3 Scientifically Proven Ways to Boost Your Creativity
“I need a deck by 9 a.m. tomorrow,” your boss says at 5 p.m.
“What’s the topic?”
“Something related to B2B content marketing. It doesn’t really matter. It just has to be good,” he replies on his way out the door.
Fighting every urge to smash your desk like the Incredible Hulk, you assure your boss, “No problem. I’ll have it ready by 9 a.m..”
In order to come up with an idea for the presentation, which of the following should you do?
A) You start brewing a pot of coffee because you’re going to be up all night. B) You pace around your cubicle like a lion in a cage. Then, you pace some more. Then, you pace some more. C) You catch the end of happy hour at the corner pub. Then, you draft the presentation, and tomorrow, you wake up refreshed so that you can edit the deck.D) Quit your job.
Keep your answer in mind as we look at what science has to say about this predicament.
WHAT IS CREATIVITY?
When scientists conduct creativity studies, they typically are referring to “outside-the-box” thinking, that is, the ability to make new connections and think in new ways.
To test creativity, scientists often rely on “divergent thinking” tests. Participants in an experiment might be given an object, and the participants have to think of alternate uses for a given object. Their answers are compared, and if no other participant in the group used it, the idea would be deemed novel. (Researchers also gauge whether a response is appropriate.)
When our brains are focused, we tend to make common associations. We look at a paperclip, and we associate that object with fastening papers together. But when our brains are distracted, we can make new connections and think in new ways. For instance, we might look at the paperclip and think about how it could be used as a quill on the back of a papier-mâché porcupine.
How do we get to the point of thinking of papier-mâché porcupines? Alcohol, obviously.
OPTION 1: ALCOHOL
In 2013, Dave Birss assembled a group of 18 advertising creative directors. He split the group into two teams. One team was allowed to drink as much alcohol as they wanted while the other group had to stay sober.
The groups were given a brief. For the boozers in the experiment, this was a bit ironic. The study’s participants had to tackle the question of binge drinking. Their goal was to change people’s behavior and to encourage them to drink more water.
Between the hours of 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., the study’s participants had to come up with as many ideas as they could. Afterwards, their efforts were graded by a collection of creative directors.
What were the results? The boozers not only produced the most ideas, but they also came up with four of the top five best ideas.
Here’s the sober losers’ top result:
Here’s the boozers’ top result:
Please note: There seems to be a threshold for the amount you can drink.The sweet spot seems to be two or three drinks in.
OPTION 2: DROWSINESS
A group of scientists surveyed 428 undergrads about their circadian rhythms. The overwhelming majority – not surprisingly – were night owls and did everything in their power to avoid 9 a.m. classes. To test the students’ creativity and analytical skills, the scientists gave the students a series of problem-solving tasks.
Some were given insight puzzles like this one:
A man has married 20 women in a small town. All of the women are still alive, and none of them is divorced. The man has broken no laws. Who is the man?
The other half of the problems given to the students were standard analytic problems. Think of simple long-division and pre-algebra questions.
Half of the subjects were tested “early” in the morning (8:30 a.m.), and half were tested later in the day (around 5 p.m.).
When the students were tested during their “least optimal time of day” (e.g. a night owl in the early morning), they were significantly better at solving insight problems. Interestingly, the students’ performance on the analytic problems was unaffected by the time of day.
Spoiler alert: Here’s the answer to that insight puzzle: The man is a minister or rabbi.
OPTION 3: WALKING
There’s good news for those of you who like to be well-rested and sober! Walking can also boost your creativity.
A group of Stanford researchers decided to test to see if non-aerobic walking had any effect on brain function. So, they conducted a series of experiments in which they tested the thinking patterns of walkers versus those of sitters.
Both walkers and sitters had to partake in a series of divergent thinking tests. The participants were given an object, and they had to think of novel uses for those objects. (See the paperclip example above.)
What were the results? Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz found that walkers were able to producetwice as many novel ideas as sitters.
Somewhat surprisingly, it does not matter if the walker is staring at a blank wall on a treadmill or if the walker is looking at mountains outdoors. Both indoor and outdoor walkers can produce more ideas than sitters.
WHY DO BEER, DROWSINESS, AND WALKING WORK?
All right, as we have seen so far, beer, tiredness, and walking can help boost creativity. But why is that? Let’s take a quick look at how our brains work.
Neuroscientists have studied the “eureka moment.” In order to have moments of illumination, you need to feel relaxed so that front-brain thinking, with its obvious, rational connections and attentiveness, can move to the back of the brain. There, unique, lateral connections can be made, and the anterior superior temporal gyrus can be activated.
Jeepers! That’s a whole lot of Latin strung together!
Unless you’re a neuroscientist, you’ve probably never heard of this part of your brain. The anterior superior temporal gyrus is a small part above your right ear, which scientists have determined to be responsible for moments of insight:
5 seconds before your “eureka moment,” a large increase in alpha waves activate the anterior superior temporal gyrus. Scientistis associate these alpha waves with relaxation, and they allow the brain to take a short break, which is when new ideas tend to bubble up to the surface.
In simpler terms, beer, sleepiness, and walking help the brain relax. They help the brain break through its hyper-rational filters, and they allow you to make connections that your brain wouldn’t normally allow you to make.
RETURNING TO OUR SCENARIO…
To refresh your memory, I gave you a scenario at the beginning of this blog post.
You have to create a deck for your boss on B2B content marketing, but your boss has given you little guidance. In order to come up with an idea for the presentation, what do you do?
A) You start brewing a pot of coffee because you’re going to be up all night.B) You pace around your cubicle like a lion in a cage. Then, you pace some more. Then, you pace some more.C) You catch the end of happy hour at the corner pub. Then, you draft the presentation, and tomorrow, you wake up refreshed so that you can edit the deck.D) Quit your job.
When you’re first trying to come up with the topic for the presentation, drinking (B) and walking (C) might be better ideas – unless you want to have your “eureka moment” at 3 a.m. when you’re on the brink of curling up under your desk.
As for option D, that’s a different topic for another day. Mashable wrote a post on that subject: 8 Signs It’s Time to Leave Your Job.
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