It’s Friday and you’re sitting in an all-hands-on-deck staff meeting. The boss needs creative ideas for next quarter. “Concentrate!” You’re told. “Be creative!”
You concentrate with all your might, but you’ve got nothing.
The next day you’re outside cutting the grass. There’s the steady hum of the lawnmower engine, the rhythmic predictability of the mowing pattern. Your mind slows down, wanders. Drifts off. But suddenly.
Some creative idea nearly knocks you over. It’s brilliant. Where was that kind of thinking when you needed it in yesterday’s meeting?
The answer has to do with our creative juices. And the science behind them. And although “creative juices” isn’t exactly a scientific term, there’s plenty of science behind what we understand to be creative juices.
But what is creativity, exactly? I like this definition:
“All who study creativity agree that for something to be creative, it is not enough for it to be novel: it must have value, or be appropriate to the cognitive demands of the situation.”
– From “Creativity – Beyond the Myth of Genius” by Robert W. Weisberg
Creativity provides value — either it’s a creative way to solve a problem or a creative way to express an emotion. You might think traditional creative endeavors — like painting and singing — don’t solve a problem. At least not in the way you consider a creative solution to a business problem. But this isn’t true — even the most avant grade artist solves a problem. They take raw emotion, locked up inside an artist, and translate it into a piece of art for everyone. Looked at from this prospective, all art has a practical application.
Creativity has always been highly regarded in our species, even long before we knew what it was. Early humans colored beautiful murals on cave walls. In ancient western cultures up through the Renaissance, creativity was thought of as an expression of divinity transmitted through humans. Creativity was god speaking through you.
On to the science of creative juices.
Concentration and Creativity Don’t Always Mix
It seems counterintuitive, but deep concentration is often the worst mental state for creativity. It goes back to our lawn mower problem. In peak concentration environments, the electrical impulses in our brains simply aren’t optimized for creativity. It’s like tuning to a country station and expecting to hear jazz.
The explanation has to do with the billions of neurons in our brains, communicating with one another through synchronized electrical impulses. Scientists have dubbed this hum of synchronized electrical activity “brain waves.”
Brain waves occur in one of five different bandwidths, from the low-bandwidth Delta waves (.5 to 3 Hz) of our deepest sleep to the peak concentration Gamma waves (25 to 100 Hz).
Creativity likes to play in low bandwidth brain waves. When someone declares “it came to me in a dream!” they’re usually describing some creative vision. Keith Richards famously wrote “Satisfaction” after claiming the song came to him while he slept (can’t fool us, Keith, we know you’ve never slept).
But it’s the second-lowest bandwidth brain wave, the Alpha waves, that are responsible for most of our creative activity. Consider this definition from Psychology Today:
“Alpha waves (8 to 12 Hz) are present when your brain is in an idling default-state typically created when you’re daydreaming or consciously practicing mindfulness or meditation.”
This is why creative ideas seem to come one after another after another at some times. And other times getting just one creative idea is like pulling teeth. It’s why we call it “creative juices.”
“Alpha waves are a signal in the brain that’s closely correlated with states of relaxation. And what scientists have found is that when people are relaxed, they’re much more likely to have those big ‘A ha!’ moments, those moments of insight where these seemingly impossible problems get solved.”
Consider the following activities next time you want to get your Alpha waves flowing.
4 ways to stimulate creative juices and start up your Alpha waves
1. Take a walk
Walking relaxes you and pulls you out of the rush of information you’re dealing with at the office.
And if you want to be creative, you’re going to have to chill out.
2. Take a shower
It’s not a coincidence that great ideas come to you in the shower. It’s the perfect mix of relaxation and routine.
“The shower creates the perfect conditions for a creative flash, coaxing out your inner genius. Oh, and it makes you clean, too.”
3. Get some exercise
Monotonous aerobic activities, like running, slow down your wavelength into the Alpha zone. Einstein famously claimed to have come up with the theory of relativity while riding his bicycle.
“Sweat is like WD-40 for your mind—it lubricates the rusty hinges of your brain and makes your thinking more fluid. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are buried in the subconscious.”
4. Practice meditation
The benefits of meditation are well-documented and include getting your brain primed for creativity.
- Not sure where to start with meditation? Check out this excellent guide from Lifehacker: A Guide to Meditation for the Rest of Us.
Creativity can become a habit
Creativity isn’t just a flash of random inspiration from the universe. With the right practice, creative thinking can become a habit.
As it was put by creativity researcher Jonathan Plucker, a psychology professor at Indiana University
“As strange as it sounds, creativity can become a habit. Making it one helps you become more productive.”
Psychologist Robert Epstein, author of “The Big Book of Creativity Games,” has conducted research showing that expanding four skill sets can build a habit of more frequent creative ideas.
Let’s take a look at Epstein’s 4 skills.
Four skills to practice to build a creativity habit
1. Capture your new ideas
Carry a notebook with you. Or keep a file in your phone to capture new ideas. Also take advantage of your phone’s voice recorder to capture and record voice ideas. We use iDoneThis to write down our ideas for new projects.
2. Seek out challenging tasks
Take on projects that don’t exactly have a clear solution. Creativity will come out and you’ll force old ideas to rub into one anther. Google famously saw job applicants’ creative thinking in action by asking questions like “how many ping pong balls can fit in a school bus.”
3. Broaden your knowledge
Epstein recommends taking a class outside your area of expertise or reading up on a subject matter unfamiliar to you. “You’ll do better in psychology and life if you broaden your knowledge,” he says.
4. Surround yourself with interesting things and people
Take in conversations with new people and see unfamiliar things. This gives you a deeper pool of information to dip into when you’re doing creative work later on. Host a dinner party with an eclectic mix of guests, or visit a new museum.
Healthy body + happy mind = creative thinking
Despite the cliches about the tortured creative genius, science shows the best creativity comes from a sound body and a sound mind.
One study of undergraduate students found that sadness hinders new ideas. This could be because feeling sad makes people more sensitive to making mistakes and taking risks, according to researchers.
Here are three tips for stimulating creativity by keeping a sound mind and a sound body.
1. Get some sleep
Getting plenty of rest is key for recharging your body and getting unstuck from creative ruts.
In a 2004 study from University of Lübeck in Germany, participants were trained to solve a complex and lengthy math problem. Subjects were asked to take an 8-hour break and return for retesting. The subject who slept during the break were more than twice as likely to find a simpler way of solving the problem.
2. Get some sunshine
Not only does Vitamin D fend off depression, getting some rays helps with creative thinking. In a 2002 Creativity Research Journal study, high school students in different work environments were asked to design a collage. The innovation of each collage was rated by an independent panel. Those students who worked in direct sunlight were much more innovative than those in artificial light.
3. Surround yourself with nature
In that same Creativity Research Journal, students in an environment of materials from nature (like wood) fared better than those amid synthetic drywall. Turns out, being around nature helps open up creative thinking.
You might not be able to turn your office into a log cabin, but you can introduce a little nature by way of the house plant. They’re also great at cleaning your air.
- Looking for the right plant for your work environment? Check out this excellent guide from NASA.
Still feeling cooped up? Need to get the creative juices flowing? Now you know exactly what to do about it.
Now quit goofing around and get back to cutting the grass.
P.S. If you liked this article, you should subscribe to our newsletter. We’ll email you a daily blog post with actionable and unconventional advice on how to work better.