Waiting for inspiration? The science behind creativity

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Colorful pillars

The page you’ve been staring at has been blank for an hour. Now, the cold fingers of self-doubt are starting to climb the back of your neck, and you begin to despair: “If I was truly creative, this page would be filled by now!”

Like Mom placing a bowl of hot goulash on your desk and a reassuring arm around your shoulders, I’m here to tell you, “Don’t worry so much!” You ARE a creative person, and if you give yourself a chance, that blank page will get filled.

Creativity as a habit

First of all, researchers believe that all human beings are naturally creative, and there is no conclusive evidence that some people are inherently more creative than others. Instead, it seems that creativity is actually more a habit than a trait.

Research done by psychologist Robert Epstein, PhD, a visiting scholar at the University of California in San Diego, has shown that working on these four main skills can increase creativity:

  1. Seize your ideas. (Susan Weinschenk, PhD, behavioral psychologist and author, calls them “creative seeds.”) Don’t let those interesting thoughts slip away – write them down.
  2. Seek out challenging tasks. This will exercise your problem-solving skills and force you to stretch you cognitive abilities.
  3. Expand your knowledge. The secret to creativity is interconnection. The more you know, the more information you will have to reconstruct into a new idea or solution.
  4. Surround yourself with interesting things and people. They will keep your mind stimulated and inspired.

Dr. Epstein has also written a book to help people develop a creativity habit. It’s entitled “The Big Book of Creativity Games” (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

Other activities to awaken your genius

Dreaming: A 1993 Harvard Medical School study uncovered evidence that thinking about a problem before falling asleep can help a person come up with a solution. About half of the study’s participants dreamt about a problem when they thought about it before dozing off, and about a quarter even found a solution in their dreams.

A brainstorming writing session: A 2000 study by Paul Paulus, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Arlington, found that when groups involved in brainstorming sessions write down their ideas on a pad of paper that was passed around instead of talking about their ideas, the results were more productive and creative. It seems that members of brainstorming groups often become intimidated when verbalizing ideas, but they’re less inhibited when they write them down.

Take a hike, and be happy: A 2002 Creativity Research Journal study showed that high school students produced more creative collages when they worked in a natural setting. Additionally, a 2004 study published in the same journal found evidence that while sadness inhibits new ideas, happiness seems to have a positive effect on creative abilities.

Forget about it: Studies have also shown that walking away from a problem and putting it out of your mind for a while might be the best way to come up with a solution. I think this is so fascinating…It turns out that our brain’s prefrontal cortex is in charge of 1) focusing on the task at hand and 2) diving into our memories to search for information. While concentrating on your problem, you’re tying up your prefrontal cortex. As soon you release it from the problem, it can turn to your memories to find helpful information buried there. And, voilà: Solution found!

An inspiring to-do list

So, when you have to come up with a mind-blowing idea to fill your blank page, you might want to try the following:

  1. Go to bed thinking about your task.
  2. Get together with colleagues and ask them to jot down ideas on a legal pad that you pass around.
  3. Go to your nearest forest preserve or park and commune with nature.
  4. Eat lots of chocolate, play with a puppy, watch a recording of your favorite sports team winning the championship or anything else that will make you happy.

And, finally…

5. Stop thinking about that damn blank page for a while!





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4 thoughts on “Waiting for inspiration? The science behind creativity

  1. Great information, Laura! I’d love to walk away more than anything, but I’m going to pass the paper at our next brainstorming session. I loved your post. More, please!

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