Your Creative Brain

How seeing things through a playful lens helps us in our daily lives.

by Linda Melone

September 2013

Creativity is much more than the ability to draw, paint or compose music; it’s a part of daily
life. Resolving personal issues, settling work disputes and job innovation all require creativity. “When we are creative, we come up with solutions to problems in a new way, we see things—and people—from a different perspective and approach life in a novel way,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness (Morgan-James).

A study published in Creativity Research Journal (2011) involving 481 people from various backgrounds found two common creativity personality traits: “associative orientation” and flexibility. Associative orientation refers to imagination, playfulness and having a wealth of ideas; flexibility is the ability to see various aspects of issues and come up with alternative solutions.

Creativity can be seen in little ways, such as simple problem solving, or as something more substantial and of broader long-term value, says Alvaro Fernandez, MBA, chief executive of SharpBrains.com, a market research firm, and author of The Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness (SharpBrains). “Leonardo da Vinci, for example, created new standards of art, and our Founding Fathers helped create a brand new constitution,” says Fernandez. “We all create and we’re all creative.”

Keys to Creativity

As research has revealed, not everyone has a natural flair for creativity. The good news is by addressing things that block creativity and putting yourself into a creative mindset you can learn to be more creative. “From a brain science perspective, we need to address two common bottlenecks in order to boost creativity,” says Fernandez. “One is lack of attention to what really matters. We cannot be really creative if we’re continually distracted by thousands of little things. Second, too much stress makes us react in more automatic, survival-like mode, which reduces our mental flexibility and playful attitude.”

Stirring the Creative Juices

Creativity is nurtured by fun, relaxation and self-confidence, says Lombardo, who recommends the following steps for getting into the flow:

• Schedule time to be creative
• Choose the way you want to practice creativity
• Focus on being creative, not doing something “well” or judging what you do
• Just do it: Jump into whatever activity you chose
• Establish an environment conducive to creativity, whether that involves bright lights and upbeat music or softer light and soothing music
• Meditate by sitting and focusing on your breath or doing something rhythmic such as a walking meditation
• Enjoy the process: Immerse your mind in what you’re doing —L.M.

We’ve evolved into a largely “left-brained,” score-keeping society, says John McGrail, PhD, a Los Angeles hypnotherapist and author of The Synthesis Effect: Your Direct Path to Personal Power and Transformation (Career Press). “We judge success by how much we get done in a day, the number of sales we close or the amount of money we make. Tapping into our right brain allows for more abstract, free-flowing ideas that lead to discovery, innovation and efficiencies.” Connecting to the right brain through yoga, meditation and hypnosis allows us to delve into the subconscious or unconscious and spiritual side of the mind.

Mindfulness meditation and biofeedback can help boost attention and help us regulate stress, says Fernandez. Detaching from technology can also help, according to a study published in the journal PLoS ONE (12/12): People scored 50% better on creativity tests after spending four days backpacking in nature when tested against people who had not yet begun a backpacking excursion.
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, may account for the creativity-boosting effects of meditation and yoga, says Andrew Rossi, vice president and creative director at M Booth, a New York-based global communications agency. “Increased dopamine links to increased brain function. Things such as exercise, listening to music, meditation, sleep and eating antioxidant-rich foods are also shown to increase dopamine production in the brain.”

Unplug and Unwind

Most people claim they get their best ideas in the shower, while on a walk or when performing some other mundane activity. Doing a routine activity takes away the stress of trying too hard to come up with creative ideas, says Rossi. “Sitting in front of a computer forcing yourself to be creative hinders the creative process. There’s an expectation that you have to come up with ideas.” (Plus, you’re likely also responding to emails and thinking about piles of work around you, and may be distracted by coworkers.)

In contrast, performing routine activities such as showering or doing laundry doesn’t require a lot of thinking, so the mind can focus on other challenges. “The more relaxed you are the more creative you’re likely to be,” says Rossi. “In fact some studies show creativity is heightened by things like sleepiness because you’re less inhibited in your thinking.”

Rossi uses a creativity-generating idea he calls The Listserve. “We ask a different coworker every day to send an email to the agency about literally anything,” says Rossi. “This small act results in more interesting thinking and brainstorming, a better-informed staff and greater camaraderie and communication in the office. Sometimes, it’s the small acts of creativity that lead to big, paradigm-shifting solutions.”

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