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How to Use Your 5 Senses to Stimulate Creative Flow

Creativity coach Lisa Tener provides top tips on the creative life.

Key points

  • On days you have trouble with creative flow, it can help to stimulate your five senses.
  • Smell, for example, can bring back childhood memories or evoke details of particular events.
  • Creativity exercises involving the senses may help increase creativity.
Eric Maisel
Creativity Coaches on Creativity
Source: Eric Maisel

Creativity is a whole-person activity. Of course, brain involvement is primary; but so is the involvement of our senses. Picture Cezanne staring at his mountain, really seeing. Or a deaf Beethoven conducting his Ninth Symphony, “hearing” the music inside of him. Or a Rodin in contact with his marble. In today’s post called “How to Use Your 5 Senses to Stimulate Creative Flow,” creativity coach Lisa Tener explores this theme.

Lisa explained:

Some days, creative ideas just flow. But what about the other days when you’re working away at your article, novel, poem, memoir, screenplay, or song and you just can’t seem to get out a sentence that feels inspiring, or you’re desperate to return to art-making but none of your materials “speak” to you this morning? Is there hope? How?

Yes, you can stimulate creative flow. And your five senses offer a powerful way to start. Often, when people find themselves stuck, it’s because they’re having trouble accessing their inner muse or creative source. Rather than resist the resistance and struggle with whatever’s in the way, why not skip to a part of your brain that connects to flow?

Smell, The First Sense

Smell is the first sense that develops in our brains in utero. Think of how a smell can bring you back in time and evoke additional details of a particular event. The smell of vanilla extract may bring us back to childhood memories such as baking cookies with mom or grandma. Or perhaps to our favorite ice cream shop, which, for me, is Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Queens, an old-fashioned “soda fountain” where my family celebrated graduations and excellent report cards. Along with the smell may come emotions, conversations, or other details.

According to Professor Venkatesh Murthy, Chair of Harvard University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, smell is closely linked to memory because of the brain’s anatomy. Drawing upon your sense of smell can help you evoke memories that stimulate creativity, whether it’s writing in your journal or creating a piece of art inspired by those memories.

Try This: Close your eyes and inhale. Travel on the scents. What do these aromas conjure in your mind’s eye? A story? A picture? Music? Open your eyes and capture it in your medium of choice. Or see where it leads you and follow.

Taste and Create

Looking to recreate your travels to India in a poem or memoir, or to evoke the vibrant colors you saw when you attended a local Diwali festival? Order some Indian food and let the spices bring you back to specific events for inspiration.

For some extra flavor and to enhance your creative activity, add a dash of something sour! A 2017 study published by Young Eun Huh, Yoonah Hong, and Nara Youn shows that even though people tend to prefer a sweet taste for a creative task, sour taste improves creativity (and creative performance) more than other tastes.

Try this: Close your eyes with an orange or other citrus fruit in your hands. Peel the fruit. Place a small piece on your tongue. Slowly chew and savor. Open your eyes and allow the taste to guide you—draw, paint, sculpt, write about sour.

The Sound of Creativity

Background sound or ambient noise can actually enhance your creativity according to this 2012 study published by Oxford University Press. A moderate level of ambient sound, versus a low level, tends to increase performance on creative tasks. A high level of noise decreases creativity because it impedes abstract processing.

Perhaps that’s why poets and other writers love to write in cafes and why many of us seek a spot in nature when it’s warm enough to write, paint, draw, compose—or otherwise create—outdoors. All those impressionist painters were onto something with their preference for plein air painting for more reasons than one!

Try This: Bring your art or writing materials somewhere with medium ambient sound, like nature or a café. See how sound supports your creativity. If you need more ideas, see the final exercise at the end of this post.

Touch Something

Tactile activities like showering, gardening, or doodling provide the brain downtime to work through solving problems and approaching projects in creative ways.

If you want to get magical about the power of touch, place your hand on an object that was previously touched by your most admired creative crush. Research by Thomas Kramer of the University of South Carolina and Lauren Block of the City University of New York showed that “touching an object that was previously touched by a high performer increases confidence via magical thinking and improves actual performance among individuals in experiential processing.”

Maybe there’s something to all those generations of young music fans trying desperately to touch the garment of their favorite performer as they exit backstage …

Try this: Doodle, then write. Or rub your hands together before you draw. And if you can get your hands on Elvis’s favorite bandana, by all means touch it and let his genius rub off on you.

See and Create

Most writers and artists tend to rely most upon our sense of sight. The challenge with using sight creatively is often to see beyond what we usually see, to see things with new perspective. Some design experts suggest looking at “negative space” to get out of the rut of our old perceptions and open up to new ways of seeing and creating.

When you look at an object, can you view the space around it, rather than focus on the object itself? How does it take up space? How does it affect the space around it? As you begin to see space, you can create space in other aspects of your creative endeavors. What’s the “space” around your artistic medium and tools? Can you move into that space and create in new ways?

Try this: Draw an object by looking at—and capturing—the space surrounding it. Or write about it by describing its effect on its environment.

Use It All

Take yourself to an outdoor café for the ambient sounds. Close your eyes and smell the coffee and croissants. Taste them, eyes still closed. Now open your eyes and look around. Capture snippets of your surroundings and the cast of characters through doodles, write down fragments of conversation or listen for sounds and spell them out phonetically. Make use of your senses and you will increase your creativity!

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