Creativity is one of the most highly coveted of human traits. A creative person is someone who can come up with novel solutions to problems, create beautiful works of art, spin exciting stories and perhaps create inventions that will make them rich and improve the lives of others. On a much more day-to-day level, creativity can help you to create your own sense of style, to come up with fun and unique activities for yourself and friends and generally to inject color, life and discovery into every moment.
But what if you’re just not creative? What if you sit down to write a book and find that the creative juices just aren’t flowing?
Is creativity something you’re born with? Or can it be learned?
The Neuroscience of Creativity
As with most personality traits, creativity ultimately comes down to neuroscience: particular connections and chemicals in the brain are what give rise to creativity – or do not – and the good news is that understanding this can help you to encourage a little more out-the-box thinking.
Essentially then, it is useful to think of your brain a little like a mind-map. A huge mind map, connecting billions of different concepts, ideas and memories. Each node is a neuron and is connected to several others via roots called ‘axons’ and ‘dendrites’. Psychologists refer to this giant network as the ‘connectome’.
Whenever you experience anything, this correlates to the firing of particular neurons in the brain. If you remember something, then that means that specific neurons are lighting up. In turn, this will cause other, nearby neurons to light up. That’s why smelling cookies can trigger a flashback to being in your grandma’s kitchen: that smell is linked to the memory of your Grandma’s home via physical connections.
And this is also how you learn to solve problems etc. When you learn any sequence of events, or any logical process, you create the relevant connections in your brain. You can remember the YMCA dance because those movements are linked in your connectome. And you can remember how to do math problems for the same reason.
Creativity though is what happens when a new connection forms between two disparate ideas or two different processes; ones that perhaps other people haven’t linked yet. In this way, new ideas simply involve the recombination of old ideas in novel ways.
Neurochemicals for Creativity
So now the question is: how can you encourage these novel connections to form? What can you do to trigger more fluidity in your thought?
The answer comes down to neurochemicals: neurotransmitters that alter the way the brain operates. A neurotransmitter is essentially a chemical just like a hormone that is released into the brain and that then alters the mood and the way that the brain functions. These chemicals are released in response to certain events and circumstances and are intended to trigger the correct mental state for the specific circumstance.
For instance, dopamine is a chemical that is released when we are doing something that our brain deems to be important. This encourages focus, concentration and memory and is ideal for ploughing through large amounts of work.
Serotonin meanwhile is a neurochemical that makes us feel happy and content. This eventually converts into melatonin – the sleep chemical – and starts to shut down brain activity.
So which is better for creativity? Serotonin! Why? Because the more focussed you are, the more generic your thought patterns will be. When we are focussed on a singular task, neurons fire that are directly relevant to that given job. We stay fixated on that one thing and our mind does not wander.
Conversely, when you relax a little more, neurotransmitters like serotonin, melatonin and GABA allow our thoughts to become more erratic and less focussed. Under a brain scan, this will show a wider range of different neurons firing – giving rise to the possibility of new ideas and concepts.
This is why dreams are so ‘out there’ – here we have reached the point where neurons are firing seemingly at random and creating nonsensical narratives as a result. Your job is to find a point just before this, where your thoughts are still logical but a little less focussed and more inventive.
How to Trigger More Inventive Thoughts
So how do you do this? By getting in to the right mental state to begin with: which is to say that you need to relax, kick back and try not to stress. Stress will massively ‘hone’ your thoughts and trigger the release of excitatory neurotransmitters, whereas relaxing will allow your mind to become more relaxed and encourage lots of neurons to fire in a more relaxed and unpredictable manner.
While I can’t find the reference right now, studies have shown that simple tricks such as getting more comfortable in your chair can help to increase creativity for this reason. The color green has also been shown to increase creativity (1), which is due to the fact that we associate the color with safety and natural resources (during our evolution, green would have signalled the presence of shelter and food!). Simply adding a plant to your desk might help you to become more creative! More likely though, learning not to feel pressured and to let go of any stress will likely be able to help you explore lots of possibilities.
