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This is how to truly unlock your creativity

A neuroscience expert and author of ‘Smarter Tomorrow’ explains how we can trigger more creative output from our brains.

This is how to truly unlock your creativity
[Source images: keiko takamatsu/iStock; Eva Almqvist/iStock]
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“No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality,” bestselling novelist Stephen King wrote, “but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane, and demonstrably untrue.”

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Many of the people we think of as the most creative in history had staggeringly prolific levels of output in their careers. Charles Darwin published around 120 scholarly papers, Albert Einstein published around 250 papers, and Sigmund Freud published 330 papers. Thomas Edison held nearly 2,000 patents on his inventions. Johann Sebastian Bach composed more than 1,000 musical pieces, and Pablo Picasso is credited with more than 20,000 paintings, sculptures, and drawings.

In the journal writing challenge set by my own seventh-grade teacher, my classmates all commented that it helped them become less self- conscious. Furthermore, even those who had previously hated writing started to enjoy it. For me, it acted like a creativity release valve. Perpetually dogged by perfectionism, I found that the new stakes finally loosened me up.

Without the fear of judgment, I spontaneously produced poems, songs, and short stories. Boosting the quantity of your output could help you become more creative, as we discussed above. A positive, elevated, and open mood also seems to disinhibit and allow for more ideas to come. In this state, you are unhindered by internal criticism.

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Lest you think that creativity is all about being in a good mood and just waiting for magic, it’s clear that the emotional recipe for creativity is, well, not fully clear. Emotional intensity and even ambivalence seem to play a role in creativity, too. Researchers used to believe that positive moods led to creativity, but recent research has revealed a messier truth. High-intensity feelings, even if they are negative, can lead to completing a set goal, whereas low-intensity feelings, again, even if they are negative, enable us to think more broadly, more diffusely—the kind of thinking necessary to shift perspective and “see the big picture.”

Expertise matters, too. Two of the criteria for creativity are novelty and usefulness. If you know nothing about a field, you might get lucky and produce a few creative ideas (especially if you are expert in another area and are transferring your skills from there), but how can you know what is useful or novel in this new area without expertise? Being at the right challenge for your skill level is key.

In short, the idea is practicing a lot, being in the right mood—and more the magnitude than whether you’re happy or sad—and don’t forget you need to have a level of expertise in that area, of course. All of these will affect your creativity.

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Where creativity lives in the brain

Ever heard that the right brain is creative and the left brain is logical? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but recent brain imaging data has debunked that idea. The old idea seems to have come from language centers being in the left hemisphere and spatial abilities being in the right, but recent findings show a far more complex and interesting picture.

Recent studies of people lying in brain scanners and performing tasks requiring creativity or creative thinking showed that they tended to engage not just one part (say, the right or left hemisphere of the brain) but multiple large-scale brain networks that run through the frontal area, the temporal lobes, and the limbic system. This could be seen not just in randomly selected people, but also in people who are indisputably creative, such as freestyle rappers and jazz improvisers.

Why increase your creativity?

There are many reasons why interventions designed to boost your creativity might be worth pursuing. First of all, creativity brings a special kind of focused joy: flow. Flow, also known as being “in the zone” or being immersed, fully absorbed in a feeling of energized focus, is an inherently pleasurable experience. It’s common when in the throes of creativity. Many artists, scientists, and performers report that they lose track of time and lose any sense of themselves when they are immersed in their craft.

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Second, creativity may lead to interesting careers. In the 21st century, we are going to need a lot of innovative solutions for everything from climate change to how we should try to coexist with AI. Not to mention how to bridge the widening gap between rich and poor, how to make our food sup- ply chains more sustainable, or how to travel to other planets. If you want to be part of solving these problems—some of which may involve lucrative career paths—you may want to boost your creativity.

Creativity also offers the possibility of personal glory and immortality. If you want fame or fortune now, doing the same things as everyone else but faster and more reliably could be your ticket. If you want to be remembered forever, however, creativity is the path to get there. Maybe when you unlock more of your creativity you will become the next Coco Chanel, Edison, Marie Curie, Ludwig van Beethoven, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Your art could be in museums, your music could be played on everyone’s devices, your company could be publicly traded, your cure for a disease could save millions, and your inventions could be sold in stores everywhere.


Elizabeth R. Ricker is a trained brain researcher with degrees from MIT and Harvard, as well as a sought-after expert for Silicon Valley venture capital firms, technology startups, and Fortune 500 companies. Her book Smarter Tomorrow, released August 2021.

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Excerpted from Smarter Tomorrow. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth R. Ricker. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.