Creativity Slump? 5 Tips to Rev Up Your Brain

What brain science tells us about creativity and problem solving

Posted Jul 15, 2013

Recently I was talking with a friend who said, “I seem to be in a muddle lately. I have some problems at work I’m trying to solve, and I just keep going around and around without coming up with any solutions.”

We’ve all been there, and in my experience these creativity and problem-solving doldrums will often go away on their own, but you don’t have to wait. You can use brain science to rev up your creativity and problem-solving. Here are 5 tips to get your brain working again:

1. Stop working – Yes, I did say to stop working! If you have a thorny problem to solve, and you’ve have been going over and over it in your mind, you are actually making it harder to come up with ideas. In order for the pre-frontal cortex to connect up different ideas you have to stop thinking and stop working. When you are using very focused, detailed thinking it actually prevents your pre-frontal cortex from making connections. the best thing to do is to forget about it entirely. This allows time for your pre-frontal cortex to go combing around your brain for ideas. If you stay focused on the question and keep mind chatter going on about it, then the pre-frontal cortex will be too distracted to go solve the problem.

2. Find “your spot” and go there –  Everyone has a certain activity/place that is where they get their most creative ideas. For me it is water… if I am in the shower, or washing dishes, or swimming laps my mind kind of “spaces out” and then all these creative ideas pop in. For some people it is when they are going for a walk, for others when they are gardening, or in bed about to fall asleep… Figure out the activity/spot where your creative ideas come to you and then make sure you do that activity regularly. 

3. Give yourself time  You will need to be patient. You will need the time to forget. So give yourself enough “elapsed” time… you will need at least a couple of hours and sometimes days or weeks to come up with creative ideas. The more you let go and the more you go to your “spot” the faster the creative process will happen. Similarly, if you want others to come up with creative ideas you can’t just say, “Quick, I need an idea about XXX!” and expect them to have a good answer. The pre-frontal cortex needs time.

4. Go work in a coffee shop – Research by Ravi Mehta shows that moderate noise (70 dB – about the level of noise in a coffee shop, or having the television on in the room next to you) helps you with creative tasks. If the noise level is too high or too low then you aren’t as creative. 

5. Sleep on it – Matthew Wilson was studying brain activity in rats as they run mazes. One day he accidently left the rats hooked up to the equipment he used to record their brain activity. The rats eventually fell asleep, and to Wilson’s surprise, he found that the brain activity while they were asleep was almost the same as the brain activity when the rats were running the maze. Wilson started a series of experiments to study this more. And through his experiments he has come up with a theory, not just about rats, but about people too: When you sleep and when you dream you are reworking, or consolidating, your experiences from the day. Specifically you are consolidating new memories and making new associations from the information you processed during the day. Your brain is deciding what to remember and what to let go of, or forget.

So if your boss finds you taking a nap, going for a walk, and leaving work early to go to a coffeeshop you can say, "Hey, I'm being creative and solving problems!" and send him or her a link to this blog post.

Here's the research:

Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema (2012). "Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition." Journal of Consumer Research. Article DOI: 10.1086/665048

Ji D, Wilson (2007). ”Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep.” Nature Neuroscience 10: 100-7.


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