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Using Psychology to Increase Creativity

Prime your creativity with daily walks and embrace limitations.

Key points

  • Psychology provides helpful tools to increase our creativity and productivity.
  • Strengthening your memory and verbal fluency improves your ability to think creatively.
  • You can prime your creative pump by taking daily walks, working in high ceiling environments, and embracing limitations.

Psychologists define creativity as the ability to generate novel, useful, and surprising work. Creativity is not limited to the arts. Businesses, scientists, medical professionals, comedians, and even farmers flourish and grow from creative inspiration.

Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash
Source: Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

Psychologist J.P. Guilford researched types of creativity and intelligence. He developed measures that could identify individual talents for the military. He differentiated between convergent thinking (finding the right answer to a question) and divergent thinking (thinking that leads in multiple directions). Divergent thinking is linked to creativity (Guilford, 1967).

I received an example of divergent thinking when a friend gave me a humorous birthday card designed by cartoonist Dan Piraro. It depicts a birthday party with children and a piñata. A piñata is a colorful paper animal filled with candy hanging from the ceiling on a rope. At piñata parties, each child is blindfolded, given a bat, and a chance to bash the piñata. When the piñata breaks apart, children gleefully scramble to grab the candy.

The cartoon shows a very different scene. The piñata, shaped like a horse, is no longer hanging from the ceiling, waiting to get hit. Instead, it wields the bat. The children run away to avoid getting whacked by the now menacing piñata. I keep the card as a visual reminder to always look at things from another point of view.

Guilford defined four divergent thinking abilities:

  1. Fluency (think of as many ideas as possible)
  2. Flexibility (generate ideas from many different categories)
  3. Elaboration (offer extensive detail)
  4. Originality (uncommon, remote, and clever ideas)

You can foster creativity by strengthening your verbal fluency and working memory. The more you have stored in your memory bank, the wider the variety of material you can choose from when you want to create (Oppezzo et al., 2014).

To strengthen verbal fluency, cultivate a reading habit and study a variety of subjects. Look up words you do not know and grow your vocabulary. A broad background of stories, language, and knowledge gives you a deep well to draw from when you want to create something novel. Crossword puzzles require divergent thinking and can be fun to solve.

When you learn to use mnemonic devices or memory strengthening skills, you can become a memory superstar. One skill, called the method of loci, requires you to visualize what you want to memorize in specific familiar locations. Studies show that practicing that technique strengthens neural networks in your brain (Dressler et al., 2017).

Increase your creativity by cultivating an openness to new ideas and experiences. Some people already possess that personality trait, making them more creative. It also helps to think of yourself as a creative person. Or as a person who enjoys being creative. When you think of yourself as creative, you will likely engage in creative and imaginative activities more often.

Here are three simple ways to increase your creative productivity:

Take a walk

Stanford University researchers found that walking can increase creative output by as much as 60 percent. Many famous creative thinkers made walking a part of their creative process, including Steve Jobs (entrepreneur/inventor), Ludwig van Beethoven (composer), and Stephen King (prolific author).

Make creativity a game with your family. When our children were young, we would create original stories on family hikes together. One person would begin the story with something like, "Once upon a time, deep in the dark forest, a lonely bunny went in search of her mother..." The following person would add to the story. We had fun surprising one another with unexpected characters, plot twists, and strange events.

The Cathedral Effect

If you want to encourage more lofty, expansive, divergent, or abstract thinking, try working in a room with a high ceiling (10 feet or higher), or get outside. Research shows that higher ceilings inspire expansive thought. Working in rooms with lower ceilings lends itself to more convergent, detail-oriented thinking as it primes us to take a narrower focus (Meyers-Levy et al, 2007).

Embrace Limitations

Innovation often stems from constraints and limitations. We all face limits in time, money, imagination, and ability. Embracing our obstacles and finding workarounds is a creative act. Theodore Geisel, the famous "Dr. Seuss" of children's book fame, took on a bet by his publisher to write a book using only 50 different words. The result, Green Eggs and Ham, is a perennial best seller (Tarakci et al, 2019).

The innovative singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, wrote songs in unusual guitar tunings she employed to get around her inability to play bar chords. Famed jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt lost the use of his fourth and fifth fingers on his left hand after a fire. He worked hard to play using only three fingers. Both artists created unique and timeless music because they had to find innovative ways to overcome their physical limitations.

Limitations need not block us from accomplishing our goals. They might make us more creative if we embrace them.

We can strengthen our ability to generate original, imaginative, and novel work at any age by exercising our memory and vocabulary. Daily walks, working in high-ceiling rooms, and embracing limitations foster innovative thinking. Try a few of these suggestions and explore your favorite creative playground.


Dresler et al., (2017). "Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory." Neuron 93, 1-9.

Guilford, J.P., (1967). The Nature of Human Intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Meyers-Levy, J. and Zhu, R. (2007). "The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use," Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 174-186.

Published By: Oxford University Press

Oppezzo, M. and Schwartz, D.J. (2014). "Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking,"Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition Vol. 40, No. 4, 1142–1152.

Erasmus, T. and van Knippenber, D. (2019). "Creativity and Innovation Under Constraints: A Cross-Disciplinary Integrative Review," Journal of Management Vol. 45 No. 1. 96–121 DOI: 10.1177/0149206318805832.