Written by Lee Watson
Often, we can find ourselves all too easily stuck in a rut, endlessly repeating the same robotic actions day after day. Our original thoughts and new exciting ideas feel like things that lie in our distant past, and we wonder when our creativity died?
Taking from TED and Steven Kotler’s talk, reigniting those creative thoughts and ways of processing is like trying to ‘figure out how to get your neurobiology to work for you rather than against you’; which arguably is then the recipe for high achievement, and for engaging with our most creative selves!
The ubiquitous ‘aha’ moment that suddenly pops into place when thinking creatively comes simply from insight. When it comes to solving problems, we tend to use one of two strategies (some individuals do blend them) of the logical, trial and error, testing process; or reaching a solution via an insight only; which literally means the answer pops into our head. Neuroscientist Mark Beeman and cognitive psychologist John Kounis discovered that before people solved a problem through insight ‘there was heightened activity in their brain’s cingulate cortex (ACC)’, the part of the brain that plays a role in ‘salience and executive attention and that handles error correction’. Those odd, long shot ideas are the creative ones. They are the more ‘weakly activated ideas’ and when the ACC is activated it can detect these, signalling the brain to pay attention to them and then, you guessed it, hey presto, we have that ‘aha’ moment.
But what triggers or gets the ACC going? Well, put simply, being in a good mood. This then naturally means the antidote to triggering it is a bad mood. When we are in a bad mood, we will be less likely to take risks, and more inclined to trust the analytical ‘safer’ train of thought. So, practicing gratitude, exercise, a good night’s rest and exercise will reduce the brain from inhibiting itself. Giving yourself time to rest and recharge, as a busy mind seldom has the capacity to be creative, is a great place to start. When we are faced with problems, we are more inclined to forget this and let the aforementioned practices fall by the wayside… but the irony is if we lean into them, they will actually, more than likely, help us solve the problem in hand.
Time and ‘Non-time’ into our schedules…
If you’re inundated by tasks, trying to multi-task (which has scientifically been proven not actually possible by the brain) you’re unlikely to be able to devote any of your brain power towards anything creative. Time is something that a lot of workers have managed to get back during the pandemic. If we’re working from home, suddenly you don’t have to spend time travelling to work, and this time can be devoted to what is referred to as ‘non-time’ into our schedules…
Non-time is time for daydreaming and psychological distancing which when doing so switches on our default mode network, enabling our subconscious to find remote associations between ideas. If we can gain a little distance from our problems, we can begin to untangle them and see them from multiple perspectives.
If we’re not working from home full time, we might be hybrid working, splitting time between the office and home. Of course, we can give ourselves time in other ways too. Think about whether that meeting really needs to be a meeting, or could it just be an email instead? Either way, hopefully we’ve got more time on our hands than we did before. Having to boil things down to the essentials is a creative exercise in itself, and both you and others will appreciate getting some of our time back, that again could be given to ‘non-time’. If we don’t have the time to get that space from our emotions and take a break from the world, then we won’t have the luxury of alternative possibilities.
Occupy your conscious mind and give your unconscious mind space and time to work on the problem independently. Distraction can be key to come up with that Eureka moment. Just ask Archimedes, who came up with his theory of displacement (AKA, the Archimedes Principal) whilst having a bath! The TED talk hosted by Maoush Zomorodi ‘Boredom leads to creativity’ argues this beautifully. If we never got bored, distracted or switch off, we wouldn’t give our brain’s chance to ignite a network called the default mode (yes, we mentioned it before!) or more commonly known as ‘autopilot’ mode. When our brain is really busy, there’s no ability to think beyond conscious thoughts and into our subconscious. But, when we are bored, we can allow for different connections in the brain to happen, and for connections between disparate ideas.
Exasperation & Limitations
Fed up with how things are being done. Well, this can be a catalyst for coming up with creative solutions. Essentially, if we’re at our wits end about a process or job that we don’t like, we can endeavour to come up with a way of making a change for the better. Not only will it give us more fulfilment, but we might find that other people appreciate and enjoy it too.
A man named Stanley Lieber was working for a comics company in New York back in the 1960s. He was fed up with the kind of stories he was having to tell and was on the verge of quitting. He would have done so, were it not for the intervention of his wife who told him that he should just write the stories he wanted to tell, and not worry about getting fired since he wanted to leave anyway. Well, that man is now more commonly known as Stan Lee, and what he wrote then was the foundation for many of the Marvel comic’s characters that you now see in multi-billion-dollar movie series today, ‘Frustration can fuel creation!’’.
This does also show the importance of having people to support us and act as a sounding board when we’re embarking on any creative endeavours, albeit the initial ‘incubation period’ of an idea – proven by science – is more successful in solitude. After this stage though, working together with people can help to spark ideas off of one another and the encouragement from others can give us can fill us with the confidence we need to explore ideas that may stray from conventional thinking.
However, remembering that some constraints, limitations or parameters are unavoidable will actually drive creativity and an individual’s resourcefulness. Sometimes too much freedom, a blank canvas is just too, well, blank and useless. So, we want to change something but know that certain proponents of the problem are undeniable, why not make these the start – a beginning – and the desired outcome – the end. Building the bridge between the two, joining the dots as it were, will actually help you from going ‘off-piste’ and creating unviable solutions! Deadlines, are no bad thing either, as long as they make us ‘stretch’ to achieve them but not to the point where we snap under the pressure.
Don’t be afraid of looking in to new ways of doing things. Thinking that “we’ve always done it this way” is the enemy of creativity. Sure, maybe the way we’ve done things before has always worked, but what if there is an alternative way?
Try to think about things from different perspectives. Hang out with new or different people, who process, see and experience the world in different ways than you. Imagining how they might see or approach things gives you a lot of extra places to go that you might otherwise have not considered.
Making sure we feel comfortable in our work space is key. For some of us, that will mean a serene, tidy and organised setup. Taking away anything that might distract them is their way forward. The creative process isn’t an exact science after all, and what works for some might not work for others. So, perhaps chaos and untidiness, even disarray, with plenty of items scattered around the place, is what they need to be inspired.
Contradictory though it may sound, some background noise in our environment can actually help. An office environment, with the low white noise of people talking, keyboards clacking and phones ringing can actually be beneficial to some. The notion of ‘we’re all cohabiting a space’ and, yes, others are working as hard as us too, does come with some comfort! That’s why some of us, if we’re working outside of an office, actually prefer to go to a café or pub to get things done.
Of course, some background noise can also be distracting, especially when it’s intermittent or you can’t zone out from conversations you’re hearing. Again, we need to try to take control of our environment, by putting on headphones and listening to music, ambient sounds or whatever helps you relax enough to get back to work!
Comfort is also an important aspect. If your back aches and you have constant pain in your neck, you’re not going to be doing your best work. Having an ergonomic chair and a good desk in your office environment is pretty much essential. If you’re in the UK, check out the HSE link on safe work seating. Whatever can be done to make you feel comfortable is worth doing, from both a creative and health standpoint.
It’s always hard to get something to work when forced, but we do hope some of the insights we have pulled together here from various sources can help. We’ve also previously published a post on The Effect of Music on Creativity, so please do click the link if you’re interested in that specific aspect of creative thinking too. Remember you can never use up creativity, and more often than not the more you engage with it the more you have!