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How to Be Creative (According to Psychological Science)

People used to think that creativity was a gift from the gods. Now we have some clues from neuroscience and psychology for how to cultivate it. Hint: You might want to lobby your boss for a nap pod at the office.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #6
The Quick And Dirty
  • Creativity is the ability to generate ideas or create things that are original and useful.
  • To cultivate creativity, you can't wait for inspriation to strike. Instead, research, practice, and simply get started, even if you don't feel ready.
  • Periodically step away from your creative project to let "incubation" occur. Better yet, take a nap and let REM sleep help you.
  • Don't overthink it. Highly skilled creative people allow thier instincts to drive them.
  • If you're really stuck with a blank page, try putting two unrelated things together to make a mashup.
  • Allow yourself to create crappy work, because this is a crucial part of getting to a nugget of gold.

Pop quiz: What can you use a brick for other than building a house? Think fast! Let’s see: Door holder, paper weight, helium balloon holder-downer, stepping stone. A very crude sundial needle?

What we just did is called the Alternate Uses Task, a psychology experimental task developed by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967. This was one of the earliest tools we had for measuring creativity. By asking you to come up with as many new uses for a common object as you can, it taps into not only your ability to generate ideas quickly but also whether your ideas are flexible, original, and useful.

Psychological science gives us some clues into where creativity comes from and how we can cultivate it.

But what is creativity, really? Is it a personality trait you’re born with? Or is it a skill you can develop? Do we always have some creativity flowing through us even for daily tasks, or do we get into a “creative headspace” during moments of inspiration? Nowadays, we no longer believe that creativity comes to us from the Muses of Ancient Greek mythology. Instead, psychological science gives us some clues into where creativity comes from and how we can cultivate it.

Tip #1: Don’t wait for inspiration—hunt it down

Research has shown that curiosity is associated with creativity. This makes perfect sense, because curiosity is the fuel we need to hunt down inspiration. Whether you’re a writer, scientist, dancer, architect, or programmer, you can’t get really good without standing on the shoulders of giants.

So, if you want to be a writer, read books. If you want to be an artist, look at art. If you want to invent cool gadgets, read patents that already exist. If your mind constantly steeps in other films, the good ones may rub off on you by giving you screenplay ideas of your own. The bad ones will teach you what doesn’t work so you can avoid wasting time going down the wrong avenues. You might also find that other filmmakers have all been missing something entirely, and that’s where your new idea comes in.

Tip #2: Just get started

Perfection is the enemy of progress, right? It’s the enemy of creativity too. If you wait for an idea to become fully formed, or even very good, before you start to make it a reality, you may be waiting for a very long time.

Persistence is the unglamorous side of creativity, but it’s also the only way to actually make something.

Instead, get to work. Write two crappy sentences a day in your “Crappy Writing” journal, and at some point, you’ll write the sentence to start your next poem. Put some color down on the paper, and eventually you’ll discover a new brush technique. (Once, I was playing around on a leftover piece of watercolor paper, made a spill, liked the shape of the blotch, and then turned it into a painting that got selected for a gallery show.)

Persistence is the unglamorous side of creativity, but it’s also the only way to actually make something. So don’t wait for all the plot points to fall into place before you start writing your novel. Get started with two crappy sentences today.

Tip #3: Then, step away (or take a nap)

In 1926, social psychologist Graham Wallas proposed several stages of creativity, one of which was incubation. This is where new, unconscious associations among thoughts arise. In other words, this is your brain doing behind-the-scenes work for you. It might not feel like any more creativity is happening when you close your laptop and go for a walk, but incubation is actually setting the stage for a “Eureka!” moment. When you come back, you may suddenly find a lightbulb over your head, telling you how to creatively get around the stubborn problem you had in your code.

A 2009 study found that incubation—the simple passage of time—increased creativity on an experimental task.

A way to supercharge your incubation is to literally sleep on your idea. A 2009 study found that incubation—the simple passage of time—increased creativity on an experimental task. Taking a nap that included REM sleep—the stage of sleep in which dreams occur—improved participants’ results even more. REM, compared to quiet rest and non-REM sleep, allowed participants to better piece together unrelated information in an original way. So, put in some hard work on your creative project, do your research, and then take a break or go to bed. You can honestly tell your boss that napping in the office may be crucial to your productivity!

Tip #4: Don’t overthink it

If you’re a musician, artist, or athlete, you know that sometimes you come up with your best ideas when you aren’t even thinking about it. Of course, you laid the groundwork with diligent training and a lot of experimentation. But when you’ve built a solid foundation of skill, you sometimes have to trust your instincts in the creative process.

Once you’ve gained expertise in a skill, tell your decision-making brain to take a break and let the rest of your brain unleash your creativity.

And this is supported by brain imaging studies. For example, a fascinating study looked at experienced jazz musicians’ brain activity while they improvised. The researchers found that the sensory and motor brain areas were lighting up like Christmas trees, which makes sense since making music involves a lot of sensation and movement. What’s more interesting is that the dorsolateral prefrontal region of the brain was deactivated. This area of the brain is associated with self-monitoring, self-control, and decision-making ... and it was quiet while the musicians' created new melodies on the spot.

So, take a leaf from these experienced improvisers. Once you’ve gained expertise in a skill through a lot of practice, take a moment to relax, tell your decision-making brain to take a break, and let the rest of your brain unleash your creativity.

Tip #5: Put two and two together

Okay, but what if you’re really stuck? What if you’re just staring at blank sheet music or a blinking cursor on an empty Word document and nothing is coming to you? Stop trying to start from scratch. Instead, try taking two things that already exist and mashing them together.

Creativity often involves the unusual combination of ideas. In 1964, the author Arthur Koestler developed the term “bisociation” to describe the novel combination of two previously incompatible ideas, like Gutenberg’s bisociation of wine presses and coin stamping that created the printing press, which changed the whole Western world. 

I imagine whoever came up with Dal Makhani pasta just played around in the kitchen until they were pleasantly surprised by how this weird combo came out.

Nowadays we might see something like bisociation in a jazz and EDM mashup or an Italian-Indian fusion restaurant. I imagine whoever came up with Dal Makhani pasta just played around in the kitchen until they were pleasantly surprised by how this weird combo came out. You can take advantage of this too, by taking two seemingly unrelated things and putting them together. Even if it doesn’t turn out well, at least you’ve got something in motion.

Tip #6: Allow yourself to create crappy work

Creativity often looks like plucking brilliance from thin air, but geniuses don’t create in a vacuum, and they don’t come up with Grammy-winning albums the first time they try their hand at music. Everyone starts from zero. For a long, long time, even Einstein was considered to be kind of a slow kid.

For a long, long time, even Einstein was considered to be kind of a slow kid.

Even after you master foundational skills and begin to truly get creative, you’ll still come up with some stinkers. Thomas Edison, an inventor with over 1000 patents and famously one of history’s most creative thinkers, once tried to make pianos … out of cement. He also made over one thousand failed attempts at inventing the lightbulb before finally changing history.

And just like Edison, the things you come up with will also often suck. That’s okay! Instead of thinking of these as failures, know them for what they are—a crucial part of the creative process.

Sources +
Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.