When Yoshiro Nakamatsu, the inventor of the floppy disc and 77 other patents wanted an inspirational idea, he would stay underwater for extended periods of time, sometimes until less than a second away from drowning, according to an interview with BBC. Igor Stravinsky referenced starting his day a variety of exercises, including standing on his head. Honore De Balzac wrote of the incredibly stimulating effects of caffeine and supposedly drank up to 50 cups a day.
While the path to finding the average person’s ideal creative process of course won’t involve these extremes, the conditions for imagination seem to be different for each individual. The best way to find what works is to experiment and to do whatever it takes to unleash the abstract connection that defines creative insight.
Shelley Carson, a Harvard Psychology graduate, found that highly creative people are often also highly eccentric. In an article in Scientific American she describes this relationship as due to cognitive disinhibition. Without the filters and the overwhelming inner critic that many experience when trying to come up with inventive thoughts, these geniuses are more able to access their free flowing inner thoughts without censorship.
This brings in a question of cause and effect, are artists and geniuses weird simply because they are already creative? Could a person who doesn’t see themselves as very creative unfold new potential by acting outside of their comfort zone?
Creativity is something that can be difficult to study using neuroscience because it is difficult and has so many varieties. Some creative processes can stem from flashes of genius, dreams or near-death experiences. Others come from countless hours of painstaking research or detailed methods of testing various combinations of factors. This can make the study of the mechanisms of creative thought a difficult one. Arne Dietrich concludes an article in Scientific American by explaining “What has come into clear focus in recent years is that creativity is too complex, and too distributed in the brain, to be captured in a net held together by such ontological danglers.”
This article focused mainly on one particular study that used freestyle rap as a way to examine creative processes in the brain. The main researcher, Liu, instructed rappers to freestyle over a beat and compared the brain activity to that of the performance of a previously memorized rap over the same beat. One part of the brain referred to as the DLPFC “has long been known to mediate the so-called higher mental functions: Executive attention, working memory, willed action and cognitive control.” This region was shown to be much less active while the creative task was being performed, while the medial prefrontal cortex was shown to increase in activity. The proposed function of this area is to “learn associations between context, locations, events, and corresponding adaptive responses, particularly emotional responses” according to a paper by David Euston in a 2012 edition of Neuron.
One field that actively trains quick and creative thought is improvisational and acting classes. At the start of even the most beginner level drama class in a high school, actors will be instructed to do a variety of outlandish exercises that go beyond normal acceptable behavior. They’ll make crazy sounds and faces and get silly and outlandish. This helps them to be less self-conscious and primed to respond to any situation without thinking too hard. Once a scene begins and free association becomes necessary, they can tap into all manner of scenarios, emotions and characters.
To be creative, the most important thing is to access your subconscious and let go of ego. For some people, this is their natural state, and don’t have a high level of self-monitoring anyways. For others, it can take a lot to find this creative place.
Just as some feel better able to engage socially when drinking, others have to change their mental state in order to find creative connections and a new perspective.