Thinking of yourself as a child can unlock your creative potential.
Letting go of inhibitions: Learning to draw from a four-year-old.
Posted Oct 29, 2009
A four-year-old Jack once asked me to draw him a dog. My initial thought, of course, was "I can't draw!" (never mind an art degree from the Minneapolis Institute of Art), but I tentatively began my sketch. The drawing was turning out just fine, but the inner critic was relentless: "Is the eye in the right place? Does the head look too big? Will Jack like the drawing?" He didn't. For whatever reason, he thought he could do it better. Turning the paper, Jack scribbled a few lines, and with much pride and confidence declared that "this is how you draw a dog!"
To this day I recall the utter surprise and fascination with what just occurred. There was definitely a study there. A study with the following questions: Are there means of tapping into the free and un-inhibited state which was once so familiar when we were children? And if so, would that state have an influence on our creative ability?
The answer to these questions is yes. Turns out that simply thinking of yourself as a child can unlock your creative potential! In our study, we had one group of people write an answer to the prompt, "You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?" The other group had the exact same instructions, only the first sentence was omitted, placing them in the present, as they are today (young adults). Both groups were asked to be as specific as possible, and wrote for approximately 10 minutes. People consequently performed a creativity test. Interestingly, we found that the group who experienced themselves as children for just a few minutes had significantly more original answers on the creativity test than those in the "adult" group. Even more surprising, those participants who identified themselves as introverts benefited from the child experience much more so than did extraverts.
Why is this so? One explanation comes from taking a look at our school system. Are kids not encouraged and rewarded for behaving, sitting quietly, and not asking too many questions? Are they not punished for "going against the flow?" Research shows that preschool children exhibit higher levels of artistic creativity and aesthetic expression than older children. There is even a notion of a 4th grade slump, where by 4th grade children's creativity stalls or plummets. Sadly, most youngsters learn that it is safer to keep quiet and not stand out.
Of course being an adult has its benefits, such as having better self-discipline and self-control. Plus, a young child has fewer skills and less overall knowledge, which are necessary ingredients in a truly creative work (a creative product is not only novel, but appropriate in some sense as well). What seems to be a good strategy then is to shed constrains and inhibitions by remembering what it was like being young, especially so if you are on the shy side. As a matter of fact, some famous artists, such as Dubufett, Miro, Kadinsky, Picasso, and Klee did just that - they had a library of children's art and whenever they felt constrained, they used this art for their own artwork.
There is a great video to illustrate the power of our inhibitions on ted.org. You only need to watch the first few minutes to understand how much we are missing out because of something of our own doing. The good news is that there is a way out. Go outside and play, do something silly, laugh - in other words, let go, and see where freedom takes you.
Zabelina, D.L., & Robinson, M.D. (2011). Child's play: Facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4, 57-65.