Paul walked into my office, dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt. In his 30s, articulate and engaging, Paul works in a creative industry. As he speaks I get a sense of how much he cares about his job: he loves it, he’s committed to making it his life’s work and he’s good at it. He’s in my office because he’s also really anxious – how should he manage the uncertainty inherent in his industry? How should he deal with the unpredictable, precarious nature of the work? He finds himself overwhelmed and exhausted by the workings of his mind and he finds himself going over and over the smallest details.
That’s why he’s here; his goal is to roll with the punches. Like many sensitive and creative people, Paul feels things intensely – both the good and the bad.
Often, for those employed in creative industries, part of the challenge is learning to accept and manage these aspects of their personalities, with the knowledge that with that come flashes of insight. It’s a package deal: the upside being the precious flair and the downside, the emotional toll it can take. The good news is that with insight, you can work with the intense feelings that come with creativity.
A neural basis for creativity
Creative people are highly regarded for the magic they produce. But the act of creating something is an elusive thing – where does it come from?
New research into how the brain functions while you are being creative has shown that there are measures all of us can take to foster ideas and nurture our creative sides.
With the advent of neuro-imaging, neuroscientists can see what is happening at the neural level during moments of creativity. In early studies using positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure changes in regional blood flow as mental activity changes, people were asked to perform tasks in the scanner as scientists looked on to see which parts of their brains lit up.
US psychiatrist and neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, who conducted a research project that examines the neural basis of the creative process, realised that what she was most interested in was the time when the subjects were not doing tasks and were just letting their minds wander. She called this “random episodic silent thought”, or REST – somewhat tongue in cheek because the brain never actually takes a break.
Andreasen found that the association cortex, a widespread network linking many parts of the brain, was most active when the mind wandered. Thus, the neural picture also showed that the brain was relating previously unconnected pieces of information. So there appears to be some truth to the oft-cited advice that when you get stuck on a problem, you should do something unrelated to it for a while and the answer will just come to you when you’re relaxed. Creativity seems to be at least partly about allowing the mind to wander and letting the unconscious percolate.
Can we build creativity?
Creative people, when asked where their ideas come from, tend to say the same things, according to Andreasen’s research: “I can’t force inspiration. Ideas just come to me when I’m not seeking them – when I’m swimming or running or standing in the shower.” “It happens like magic.” “I can just see things that other people can’t and I don’t know why.” “The muse just sits on my shoulder.” “If I concentrate on finding the answer it never comes, but if I let my mind just wander, the answer pops in.”
The notion of great ideas simply coming to us is very appealing, as it seems we don’t need to do anything for it to happen.
However author Elizabeth Gilbert, whose book Eat, Pray, Love was an international bestseller, gives us a glimpse of what she calls “the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process” when she says this is “a process, which, as anybody who has ever tried to make something … knows does not always behave rationally. And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal”.
This is the first clue in uncovering creativity: insights just appear. They are not conscious and they tend to pop up when people are not engaged in their work. It is as if the mind has an incubation period during which ideas float around unconsciously before suddenly linking and coming into consciousness.
Recent research on the incubation process from the journal Psychological Bulletin suggests that doing something undemanding, such as having a shower or taking a walk, is better than doing either nothing or undertaking a very demanding task. Letting your mind wander appears to be an important part of the process.
Mood disorders and creativity
Gilbert gave a TED talk about how to help creative people manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity. She asks: “What is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health?”
In Andreasen’s research, she looked at the relationship between creativity and mental illness.
Using a sample of writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, along with educationally similar and age-matched control subjects, she found that the majority of writers had significant histories of mood disorders (depression or bipolar disorder). At the time they were interviewed, all the writers were in a good space; they could look back on their depression or mania with detachment, and noted that how they perceived their mood affected their creativity.
Andreasen found that during times of low mood, study participants’ creativity was reduced, yet once these moods had resolved, these experiences could often provide powerful material to draw from. Andreasen was also interested in the idea of a creative personality type, and found certain traits based on personality tests and interviews, from which a “creative personality profile” has emerged (see panel on previous page).
The “creative” personality traits include being sensitive to what you are experiencing as well as what others are experiencing and having dedication and a singularity of vision. While creative types may feel they are doomed to mental instability, the good news is that with insight and self-understanding, they can work with the intense feelings that come with creativity.
Andreasen’s book The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius describes how all of us can learn to nurture our creative sides with practice. Try thinking in a free and uncensored way – this is called random episodic silent thought (REST). Make sure you don’t have other input from the outer world at the same time and just let thoughts come to the surface.
It’s also important that you set aside time to learn and perceive in new ways. For example, choose a new and unfamiliar area and explore it in depth. Bring all your curiosity to it. Spending some time each day meditating can be helpful, as this has been shown to open you to experiences rather than encouraging you to judge and close down options.
The simple task of practising observing and describing can foster creativity, too – look intently and in detail at things you wouldn’t normally notice. You might start with an overall picture and then drill down to detail. Write down your observations in a paragraph or two and do this regularly. And finally, practice imagining – choose something you find interesting, for example gardening, and imagine narrating life, say, from a flower’s perspective. Imagine different times in the past or future, perhaps somewhere you’ve dreamed of visiting.
Because as unimaginative as it sounds, building creativity is about practice.
Psychiatrist and researcher Nancy Andreasen was interested in the idea of a creative personality type. She conducted a seminal study of this topic, interviewing and testing 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who were compared with 30 educationally matched ‘‘normal’’ control subjects. Andreasen has identified traits common to highly creative people. These include:
• Being open to experiences, with a tolerance for ambiguity and unanswered questions.
• A willingness to have adventures and explore.
• A sense of rebelliousness (disregard for order, rules and social convention).
• A strong sense of individualism.
• Sensitivity (to what they are experiencing as well as what others are experiencing).
• A sense of playfulness.
• Persistence – this is necessary because of the repeated knockbacks ‘‘creatives’’ inevitably encounter thanks to pushing limits and seeing things in new ways.
• A singleness of vision and dedication.