Welcome to Part 3 of our three part series, “Your Brain on Creativity.” So far, we have talked about the regions and the chemicals in the brain that play a role in creativity. Now, we’d like to explore what to do with that information. In other words, what does brain science tell us about how we can improve and amplify creativity? All of us have been given “tips and tricks” for how to be more creative, but what actually works? Well, let’s start with what you can’t control: genetics.
Creativity and Genetics
A study by scientists at Cornell University found people who are “creative” - like artists, musicians, and writers - generally have a smaller mass of corpus callosum, a C-shaped nerve fibre bundle stretching across the midline of the brain and connecting the two hemispheres together. A smaller corpus callosum leads to less connectivity between hemispheres, which they theorize could give ideas more time to gestate. Additional poking and prodding of the brain suggests that more grey matter leads to higher creative functioning (the darker tissue of the brain and spinal cord, consisting mainly of nerve cell bodies and branching dendrites). Finally, as discussed in in Part 2 - Neurochemicals and the Brain, increased levels of serotonin is also associated with higher creativity. The combination of these physical attributes and further genomic testing has lead scientists to suggest that creativity can run in the family. Obviously, these are not factors that you can control. However, there is good news: creativity is not solely tied to genetics (but let’s be honest, you probably already knew that). Like mastering most skills in life, it takes luck, opportunity and hard work for creative geniuses to blossom. Which means, even us average creative folk, who were not blessed with creative genes, can nurture our creative side as well.
Cultivating Creativity (what we can control!)
The size of your corpus callosum, the amount of gray matter in your skull, and your serotonin levels do not wholly make a creative person. While they might provide a leg up for some folks, everyone can improve their creative abilities. Chances are you’ve heard of many different “tips and tricks” for improving your creativity, things like: spending time outside, getting enough sleep, or engaging in play-like activities. And guess what? The science suggests that all of these things can work. But if you’re like us, these tips and suggestions don’t feel all that helpful. We go outside, try to get enough sleep, and can be playful at times. All of those things generally make us feel better, which we would guess improves creativity, but it’s hard to draw a direct connection between doing those things and noticing creative abilities increasing. Again, if you’re like us, you may want some guidance...
According to psychologist Robert Epstein, PhD, a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego, there are four core skills to develop that, when strengthened, lead to an increase in novel ideas:
1. Capture and record your ideas
For example, in a notebook, your Notes app - you get the idea.
2. Seek out challenging tasks
Specifically, look for problems that do not have an obvious solution. These types of challenges cause old ideas to “compete” in your brain, which helps to create novel, creative ones.
3. Broaden your knowledge
Actively seek to learn new things, whether it’s by taking a course in something outside your area of expertise, reading books about topics you are unfamiliar with, etc.
4. Surround yourself with interesting things and interesting people
Socializing with diverse, interesting, intelligent people will help you to generate new ideas. An example of interesting things would be artifacts at a museum or paintings at an art gallery.
If you crave more structure in unlocking your creative potential, a book with guided exercises we would suggest diving into is The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.
Now, if you’ll allow us, we’d like to step away from the science for a moment and provide some of our own thoughts about a list like this. What stands out to us is that the how of developing these things will look different for everyone. For example, the courses, books, and podcasts that one of us might choose to broaden our knowledge and boost my creativity would look completely different from yours. And perhaps that’s the real key to this creativity thing: even as we unpack the mysteries of the brain and it’s chemicals and we learn which activities help or hinder creativity, the act of creating remains immensely personal.
This series has been an opportunity for us to share more about the science behind how our brains are creative and how they can be more creative. But at the end of the day, what you choose to do with this knowledge and how you choose to approach boosting your creativity is up to you. It’s personal and it will probably take a lot of time, attention, and trial and error to figure out what works. There is no “magic bullet” for boosting creativity, but we actually find that inspiring. Creativity is something we build from within ourselves, it’s something we manifest from inside of our minds and with it we can do truly wonderful things.
We hope you learned something by reading this series. It has been a lot of fun for the three of us - Bryson, Kerry, and Rebecca - to try focusing more on the scientific side of brain health. Quite frankly, it’s also been a challenge: research is difficult, vetting sources is difficult, and pulling together disparate data and information is difficult. But challenging ourselves will, hopefully, make us better - and more creative - brain health ambassadors. For now, let’s keep exploring brain health, together.
Grigonis, H. (2020, April 21). The science of creativity: What happens in your brain when you create. Retrieved April 04, 2021, from https://www.creativelive.com/blog/science-of-creativity/#:~:text=Several%20studies%20support%20the%20idea,ideas%20more%20time%20to%20develop.
Kaufman, S. B. (2013, August 19). The Real Neuroscience of Creativity. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-neuroscience-of-creativity/.
Novotney, A. (2009). The science of creativity. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2009/01/creativity.
Viatcheslav, W. (2014, December 14). Decoding Creativity – It's In the Genes! Brain Blogger Decoding Creativity Its In the Genes Comments. http://www.brainblogger.com/2014/12/14/decoding-creativity-its-in-the-genes/.