Ask 25 kindergartners how many of them are artists and you’ll likely see 25 hands in the air. While most kids in the single-digit age range will easily identify themselves as creative, that number drops to 50% by the 5th grade and plummets by adulthood. And yet, Fortune 500 leaders cite creativity and innovation as top traits in new candidates. What happened to that creative kindergartner?
The biological explanation is that the emotional brain is fully functional by about age 12. But the prefrontal cortex (the region that controls executive functions such as complex cognitive behavior, decision-making and social control) doesn’t full mature until the mid-twenties. In the early grades, students create with relative freedom. That “purple cow” is deemed creative and imaginative. By high school, students are very aware of how others judge their work and most of their academic experiences have centered around finding “the right answer” rather than one no one else has thought of. Cows are not purple and there are penalties for wrong answers. The maturation process of the prefrontal cortex trumps risk-free learning, creativity, and innovation.
So what do we do now? As adults, our prefrontal cortex is done cooking, right? Yes and no. Don’t think of creativity as talent, think of it as ability that you can grow and strengthen. Neuroplasticity is an amazing thing and you can actually grow your ability to be more creative and innovative.
Creativity and innovation require the ability to look at the same thing as everyone else and see something completely different. It is a new view of the universe, one that embraces risk over certainty.
Here are 8 simple strategies that will help you engage your whole brain and unleash the creativity within you.
1. Make divergent thinking a habit.
Since elementary school we’ve been trained to find the right answer. Follow a specific set of steps to arrive at the correct answer. This is convergent thinking. In contrast, divergent thinking processes require the brain to search through the archives for as many stored ideas, data points, and related facts from our experiences to generate as many possible solutions as possible. When you do this, you engage several regions of the brain to recall, analyze, synthesize, and generate new ideas. The more ideas you have, the more likely you’ll have better ideas. Instead of trying to find a single solution to your next challenge, focus on producing as many ideas as you can.
2. Merge the mediocre.
Once you’ve generated a big list of ideas, refine it according to quality with a three-column chart – best, average, not-so-much. The column with the best ideas will probably have fewer entries than the others, but the goal here is to look for combinations of ideas that could work. Look for two or more ideas that could be merged. Maybe the mediocre ideas are simply incomplete, and pairing them with other ideas could spark something magical.
3. Tap into the power of the “enragers.”
We’ve all heard the brainstorming mantra: “No idea is a bad idea.” But our prefrontal cortex knows better and no one wants to be credited with the dumb idea. Turn that thinking inside out by intentionally generating a list of the worst ideas, or “enragers.” Choose one idea on the list and assume it is the strategy you’re forced to implement. How could you spin it to make it work? This forces you to see the problem from a completely different perspective and opens your mind to new possibilities.
4. Let your mind wander.
We once associated daydreaming with the inability to focus. Neuroscience now tells us the when we let our minds wander and just daydream for a few minutes, it actually puts the brain into “default mode network.” DMN exhibits the highest overlap in functional connectivity engaging 60-80% of the neural networks. Think of is as a neural reset button in the brain that shifts our brain waves from beta (where we typically function in our daily cognitive tasks) to alpha (where our imagination and creativity lives). So, open the door to your subconscious and poke your creative center by taking a breath and let your mind wander.
5. Doodle your thoughts.
Like daydreams, we used to associate doodling with not paying attention. Doodling is actually deep thinking in disguise. Einstein, John F. Kennedy and Steve Jobs were all diehard doodlers. Doodling actually changes the brain by engaging different regions and connecting neurological pathways with previously disconnected pathways. Often the visual representation of thoughts can enable you to see the problem or task differently. If you really want to kick it up a notch, grab a set of gel pens or Sharpies and sketch your thoughts in color!
6. Take it outside.
When you find yourself struggling to find a solution to a problem, take a quick walk around the building or just grab a seat on a bench outside. Being in a natural setting taps into all five senses and that multi-sensory experience stimulates the imagination. Also, colors have a big impact on cognition. Research indicates that blue and green stimulate the imagination because we associate the color blue with the openness of the ocean and sky and the color green with growth.
7. Tell a joke.
People with a sense of humor tend to be more creative, less rigid and more willing to consider and embrace new ideas and methods. This is because laughing and smiling create the conditions necessary for the brain to engage in divergent thinking which is essential for creativity and complex problem solving. Humor links otherwise unconnected areas of the brain which is the primary goal of whole-brain thinking. The best jokes make us laugh because we find the unexpected meaning or connection in otherwise disconnected concepts. Laughter also reduces stress by releasing neurotransmitters in the brain, and is clinically proven to have a powerful and positive effect on physical, emotional and social health and wellbeing.
8. Let the music move you.
It’s no secret that music has a direct impact on our mood, but recent neuroscience proves that music physically alters the frequency of the brain waves. Certain types of music create theta waves – which is where we experience peaks of creativity. Ambient, free-flowing impressionistic music will help you sync your brain waves in theta and unlock your creativity.
Creativity is within all of us. Simple things can poke your imagination and help you tap into it. Grab your sketchbook, head outside to a park bench, and turn the crazy ideas upside down. Fire up your playlist with some free-flowing mellow music and let your mind wander a bit. And laugh… don’t forget to laugh.
You might also enjoy reading 4 Gritty Traits that Pave the Path to Success.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people who want to improve their work and lives by understanding how the brain works and learning how to use that knowledge for greater personal and professional satisfaction.
Learning about Learning | Thinking about Thinking