“It is in the space between the inner and outer world, which is also the space between people — the transitional space — that intimate relationships and creativity occur.”
–D.W. Winnicott, "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena"
“The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”
–Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
How well does your surrounding environment, the space around you, draw out your creative potential?
We can approach this question from a macroenvironmental and then from a microenvironmental perspective.
Macroenvironments include cultures, cities, natural environments, and so on. For most people, they are relatively stable. Your macroenvironment is anywhere you’d spend at least a day, but usually much longer. Many people spend the majority of their lifetime in the same macroenvironment they were born into, often not by choice.
Some artists thrive by fully committing themselves to a preferred macroenvironment, staying with it and using it as their muse, such as Thoreau at Walden, or Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico, or Woody Allen in Manhattan. At the same time, there appear to be some predictable effects that particular environments have on human creativity in general.
Take nature, the original macroenvironment. Does spending time outside in natural settings have any known effect on creative output?
The question is as personal for me as it is academic. I love life in the city. But after a certain number of weeks without interruption, isolated from any immersive experiences in nature, often working on a computer, I sometimes come down with an acute case of what might be called cyburbanitis. Beyond an intense desire to be near trees and water, I get overwhelmed by a strange need to look towards the horizon. It’s like I literally need greater perspective. My vision, taken up by walls and buildings everywhere, becomes blocked and constrained. When this feeling gets to be too much, I usually take a walk down to the river and look out into the distance for a while. Sometimes this helps, briefly. Other times not at all.
While the science is still in its early stages, neurological and psychological research has been investigating the unique ways nature affects the mind, including creativity. One neuroscientist involved in this work explained the need to better understand the connections: “Our modern environment is something that we’ve invented in the last 100 years or so. Frankly, we don’t know what that’s going to do to us.”
Preliminary research by Ruth Ann Atchley, chair of psychology at the University of Kansas, recently explored the nature-creativity link. She found that backpacking in natural settings boosted people’s mental focus and creative thinking significantly. According to Atchley, the restorative effect seen across age groups appeared greatest when the nature experience lasted for a minimum of three days and digital gadgets and network access were unavailable.
While more studies still need to be done, similar results wouldn’t be completely surprising considering 1) the environment in which our species evolved and 2) our brains’ neuroplasticity, which allows for very rapid adaptive changes in its structure and function. Getting reacquainted with nature, even for relatively short periods, not only can feel wonderful, it can nourish the mind.
Besides simply getting outside, what about experimenting with a different culture? Can living in a new place heighten creativity? The research seems to suggest that, yes, picking up and living in another culture for a while is a good idea — if you can afford the time, money and other obstacles. For example, students that have studied abroad show more creativity compared to those who choose to stay closer to home and, more importantly, compared to those who are planning to go abroad in the future, suggesting a causal link. Other researchers have concluded that people who have lived abroad are most likely to become more creative if they experience their lives biculturally, as opposed to identifying primarily with their home culture or primarily with the new culture. According to this research, emigrants who end up mentally integrating the two cultures and identifying with both also tend to show enhanced cognitive capacities for considering and integrating various perspectives more generally. This “integrative complexity,” prior research has established, is a good predictor of creative achievement.
For many people around the world, enhancing creativity in the macroenvironment is more than just an academic question, it’s a matter of life and death. Most desperately, those in poor and war-torn countries looking to escape economic privation or violence must prioritize a more dire set of questions around creativity, such as “How are we going to get clean water?” or “What’s the best way to keep myself safe and alive?” or “How do we get the hell out of here?” Vulnerable populations in rich countries must also find creative ways to stay safe and nourished.
For others, maximizing creativity is a life mission offering meaning on the path to fuller realization. A good number of the people I’ve seen in my psychotherapy practice have been artists living abroad. As I listen to their experiences and watch their transcultural lives unfold, it’s hard not to consider how moving from one culture to another impacts internal life, including creativity. Most artist-adventurers would probably agree that cultural perspective is a huge part both of their work and their identity, of who they are fundamentally.
Whether shifting between the city and the wilderness, or between different cultures, each macroenvironment lends perspective on the other. Such spatial shifts can be extraordinarily beneficial. When you bounce around there’s no getting too comfortable in your thinking, which is constantly being challenged by novel experiences. Even Woody Allen, who left the comforts of Manhattan in his later years to work in London, Barcelona, Paris, and Rome, might concede this point.
What about microenvironments? How can you maximize creativity in your more intimate and immediate surroundings? If you’re someone who centralizes your creative process in a relatively small area, does it allow for copious amounts of mental space? Or does it invite overstimulation and mental traffic jams?
Tending your microenvironment to your needs can make all the difference between inspiration and despair. When designing a creative space, whether it’s the kitchen, office, lab, or studio, consider how perceptual stimulation enhances or diminishes your ability to think and feel in original ways. Keep in mind how much the characteristics of the space stimulate each of your different senses. For example, how do the light and temperature feel, and how do they affect your thinking? Does listening to music, ambient noise through the window, or silence help or hurt your creative process? What do you smell, and how does it affect you? Do you have room to stretch your limbs or otherwise move around freely? And what about Internet access: necessary, advantageous, or a hindrance to attention and concentration? Each of these perceptual variables affects our minds in subconscious ways, whether we want them to or not. Full control of our environments’ impact on our creativity is illusory, but the decisions we make do have consequences.
Also to consider: How much does your microenvironment tend to pull you in unoriginal directions? Do you prefer to keep reminders of previous works gathered nearby, or does blank, empty space allow for more breathing room? The past can inspire and provide conceptual foundation, but it can also invite rehash and retread. Do you have the space, and the courage, to go your own, unique and unexpected way?
Copyright 2012, Seymour Magazine.