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This is how you train your brain to be more creative

Being creative is about training your brain to do so, argues this neuroscientist.

This is how you train your brain to be more creative
[Animation: Marco Verch/CC by 2.0; rachel Lamm/Pexels]

There is an entire generation of people who grew up believing they aren’t creative because someone in high school told them they weren’t good at art. Until recently, the standard definition of “creativity” was narrow. You were either creative or you weren’t.

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The perception was that “creative people” were those who were artistic–or more precisely–good at drawing. Unsurprisingly, like many others, I wrote myself off as “not creative.” I focused on science and told myself it was natural to fall into one of two camps: logic and science, or creativity and the arts. I felt that the education system–often coupled with parental expectation–encouraged people to place themselves in one category or the other. But this isn’t how creativity works, and this kind of thinking is the reason why you might have trouble tapping into the creative parts of your brain.

Your thoughts influence your action

You might be wondering, what do your thoughts about creativity have to do with whether or not you’re creative? The short answer, a lot. Think about a comfortable home, a kind family, a successful business, or a welcoming atmosphere. People create those things, often not by accident. Somewhere along the line, they put their minds to it and decided to make it happen. They might run into doubt from time to time, but deep down inside, they know that it’s something they can do.

When I began my training in psychiatric medicine, and neuroscience, I heard a lot of talk around brain lateralization. It’s the idea that people have a “left-brain” or a “right-brain” personality, and it’s a popular idea that refuses to die. The concept is based on research conducted in the 1960s. Researchers studied the brains of people with epilepsy whose hemispheres had been surgically severed. These individuals had the thick bundle of fibers connecting the brain’s hemispheres cut as a last resort. In these studies, researchers were able to present stimuli to one hemisphere at a time and observe contrasting processing styles. They found that the right hemisphere was important for emotional processing, and the left hemisphere governed language and rational thought.

At first glance, these findings seemed to back up the binary “creative or not” thinking. But the “division” was one that had been created somewhat artificially. When it became possible to look at healthy, connected brains engaged in creative thought (from the 1991 onward fMRI scanning), a far less simplistic picture emerged. It turns out the “bridge” between the hemispheres, the corpus callosum, was the key to creative thought.

The changing definition of creativity

Since the early 1990s, we’ve come to develop a more thorough and accurate understanding of what a brain engaged in creative thought “looks like.” The key, it seems, is integration: the firing of strong, lateral networks, connecting a diverse range of brain pathways in both hemispheres.

An international team of researchers led by Professor Roger Beaty at Penn State identified a pattern of brain connectivity that is associated with idea generation. In their 2014 study, researchers put people in a brain scanner and asked them to come up with new uses for everyday objects such as a sock, soap, or chewing gum wrapper. Some people stuck to every day, common uses, and found it hard to filter these out. As a result, they were likely to answer with obvious examples, such as covering feet and blowing bubbles. Highly original thinkers, in contrast, showed robust connectivity between three networks of the brain (mind wandering, focused thinking, and selective attention). They came up with more varied and creative suggestions, such as a water filtration system, a seal for envelopes, and an antenna wire.

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How we can learn to cultivate creative thinking

What this research shows is that it’s fully within our power to practice our creative thinking. To turn creative thinking into a habit, try the following things:

  • Let your mind wander. Challenge yourself to think up lots of ideas around a topic or problem at the same time. It’s essential to try and stop yourself from self-policing, and don’t discount some of your more lateral ideas before they reach the page.
  • Reduce distraction. Free up your brain to focus on the things that matter by doing a mini digital detox or tidying your workspace. You don’t want to bombard your brain with distracting visual cues when you’re trying to focus.
  • Improve your capacity for selective attention by practicing mindfulness. A simple, daily breath meditation is a great way to draw yourself back to reality, and to re-train yourself to notice the present moment.
  • Read a novel or see a show. Cultural activities such as going to the theater or even just reading a fiction book can strengthen the connections between the two halves of the brain, which helps with creative thought.

These simple practices will free you up to think in more lateral, creative ways. And when you learn to think creatively, you’ll be able to direct and design the life that you want for yourself. You’ll be able to draw on all the different aspects of your thinking. You’ll fuse ideas and ways of thinking together and generate original and innovative solutions in the process. A creative person isn’t one who shuns logic, but who can draw on logic along with their other “pathways” of thought without constraining themselves with self-limiting beliefs.

It doesn’t matter how well you paint or how beautiful your drawings are. Like everything else, being creative is a matter of practice and intention.


Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor. Her book, The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, The Science of the Brain, is out in the U.S. in October.

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