, dancing or simply going about our daily lives.
Divergent thinking is the ability to think outside the box, and creative types have this in spades. Pioneers of creativity research investigated the role of intelligence in creativity and Neuropsychologist Dr Rex Jung, one of the first scientists to look inside the brain and see what’s happening when someone is being creative, found that while the two overlap, creativity and intelligence are in fact different constructs.
While intelligence alone was overrated in its impact on levels of creativity, subsequent tests have focussed exclusively on assessing divergence. In one such test, Dr Jung presented participants with a house brick and asked them to think of as many potential uses for it as possible; the more highly inventive the ideas, the more divergent their thinking.
Insight, improvisation and divergent thinking are all linked by a reoccurring pattern of brain activity, in which the frontal lobe enters a state of reduced activity. In this state of transient hypofrontatlity, also referred to as a brain blink, distractions are momentarily shut out – allowing creative ideas the chance to bubble up to the surface.
The human brain has 150,000km of connections that link our neural networks. While intellectual thought or fact retrieval takes a direct A to B route, Dr Jung found that those of us who area already creative thinkers have less white matter, which forces nerve traffic to slow down and effectively take the scenic route to its destination. This increases the likelihood of unexpected ideas colliding and sparking ingenuity.
Taking time away from a problem gives us the opportunity to unconsciously recombine thoughts, which is crucial for creativity.
Pass me the Lego
The idea of needing to give an idea time to percolate explains why fantastic ideas come when you’re least expecting them, usually at highly impractical times like in the shower or when on the cusp of falling asleep.
If we can learn anything from Men in Black III it’s what when faced with a particularly perilous problem to solve, by removing yourself from the situation and doing something unrelated, the idea will come to you just when you least expect it.
To further test the benefits of mind wandering to creativity, Professor Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara, modified the divergent thinking house brick test by adding Lego to the mix.
Participants were given two minutes to generate ideas, then had a two-minute break, after which they returned to the divergent task for another round of ideas. Crucial to the outcome, of course, was how participants spent their break doing nothing; engaged in a demanding task, such as building a Lego house; or engaged in a non-demanding task, such as sorting Lego bricks by colour.
When it came to the second task, the participants that had been engaged in the demanding task faired the worst. The participants who did best, however, were not those left to their own devices, but rather those given the easy task of sorting bricks by colour.
If you’re looking to achieve these benefits it’s worth remembering that not all wandering is created equal. Engaging in a non-demanding task is more functional than doing nothing, so to problem solve do something – whether that’s going for a walk, having a shower or doing some colouring.
This may all seem well and good if you’re naturally imaginative, but what if you have creative block, or aren’t predisposed to high levels of creativity in the first place?
We’ve long heard that when in a rut we ought to get out of our comfort zone and shake things up, and now there’s scientific evidence that this approach can in fact boost your creativity.
Researchers at Radboud Nijmegen University in The Netherlands have found that new and unexpected experiences can disrupt your patterns of thought, forcing new neural pathways to form, which leads to the creation of more original ideas.
Lead by social psychologist Dr Simon Ritter, researchers at the university explored this through a Virtual Reality world in which the laws of physics were subverted. If you don’t yet have access to an oculus rift headset complete with logic defying programs, fear not. They also adopted some rather more accessible methods of boosting cognitive flexibility, such as making chocolate chips sandwiches in new ways.
While for the uninitiated, venturing into the world of classic Dutch cuisine may be far enough outside our comfort zones to increase creativity, for aficionados it’s time to step things up a notch. Rather than the traditional approach of sprinkling chocolate chips onto buttered bread, researchers at Radboud Nijmegen University asked participants to butter bread, before placing it ‘sunny side down’ onto a plate covered in chocolate chips. The end result was of course the same tasty sandwich, but in taking a new route to get there participants’ levels of divergent thinking increased by 10 to 15%.
Trust me: creativity and stubbornness are not friends. So the next time you’re bogged down by a seemingly unsolvable problem, whatever you do don’t resolve to keep bashing away until it’s sorted. After all, I’m sure we’ve all often heard that the very definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over and expect different results. So step outside of your comfort zone: absorb the approaches of other industries, gain a deeper understanding of different cultures, and play dodgems with your white matter until ideas collide and creativity sparks.