Mind the Gap: Unlocking Your Own Creativity


Are you creative? Or, sometimes better asked as. “Are you really that good?” Both are questions we often ask ourselves — whether it’s striving to learn some new skill — painting or playing an instrument, or if faced with a problem at work in need of a solution. Whatever it is we’re mentally working on, it’s creativity we’re invoking.

For far too long, we’ve regarded creativity as something like sorcery — that we can conjure a new piano concerto or paint a mural through the dark arts — known only to a few. If you weren’t all that adept in your high school art class — and thought that one teacher or one fellow student’s critique was enough to label you for life as an uncreative person.

We have a tendency to associate creativity with the arts — particularly visual arts. While that’s certainly part of it, the concept of creativity spans much further — the ability to invent new possibilities by putting together unlikely ideas. Limiting this to just our artistic ability and assuming we aren’t creative, could actually be making us less creative. It makes us less likely to tap into the regions of our brain wired for creative thought.

You may consider yourself as a “right-brain” or “left-brain” personality — either predominantly creative and artistic, or predominantly logical and analytical — but this is a false idea based on outdated research and still popularized by Facebook quizzes. In the age of functional MRI scanning, it was learned that it’s not the hemispheres that determine this, but the actual source of the brain’s creative thought is the corpus callosum, which functions as a bridge for communication between the two hemispheres. Therefore, it derives something from the right brain, used in our emotional processing, as well as the left, involved in both rational thought and language processing.

To understand how this connection worked, Professor Roger Beaty of Penn State University and his international research team put a brain scanner over people and tasked them to come up with new uses for common everyday items like soap or chewing gum wrapper. Some found it difficult to filter out their intended use, while others thought of unique uses for the objects like water filtration or as radio antenna.

Those who came up with the more abstract answers showed significantly stronger connectivity between the brain’s prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, and the default mode network — which also happens to be in its most active state when you find yourself daydreaming or your mind wandering off — perhaps why Archimedes found his breakthrough when stepping into his bath for a relaxing evening.

The key to being creative lies within you. It’s not some mystical power — it’s just a matter of knowing how to unlock it. Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to make this ability more accessible. You might be worried about your mind wandering off during a meeting at work, but you shouldn’t be afraid of this tendency all the time. Embrace it by letting yourself dream up ideas around a certain topic, and make this a daily habit. All too often, we try and filter our thoughts when we brainstorm — and it just makes it more difficult to draw in and harness new ideas. Feel free to write new ideas down as they come, however ridiculous they may sound as you begin to translate them to paper.

Practicing meditation daily — with simple breathing exercises can also help you with selective attention, making it easier to sit and reflect on a topic while also filtering out distractions — people talking outside your office window, or your phone and computer. Use this time to focus on the present moment — to look at life as it unravels, and think of things without the distraction of the near future or your fears and prejudices. You may want to also take time out of your day to simply declutter your work environment, even if it’s as basic as closing out windows on your browser screen. Even coming up with new ways to organize your personal space can help you to gather new thoughts.

Use your personal time for reading or seeing a show. By reading a novel, you immerse yourself in a different world, getting to know the characters and seeing life in a different way than you’re used to, as the author intended. The same thing is true of seeing a theatrical production or a work of art in a museum — by being exposed to a new work, you’re seeing the world differently, and just by doing this, you’re strengthening the connections between both hemispheres of your brain. It’s not as if you’re producing one of these great works on your own, nor are you trying to imitate their style, but instead, seeking out what they sought.

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