by Laurie Carlson
As makers, we often think about creativity and how we can increase or improve our ability to find new or better solutions as we work. But creativity isn’t a singular process, it’s a combination of several things.
First, imagination is created from insights. Creative ideas evolve from sudden splashes of thought that occur when we least expect it. We can call it serendipity or the muse, or just plain luck. But there is a biological process to how we expand and open our mind to new ideas. When we are relaxed and not focused on the details–or on the problem–our ability to experience insights and solutions increases. When we are under pressure to find a solution or work out all the details, our brains balk and we are mystified
The way our brain works, a flow of alpha waves moves from the right hemisphere of the brain to the left, and causes us to experience a sudden insight into a problem. These mysterious brain waves happen when we are relaxed and happy. Or at least not worrying so much about stress. Like when our mind is wandering as we hand wash dishes or drive down the freeway.
In experiments, people who didn’t have a flow of alpha waves moving across the brain couldn’t solve a problem, even when given hints. No insights happened because there was no alpha wave movement.
A positive mood is essential to problem solving and creative thinking. Researchers link that sort of brain performance to mood, finding that happy people solve 25% more insight puzzles than those in a gloomy mood.
Daydreaming is Good
One study found that students with ADHD had greater creative achievements than others, largely because being able to NOT focus allows the imagination to arrive at insights. Daydreaming is key to creative thinking because it’s so unfocused.
Even better, is to daydream in blue. The color blue relaxes us, and as we focus less on what’s in front of us, “we become more aware of possibilities simmering in our imagination, ” according to John Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Since being in a happy state of mind expands our ability to think out side the box, we need to seek pleasant experiences and feelings. Studies found that after viewing a short funny video, people had more epiphanies than those shown boring or scary videos. Jerry Lewis fans were on to something, it seems. Discover what makes you laugh and include it in your life as often as you can. Stand-up comedy, funny animal videos, cartoons–whatever it is, seek and enjoy it. As Lehrer explains, “even fleeting feelings of delight can lead to dramatic increases in creativity.”
It’s probably no surprise that the best time of day to experience creative idea-making is in the early morning just after you wake up. Your brain is still floating, unwound from focusing on any particular problem or activity. In that state it’s open to all sorts of unconventional ideas and because the right brain hemisphere is unusually active at that time, insights come easily.
Don’t Force It
Trying to force an insight can actually prevent creative thinking. If you relentlessly focus on the problem you are trying to solve or the work of art you expect to create, you can inhibit or prevent the flow of alpha waves which are necessary to figuring out a breakthrough solution.
Using stimulants to help focus the brain, such as caffeine and ritalin, actually shift the brain activity away from the right hemisphere, in order to facilitate increased focus. That’s a no-no if you’re trying to daydream a solution.
Just relax and indulge in distractions–the insight will appear when you stop looking at it. “According to scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people had difficulty filtering out the world, they ended up letting more in . . . the creative person seems to remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment . . . the normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it. The creative person is always open to new possibilities,” according to Lehrer.
So if you’ve got artist’s or writer’s “block” or are trying to come up with a fresh creative viewpoint, distract yourself from the problem at hand. Take a drive, wash some dishes, scrub a floor, work in the garden. Let your mind wander, keeping a sketch pad at hand to record those fabulous (and often fleeting) insights as they come your way.