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Creativity

Harness Your Environment to Boost Your Creativity

How to tap the science of place, no matter where you work.

Key points

  • Our brains can be made more receptive to creativity by manipulating our environment.
  • Different environments—natural, urban, or international—can influence our creativity in different ways.
  • It's possible to tap into those environments without leaving our desks to increase our capacity for creativity.
Anastasia Taioglou/Unsplash
Source: Anastasia Taioglou/Unsplash

Take a moment to look up from your computer, tablet, or phone. What do you see? How does it make you feel? Do you find yourself inspired? Thoughtful? Creative? Just plain bored?

Many knowledge workers are in jobs where creativity is a constant requirement. We need to consistently make offbeat connections, spot patterns, and recombine inspiration into new ideas. Yet many of us work in physical spaces that don’t support that work.

In the past decade, researchers have been slowly corroborating what many of us have always intuited: Where we work matters. The question then becomes: How can we set up an environment that fosters our mind’s ability to be more creative?

What makes us creative?

I’ve written before about how our brain’s default mode network (DMN), when left unattended, can be the source of inner chatter and downer patterns. However, it can also be a source of creative insight. Scientists are still working to understand exactly how the DMN works, but one hypothesis is that the way it interacts with other networks in our brain is what allows us to generate insights.

In one study, Roger Beaty, Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab at Penn State University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor participants while they engaged in creative thinking tasks. He found a correlation between highly creative individuals and a pattern of functional brain connectivity that engaged the default, salience, and executive systems at the same time.

Highly creative individuals are using their brains more expansively. In my book, Tracking Wonder, I explore how this state of mental openness leads to more creative breakthroughs—and how we might move from a closed state to one that’s more open and receptive.

One way is through place.

Natural places

Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue Mind, told Srinivas Rao on the Unmistakable Creative podcast that one way to activate the default mode network is to immerse yourself in water. This limits our sensory input visually, auditorily, and somatically and “opens us up to a whole toolbox of cognitive, emotional, psychological, and social skills that are not always available to us.”

Stepping into the ocean isn’t the only way to harness nature to access your mind. Immersing yourself in green spaces such as parks and forests can have a meditative effect on the DMN as well, spurring creativity. These non-overstimulating places might allow us just the right amount of sensory stimulation and calmness to let us watch our minds at work.

Urban places

Or you may be the sort of person who thrives in city life, as does David Byrne—artist, musician, Talking Heads founder, and creator of the acclaimed rock spectacle American Utopia. This multi-creative writes about exploring cities all over the world in his book, Bicycle Diaries.

What makes cities so inspiring? Researchers from MIT led by Wei Pan found that cities with high social-tie density tended to have higher levels of productivity and creativity, as measured by the GDP and the number of patents awarded.

As Pan told Bloomberg, living in a big city increases the number of people in your larger network: “These are the people who bring different ideas, bring different opportunities, and meetings with other great people that may help you.”

Novel places

It may be that you’re less inspired by a particular place and more by the novelty of the experience. Research by William Maddux and Adam Galinsky, published by the American Psychological Association, found a strong link between living abroad and creativity. The consistent exposure to new ideas and experiences international travel provides helps open the mind.

You don’t have to become a digital nomad to experience a new place, of course. Even immersing yourself in a different neighborhood than the one you’re most accustomed to, or visiting a new museum, can provide you with novel experiences and boost creativity.

How to make your space more creative

Not everyone has the privilege of being able to walk out of their office building and work in a park for the afternoon, or to travel to Thailand in search of inspiration. But the good news is that when we understand the nuance of why certain environments spark our creativity, we can bring facets of that environment into our workspaces.

Ingrid Fetell Lee, designer and founder of The Aesthetics of Joy, writes about how environments we find personally joyful elevate our emotions and creativity in her book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. As you read through the categories above, notice what excited you, resonated with you, or brought you joy. As you go about your day, notice what environments bring you alive.

Here are some ideas to help you harness that energy in your office.

  1. Bring the outdoors in. Tap into the ability of green and blue spaces to activate the DMN with plants, posters, and desktop backgrounds, or immerse yourself in a natural auditory soundscape.
  2. Catch the urban buzz. If you enjoy the hum of the city, spark your DMN by filling your office with mementos of urban travels or use an app to recreate the excitement and energy of working in urban coffee shops from all over the world.
  3. Seek out new experiences. Keep your DMN on its toes by turning on an international playlist, rotating screensavers of places from around the globe, or exploring new restaurants on lunch break.

What small change can you make to your environment today to ignite your creativity?

References

Beaty, R. E., Kenett, Y. N., Christensen, A. P., Rosenberg, M. D., Benedek, M…& Silvia, P. J. (2018). Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115, 1087-1092.

Rao, S., Nichols, W. (2019). The Surprising Science of Water with Wallace Nichols. The Unmistakable Creative podcast.

Byrne, D. (2010). The Bicycle Diaries. Penguin Books.

Pan, W., Ghoshal, G., Krumme, C., Cebrian, M., Pentland, A. (2012). Urban characteristics attributable to density-driven tie formation. Nature Communications. https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.1210.6070

Maddux, W.W., Galinsky, A.D. (2009). Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers: The Relationship Between Living Abroad and Creativity. American Psychological Association. Vol. 96, No. 5, 1047-1061.

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