How to Be Creative—Plus All the Perks It Has for Your Brain
Innovative thinking is like strength training for your brain, sharpening your problem-solving skills and slashing stress. These five fresh science-backed strategies will teach you how to do more of it.
The word creativity calls to mind artistic pursuits like oil painting and playing an instrument. But it’s far more than that. “In psychology, creativity refers to generating ideas that are novel and useful,” says Adam Grant, Ph.D., a psychologist, an author, and a professor specializing in organizational psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The benefits of that skill are wide ranging and universal. Navigating your way to the top of a bouldering wall or thinking up the perfect gift for your sister’s birthday requires creativity, as does brainstorming a great idea at work or decorating your home. “Without creativity, the world stands still,” Grant says. “We don’t get innovation. We don’t find ways to improve our lives. Creativity is the lifeblood of improvement and joy.”
It’s also important for your well-being. “Creativity is a critical part of brain health,” says Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D., a neurosurgeon and cancer scientist at City of Hope hospital in California and the author of Neurofitness. “It engages the frontal lobes, which are the bulkiest part of your brain.” They play a role in problem-solving, memory, judgment, and your ability to communicate emotions. “If you never think creatively, that part of your brain will start to degrade, like your biceps if they’re never flexed,” Dr. Jandial says. Studies back this up: People who take part in activities that require creative thinking have better memories and problem-solving skills than those who don’t.
The more traditional creative arts, like playing music, drawing, dancing, and expressive writing, have other powerful health perks, including reducing stress and anxiety levels, studies show. Given the huge mind-body benefits of creativity, we set out to discover the best ways to build your creative brain. With a little practice, these five proven techniques will strengthen the parts of your mind that help you innovate, so you can feel stronger and happier. (Related: How Creativity Can Make Us Happier)
1. Tune in to certain time periods.
The five to 10 minutes before you fall asleep and the five to 10 minutes just after you wake up are the times your brain is most primed for creativity, Dr. Jandial says. “They’re known as hypnagogic and hypnopompic states,” he says. This is when your alpha brain waves (which increase focus) and theta brain waves (which calm you) are both active at the same time, which isn’t usually the case. You’re basically in a dreamlike state—asleep enough to think outside the box, without the self-censorship caused by the more rational parts of the brain but alert enough to remember your thoughts and ideas, so you can use them later. (More here: How to Boost Your Brainpower)
To tap into this super-creative time, keep a notebook and a pen by your bed. Write down any thoughts you have during these two windows. Eventually, you’ll find it easier to tune in to and apply the creative ideas that come to you while your brain waves are working overtime. You can also mull over any problems or mental roadblocks you’re facing just before bed, Dr. Jandial says. You may feel more clarity when you wake up. (Not to mention, journaling before bed can help you sleep better.)
2. Find a fresh perspective.
You do your most creative thinking when you’re a little out of your depth. “Being new to a problem or a situation means you’re more likely to engage in the kind of thinking that produces eureka moments. Once you become more familiar with something, you stop questioning certain parts of the process,” Grant says.
To use this strategy on things you deal with all the time, think bigger and broader. When you’re brainstorming, generate more ideas than you normally would, Grant says. “People tend to think up one or two concepts and then run with the first one they fall in love with. But that’s usually the most conventional idea,” he says. So don’t stop there—keep going. Jot down 10 to 20 thoughts. “You’ll generate a lot of bad ideas, but this method will also force you to be creative and come up with something novel,” he says.
When it’s time to pick one, go with your second-favorite idea. The reason: “You’re typically so passionate about your No. 1 idea that you’re blinded to its flaws. With your second favorite, you have the enthusiasm to stick with it but enough distance to recognize and deal with the drawbacks,” Grant says. (Psst…If you like this you’ll love these Creative Takes On a Vision Board to Try This Year)
3. Try this guided meditation.
The mindful practice known as open monitoring spurs creative thought, according to research in Frontiers in Psychology. In the study, two groups of people did three 45-minute meditations a week and were then asked to think of as many uses for a pen as they could. Those who used the open-monitoring method came up with more ideas than those who did a focused-attention type of meditation, which concentrates on a specific body part or object. (Keep reading here for more meditation basics you need to know.)
The researchers say open-monitoring meditation encourages what they call “divergent thinking,” which is used to generate creative ideas. This means that you unconsciously start seeing all ideas as having equal weight, giving you time to evaluate them.
4. Nature and chill.
Being outside feeds the creative process. Adults scored 50 percent higher on a creativity test after a four- to six-day backpacking trip, according to scientists from the University of Utah. Other studies have shown that being outdoors affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s involved in multitasking, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Quieting it for a period of time may encourage creative thought; the prefrontal cortex tends to be less active when people engage in activities like improvising music, the journal PLOS One reports. Get outside for 30 minutes a day to reap the benefits, Dr. Jandial says. (Related: Science-Backed Ways Getting In Touch with Nature Boosts Your Health)
5. Take up an artistic hobby.
Drawing, photography, improv comedy, dancing, and writing can help you flex the creative part of your brain, making it easier to access in all areas of your life. “Experts think that the astronomer Galileo was the one who discovered that there are mountains on the moon because he also drew,” Grant says. “He understood that the shadows he saw were actually mountains and craters.” In that same way, improv could strengthen your ability to think on your feet in meetings and boost your presentation skills. Photography can hone your attention to detail.
“Pointless” activities like doodling on a notepad and daydreaming have their own important perks. “They let your mind wander, and MRI exams show that the more your mind strays, the greater the connections among the far-flung areas of the brain,” Dr. Jandial says. Spend a few minutes each day doing something without any particular goal in mind. For instance, look out the window and take in the view, or go for a short stroll outside to clear your head, Dr. Jandial suggests. “This may help you access different corners of your mind,” he says. (Take advantage of biohacking to reap even more perks for your mind and body.)
Shape Magazine, October 2019 issue