Our brains are lazy. Yes, this is scientifically proven.
In an experiment featured on the Science Channel, a door was placed randomly in the middle of a park. With bystanders looking on, a man who was part of the experiment would walk up to it, open the door, and walk through. However, he wouldn’t appear on the other end, and the door would shut by itself.
In reality, the man had used the cover of the door to sneak away and hide behind another object, while his team member shut the door via remote control.
“This is a great example of how lazy our brains are,” says neuroeconomist Dr. Paul Zak in the video. “When we go through a door, we go in a straight line. We can’t conceive – because we’ve seen that pattern so many times – that someone would make a right turn.”
This is because our brains frequently use connections – or neural pathways – created by past experience to decipher the world around us. Indeed, if we just let them be, our brains would always “choose the most energy efficient path,” writes MIT senior lecturer Tara Swart in her book Neuroscience for Leadership.
Unfortunately, this means that our brains aren’t so good at being creative. As it turns out, creativity is all about making new connections – a skill which brooding creative types seem to have in common.
In 2011, neuroscientist Dr. Vilayanur S. (V.S.) Ramachandran found that synesthesia – a condition which causes people to involuntarily link one sensory percept to another – is eight times more common in artists, poets, and novelists.
This is, she declares, “the basis for creativity – linking seemingly unrelated ideas, concepts, or thoughts.”
For this reason, it makes sense that we have to do things that are counter-intuitive in order to spark our creative side, even if they might feel unnatural at first. So, scrap the usual advice – here are five unconventional ways to get your creative juices flowing.
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#1. Cut yourself off from the world
Up to half of our day-to-day is spent at our working desks – for some, maybe even more. Because of this, many try to make the most of it by adorning their tabletops with inspirational quotes, photos of family and friends, and wallpapers depicting the mountains and seas.
Some companies even give their employees an allowance to pimp out their desks!
If you want to get creative, you should probably do the exact opposite: Reduce sensory input as much as possible.
Here’s why. Cutting off sensory input allows “the ‘constantly-make-sure-you’re-not-dying’ part of your brain to chill out for a second, allowing the creative, relaxed part of your brain to come out and play,” says Graham Talley. Graham is the owner of a sensory-deprivation tank center in Portland.
Of course, it’ll be close to impossible to shut out sensory input completely at the office. But, if you’re fortunate enough to be working from home or have some control over your working environment, writer Belle Beth Cooper suggests doing three things:
- Reduce visual input: Lay down in a dark room, and just let your mind wander. Blackout curtains would be perfect for this, but a blindfold or eye mask would do great as well.
- Shut out the noise: This one should be easy. Get a set of comfy padded or in-ear headphones, and block out the myriad of distractions and noises around you. Get a seat by the window, and watch the world go by.
- Isolate yourself: Literally get away from the rest of the world. You don’t necessarily have to get into a floatation tank to do that – Belle recommends a regular bath time ritual with earplugs and an eye mask.
Are you kidding me? What a waste of time! is what I imagine you’d say to me if I suggested this to your face. In fact, psychologist Sigmund Freud described daydreams as “infantile.” Ouch.
Au contraire – recent research has shown that daydreaming might just be the key to unlocking your creative problem solving potential.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of California found that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.” In the experiment, participants performed an “unusual use task” in which they were to come up with as many weird ways to use an object as they could.
Following that, participants did one of four things before doing the same task again:
- Do a demanding task
- Do an undemanding task
- Take a 12 minute break
- Skip the 12 minute break and do the task exercise right away
As it turns out, the only group who did better on the “unusual use task” the second time round were those who performed the undemanding task. Interestingly, this group of people also reported high levels of daydreaming while completing the task.
Just make sure to start on your project before drifting off, as daydreaming only works when you’ve already put some effort into your project.
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#3. Take stand-up comedy lessons
Which would you prefer to watch – a horror movie, or a comedic one? If your answer is the latter, then you’re a step ahead on getting the creativity train going.
In a study done at Northwestern University, psychologist Karuna Subramaniam found that “creative insight is correlated with increased activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) just prior to solving a problem.” The ACC is the region of the brain that is involved in problem solving, and subjects who were in a positive mood seemed to have “more ACC activity going into the task.”
In fact, the mere act of watching comedy can more than double our ability to solve brain teasers, according to researchers from the University of Maryland. Comedy, it seems, improves our mental flexibility, engaging our brains in ways that it does not expect.
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This in turn helps us in our ability to make connections that we would not have otherwise seen.
Improv and stand-up comedy are notoriously known as the hardest gigs on the planet. It’s not easy to make people laugh, especially when they’re expecting it!
Taking classes in these areas, then, would help to stretch your imagination in ways that you’ve never thought possible. Peter Robie, an Engineering professor at Dartmouth, actually includes a class on improv in his Design Thinking course.
“Improv requires players to accept what they are given, build on the ideas of others, and encourage wild ideas […] Everyone thinks that they know how to brainstorm, but in fact, brainstorming is usually plagued by problems like self-censoring, competitiveness, and ridicule,” he says. “Improv is a great way for students to learn to defer judgment.”
#4. Eat something new for breakfast
Many of us have a set morning routine that we go about once we crawl out of bed. We wash up, get the coffee maker going, throw two pieces of bread in the toaster, and boot up our computer. A slick, 5-minute process going into our workday.
If you’re looking to get your creativity on that day, it’s better to switch things up a bit. In a recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Simone Ritter and colleagues discovered that any kind of new experiences that push you out of your “normal thought patterns” can help with boosting your creativity.
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In an experiment, they got their participants to prepare a sandwich with butter and chocolate chips. Yes, it’s a weird mix, but what they asked their participants to do next got even stranger:
Some people were told to prepare the sandwich in an unusual order, first putting chocolate chips on a dish, then buttering the bread, and then placing the bread buttered-side-down on the dish with the chocolate chips. They had another group make the sandwich in the usual order, and another group just watched a video of a person making the sandwich in either the unusual way or the usual way.
The result: those who made the sandwich in an unusual order “scored highest in cognitive flexibility compared with the other groups.”
If such a simple exercise could make such a big difference, the possibilities are endless. Make a cup of tea instead of coffee one morning. Find a nice hip joint to lunch at. Or try adding a new app into your workflow. Just try to engage your brain differently, and you might just discover something new that day.
#5. Switch up your work schedule
I mentioned earlier that the key to creativity is to get our brains in a state where it functions less efficiently than it would like to.
Well, when we’re tired, our brain’s filter tends to take a break, according to science writer Marissa Fessenden. What this means is that a whole bunch of loose thoughts come flooding into our minds.
This is good news, because it means that our brains become less efficient at making those connections that it’s so adept at doing. A fuzzy brain is more open to fresh ideas and perspectives.
An experiment conducted by Mareike B. Wieth and Rose T. Zacks proves this point. 400 students – labelled as “morning larks” and “night owls” respectively – were asked to solve insight-based and analytical problems at different times.
For the the insight-based problems, which required more creative thinking, the participants ended up performing better when they were less awake.
So, for night owls, the optimal time for this is naturally in the wee hours of the morning. For our early risers, it’s the opposite – time to stay up past your bedtime, and do some unstructured thinking.
Do you have any other unconventional tips for getting your creative on? Give us a shoutout in the comments below, or find us on Twitter.
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