The Candle-Box Experiment
One great study demonstrates this concept perfect by looking at a cognitive bias known as ‘functional fixedness’. Functional fixedness is a term that describes an inability to think of an object ‘out of context’.
Let’s say that you are given a screwdriver. Functional fixedness might prevent you from realising that you can use that screwdriver as a level to open a bottle – because you only think of it as a screwdriver. You need a bottle opener!
The candle box experiment demonstrates this nicely. Here, participants are presented with a box of tacks, a candle and a hammer and are told they need to find a way to attach the candle to the wall so that it could burn and light up the room without falling off. Most participants begin by trying to tack the candle directly to the wall.
The solution though, is to remove the tacks from the box, tack the box to the wall, and then stand the candle inside the box. This way, the box becomes a shelf. To come to this realization though, participants need to think of the box of tacks more creatively – it is not just a box of tacks, it is a piece of rigid cardboard with a solid structure.
Studies show that motivating participants with either a reward or punitive punishment will actually make them less creative (2). This is because the incentive makes the task more ‘important’ and more ‘urgent’ and this in turn increases dopamine and cortisol and prevents the mind from thinking creatively.
One of the most important ways to make yourself more creative then is to remove any time pressure.
Asking the Right Questions and Thinking Differently
Another strategy can be used to overcome functional fixedness and that is to change the way you think about the situation. A useful ‘thinking tool’ is to consider each item not in terms of its intended purpose but in terms of its most fundamental constituents.
So instead of having:
- A candle
- A box of tacks
- A hammer
You now have:
- A wick
- A candle
- A box of tacks
- A heavy implement
- A hammer
This is a demonstration of how reframing the context can help you to change the way you are thinking. Likewise, if you can use a number of other questions to change your approach to a problem:
- How would [insert person] solve this problem?
- Is there a way to do both?
- If I can’t do X, what is the closest thing I can achieve?
More Ways to Stimulate Creativity
There are more ways you can stimulate creativity too and one is to think about timing and food. Your body is constantly moving between different states in response to things like eating, physical activity, sleep and more.
In the morning and in the evening for instance, you might be more creative as your brain is producing more inhibitory neurochemicals. You can also ‘hack’ this process in a few ways: for instance, avoiding blue light (which wakes us up) can help to put your brain in a more creative state.
There is even some evidence to suggest that microdosing with psychedelic drugs might be effective at overcoming creative blocks (3). Reportedly, many different breakthroughs over history owe their existence to this technique. That said, psychedelics are also illegal substances that can be highly dangerous – so this isn’t a technique I’m going to recommend! Rather, it’s just an interesting demonstration of how altering brain chemistry can lead to insights.
If you want to try something similar without the severe health risks, then you might consider using a little l-theanine or another nootropic known to safely relax the brain. Alternatively, you could try and tap into your ‘hypnagogic state’. This is the mental state we experience moments before sleep, when our thoughts start to become muddled and nonsensical.
If you hold a spoon over a plate while you try to go to sleep, then the moment you ‘drop off’, you should find that the spoon falls and lands on the plate – waking you with a state. Now write down whatever you’re thinking of and you might be able to trigger some fresh innovation. This is a technique that Salvador Dali claimed to have used!
Avoid stimulants meanwhile such as caffeine, as these will have the precise opposite effect!
How to Overcome Writers’ Block
Finally, let’s end on one last trick you can use the next time you experience writers’ block or any other kind of barrier to creativity. The solution here is simply to sit down and start writing without judging or even aiming to achieve anything in particular. You could even write out a shopping list, or a diary.
Doing this simply gets those ‘creative juices flowing’ and the lack of objective or strict rules allows the mind to wander. When I am tasked with writing chapters of books, I will often force myself to keep writing even if I know that it’s low quality to begin with. You can always go back and edit but at least you have something down on paper and at least you have initiated the process!