Creativity at Work: Tune-Out to Tune-In

When Facts Replace Facts

Every once in a while a new “fact” comes to light that debunks an old “fact.” Remember when margarine was considered healthier than butter (too much saturated fat), only to be reversed when researchers found that the hydrogenated fats used in processed shortening did much more to clog arteries than butter ever could. Or when video games, previously thought to turn children’s brains to mush, were shown to actually increase brain size in children (in regions crucial for spatial navigation and strategic planning) who played games every day.

This new-fact-replacing-old-fact occurs in brain research too. Making a splash in 2013 were new findings in neuroscience that challenge the idea that certain types of thinking are found in either the left brain (analysis) or right brain (creativity). The left brain-right brain model is the result of split-brain experiments, conducted in the 1960s that mapped specialized functions for left and right cerebral hemispheres. This Nobel Prize-winning research has been popularized and widely applied to personality assessments, management practices, and innovation methods (in fact, I reference it in my book Think Like a Futurist).

With newer (and more humane) brain scanning technologies, neuroscientists are able to watch brain activity while a person is solving a math problem, remembering a specific memory, watching love scenes, or learning a new language. Here’s what they observed: all tasks recruit from a variety of regions in the brain, not just from a particular side. What had previously been cataloged as left-brain faculties is instead linked to the External Attention Network, so named because each of these activities requires externally focused attention. And, those activities that had been assigned to the right side of the brain relate to the Internal Attention Network, the kind of reflective thinking for which you tune-out to tune-in.

If analytical problem-solving and language-based tasks are the priority, it’ll help if you externalize the data. Put it on a whiteboard, analyze data, run math problems when needed, capture and categorize ideas in written form.

When creativity, empathy, and big-picture thinking are what you’re after, however, you want to shift your attention from externally oriented “How?” concerns to an internally oriented exploration of “Why?” Doing so shifts you to a state of awe and wonder, sparking imagination and creativity (Check out Fast Company's "Why Companies are Terrible at Spotting Creative Ideas" for a fuller discussion).


Three Activities that Boost Creativity

There are three things that can really help you tap into your creativity that utilize both hemispheres of your brain: taking time out, physically shifting positions and opening yourself up to strange experiences. They sound a little peculiar, but let’s take a closer look at each one.

Take A Time Out

A perfect example of taking a break to inspire creativity is Amtrak's new Residency for Writers program (Hurry, Hurry! Deadline for applications is March 31, 2014).

The idea was inspired by an interview with novelist Alexander Chee who said that his favorite place to is on trains, wishing that "Amtrak had residencies for writers."

Amtrak took note and extended an offer to Jessica Gross to be their first writer-in-residence. Riding NYC-Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited, and back again, Gross wrote about her experience in the Paris Review.  She describes how her trip was about the journey, not the destination, and that “Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves.” A beautiful directive for turning your attention inward to stoke your creative side.

Other time-outs would be going to a museum, cloud gazing or sitting on a busy street to watch the passersby. If an Aha! Moment is what you’re looking for, then you want to un-focus your attention and, instead, allow your imagination and big-picture thinking to connect things in new ways.

Move Your Body

A study in Psychological Science suggests that simply switching physical postures can actually spark your creativity. And it makes perfect sense! Changing your physical position literally gives you a new perspective on the world, which is what creativity is all about.

                   Follow Elaine's spirit, if not her moves.

                  Follow Elaine's spirit, if not her moves.

This post in PsyBlog suggests that while you are trying to solve a problem, first hold one hand up in the air and look at it. Then, once your brain registers the hand, bring it down and lift the other one up for a moment. Researchers suggest that the mere act of putting up both hands one after the other sends a subliminal message to the unconscious to encourage looking at the problem from a different angle.

The post goes on to discuss four other movements that foster creative thinking. If you’re at all interested in amping up your creativity, I’d suggest giving this a read...or cut to the chase and, the next time you're stuck, just get up and dance!

Experience The Weird    

Here again, opening yourself up to a new situation both physically and mentally will give you an entirely new perspective. The more odd the activity is to you, (examples could be participating in a turtle race or a drag show) the more creativity you’ll soak in.

Bringing you back to the PsyBlog again,  this post quotes a scientific study that says, “diversifying experiences help people break their cognitive patterns and thus lead them to think more flexibly and creatively.” 

According to this post, however, you need to play at least a small part in the “weirdness” in order for it to really bring you out of your comfort zone and illicit your creative thinking.

Being creative means to approach situations the spirit of an explorer, for which Keri Smith's book How to Be an Explorer of the World is a terrific compass.  She calls her book a "portable life museum" and offers 59 ideas to get creatively unstuck by engaging with everyday objects and your surroundings in novel ways. It's a charming little piece to add to your creativity arsenal

Next time you want to tap into your creativity I encourage you to try taking a time out, changing your physical positioning or partaking in something you consider strange. The results just might surprise you!