The Digest guide to … creativity

10 years of the Research Digest

Work when you’re groggy. A lot of research into creative thinking is about finding the conditions that foster a so-called “divergent” thinking style. When your mind is in this mode, you’re less focused, but this means you’re more likely to stumble on new insights and fresh perspectives. According to a study published last year, one condition that fosters divergent thinking is being groggy. The researchers found that students were better at solving brain-teaser questions (puzzles that require flashes of insight) when tested at what they usually considered their least optimal time of day. For most students this meant early in the morning.  

Have a tipple. Obviously this needs to be treated with caution given the health risks associated with excess alcohol consumption and the fact that most workplaces prohibit on-site drinking. Nonetheless, just as being sleepy has been linked with a divergent thinking style that’s useful for creative problem solving, so too has the state of mild intoxication. Andrew Jarosz and his colleagues found that participants who drank a small amount of vodka outperformed those who were stone-cold sober on the Remote Associates Test – a word-task that taps divergent thinking skills.

Try “brain writing” rather than brainstorming. An alternative to the conventional brainstorm is to have everyone in a team to first write down their ideas before sharing them. Colour-coding of note paper aids idea ownership. The process can be repeated to cross-fertilise creativity across the group even though people continue to “brainstorm” on their own. A study from 2000 found that the brainwriting technique outperformed the traditional brainstorm.

Don’t completely give up on group brainstorming. The group brainstorm has had a bad press lately with many studies highlighting the reasons it disappoints, including the fear of having one’s ideas shot down publicly. However, a 2011 study suggested the brainstorm has its uses. Nicholas Kohn and his colleagues found that people came up with more original ideas on their own – consistent with past research – but that combining ideas into novel concepts was better achieved through brainstorming with others.

Think for someone else. According to research published in 2011, we’re more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. Participants drew more creative aliens when told the illustrations would complement a story written by someone else. And they more often solved a “tower escape” brain teaser if they imagined someone else was trapped in the tower rather than themselves. The results are consistent with “construal level theory” – the idea that distance from a problem provokes a more abstract thinking style.

Spend time living abroad. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that time spent abroad can fire up people’s creative engines. A 2009 study backed this up, finding that students who’d spent time living abroad were better at a range of creativity challenges, including brain teasers and a negotiation task. The association between time abroad and creative acumen was not simply due to the fact that more open-minded people are more likely to venture overseas. The researchers think there’s something about adapting to a foreign culture that fosters a creative mindset. A more recent paper further examined how to turn time away into creative success.

Perform eye-movement exercises. There exists tentative evidence that creativity is aided by greater cross-talk between the brain hemispheres. A 2009 study tested a simple exercise for increasing this neural chatter – perform left and right eye movements for thirty seconds. People either strongly left or right-handed who did this showed an improved ability to come up with new uses for everyday objects such as bricks and newspapers. “Mixed-handers” showed no such benefit, presumably because they already have an optimum amount of inter-hemispheric cross-talk.

Ask for help. A 2011 study covered on our specialist Occupational Digest found that workers who were more inclined to seek help when they needed it also tended to be rated more creative by their managers. The researchers think that help seeking aids creativity because it introduces you to new knowledge and perspectives. Also, accepting that you need help shows that you have the kind of open-minded mindset that’s needed for creative work.

Decorate your office in blue. There’s a large research literature on the psychological effects of colour and one of the most consistent findings is that the colour blue fosters creative thinking. In a 2009 study, participants performed better at a word task and came up with more original uses for a brick when their computer monitor had a blue background (vs. red). They also built more original toys out of blue parts as compared with red. The researchers said that cultural connotations mean we associate the colour blue with approach and exploration – an attitude that’s helpful for creativity.

Mix up your team. Fresh blood helps cook up new ideas. A 2005 study found that three-person teams who drafted in a new member subsequently performed better on a task that involved coming up with novel uses for a cardboard box. More recently in 2007, members of stable teams believed their groups were friendlier and more creative, but it was the teams who’d been mixed up with new personnel who actually came up with more ideas for boosting tourism or reducing traffic congestion.

This is the fifth in a series of six self-help posts drawing on the Research Digest archive to mark the tenth anniversary of the Digest launch in Sept 2003. The first four were on studyinghuman attractionhappiness and influencing people. Post compiled by editor Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer).