Can creativity be forced?

I know, sorry to offend your intelligence – of course it can’t. But I simply love pointing out the fact! Creativity is something your brain does when it feels like it. You can make use of it if you are tactical, but to command your brain to be creative at this very moment is just not going to happen.

How do you like that? In an era when we know what the weather will be like days ahead and what our pulse rate is when we exercise, we don’t know when our brain will feel like doing some lusty exercise of its own.

I have had a couple of days of grumpy non-creative, not especially productive low. While I was wondering how long it will take before I feel the ideas flow faster than I can get hold of them, I thought I might share some thoughts.

A few years ago I listened to Alice Flaherty, a Harvard Medical School neuroscientist. She was inspiring, effectively erased some myths about creativity (such as alcohol or depression would enhance it), and had hands-on advice. I went home to my research group and immediately implemented some of the ideas.

Interestingly, things we don’t traditionally associate with productivity really enhance creativity. In fact, things that have with lust, in its neurobiological – dopamine – sense, to do are excellent creativity boosters. Such as taking a walk or run somewhere nice, enjoying art, music, or a good book, doing yoga, or basically anything else you like. Apparently, hot showers can do wonders!

So the trick is to do something you enjoy when you need your brain to cooperate with you on solving something difficult. Next time you are on a tight deadline in finishing something that requires creativity, go have a little fun-break! Tell your boss there is good evidence for that.

Another trick is to let go of your need for control and do it on your brain’s terms. Whenever an idea pops up, write it down. Whenever you feel eager to get started with something creative – try and go for it! If nothing else, do it in your head.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, Rock engravings of creative ancestors in Hamburgsund, Sweden

Now here are the do nots:

  • Do not try the same solution again and again, as in throwing in the coin, not getting the drink, kicking the machine, throwing in another coin… In stead, try describing the problem in a different way (lateral thinking);
  • Do not self-censor a first thought or draft. That will definitely kill creativity. According to a study on freestyle rappers presented in Nature, when we are in a good creative flow, our frontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and conscious monitoring, is dissociated from what we are doing. Self-censoring is a typical act of the frontal cortex coming in uninvited;
  • Do not drink alcohol to enhance your creativity. The result will likely be not only unsatisfactory, but also possibly embarrassing;
  • On the personal level performance anxiety and existential anxiety will hamper creativity. Organisational anxiety stemming from uncertainty or dysfunctional relationships will have the same effect. So whatever you do, don’t feel anxious

Sometimes, it is also necessary to accept that your brain is simply not in the mood. Don’t push it – you couldn’t. What you can do in stead is stuff that is routine to you, but you don’t mind doing. Like mowing the lawn, vacuuming, or cooking. This creates some “unsupervised” time from the frontal cortex for your brain to go creative.

I personally like ironing, love the scent and the look of neat clothes hanging. A pity that my daughter says only geeks wear ironed school dresses, so I am not allowed to iron hers. Luckily, there are heaps of other things to iron tonight so who knows what I will be capable of tomorrow!

2 thoughts on “Can creativity be forced?

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