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7 Ways to Cultivate Your Creativity [Slide Show]
How to unlock your untapped ingenuity
Credit: Harvard Health Publications
7 Ways to Cultivate Your Creativity [Slide Show]
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Difficult Choices: To improve your ability to make decisions and weed out alternatives, try this exercise. You will need a pen or pencil, two pieces of paper and a timer. On one sheet of paper, list your 10 favorite books, all of which should be meaningful to you. On the other sheet, write the numbers 1 through 10 and beside those, make two columns, one headed "Keep," and the other, "Throw Away". Now imagine you are in the ocean on a small boat and must throw away half your books to stay afloat. Set the timer for two minutes; decide which books you will toss out to sea before the timer runs out. Try the same exercise weekly with other types of belongings—say your suits or dresses—that are important to you. The activity will help you make rapid judgments about the value of the things you own.
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Evaluate Brainset: Eventually, you need to critique your progress, judging the ideas and products you have created to be sure they are well suited to the purpose you had in mind and are likely to be effective. Impersonally examine your work and reject what you don't want, leaving the best possible solution. To sort the rubies from the rubble, ask yourself: Is the idea original? Will it be useful to someone? Will the idea change the way people think? Does this idea meet a goal I set? If not, does it meet another possible goal? And lastly, Does the idea have aesthetic value?
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Battling Boredom: One critical condition for achieving flow is motivation. To motivate yourself, find a task that is the right level of difficulty. A job that is too hard will frustrate and worry you; a very simple chore will lead to boredom. There are ways to adjust the level of challenge for tasks that lie at either extreme. For example, if the task seems dull—say, you have to dust the furniture, photocopy a report or pen thank-you notes—you can try setting a timer and working under time pressure to boost your arousal. Alternatively, try appreciating the activity more by, say, considering how much you like the furniture you are cleaning or are looking forward to the conference at which you will present your report. You can also try raising your standards—writing original letters may be more interesting than penning the same thank-you note over and over again. Tasks that seem too complex, on the other hand, can be broken down into smaller parts. If you need to write a 30-page report, decide which sections you will write in what order and set intermediate deadlines. Some very difficult tasks may need to be postponed until you feel you have the expertise to complete them.
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Stream Brainset: In this mind-set, you achieve what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of "flow" in which you are completely absorbed in the creative process—whether you are sketching a blueprint for a device, constructing a collage, solving a mathematical conundrum or writing a piece of music. When you are in the stream stage, ideas come almost effortlessly one after another as you continue to build onto your original thoughts. The conditions for this state include having clear goals, receiving immediate feedback to your actions and a task that matches your skill level.
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Emotional Rescue: You can use your bad moods to inspire music or art, writing, decorating, dancing and even creative cooking. You don't need training or talent; conveying emotions is powerful, no matter your expertise. To better understand and describe your feelings, try this exercise. Get a piece of paper and writing utensil, and sit in a quiet place. Consider your own feelings as if you were an outside observer. Write down at least three sentences describing them. Next, explore and describe your physical sensations. Does any part of your body feel tense or painful? Do you think these sensations are related to your emotions? If so, write down how the two are connected. Now, consider your mental state: Are your feelings making it difficult to concentrate? Also, note whether you are feeling the urge to act—say, to run away or escape, or to lash out at or throw your arms around someone. The idea is to train you to think about and completely describe your feeling state. If you do this once a week, you will gain insight into your feelings, hone your ability to express yourself and develop your emotional intelligence—all traits that will improve your creative work.
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Transform Brainset: Strong emotions and vulnerability can motivate us to express our ideas. Instead of trying to escape from a bad mood, explore it by thinking about what you are feeling and why. Many creative people have used negative emotions such as anxiety, depression and hurt as subject matter for works of art in which they share their inner experiences. Emily Dickinson wrote about depression in her poem, "There's a Certain Slant of Light". Edvard Munch depicted a state of high anxiety in his painting The Scream (rendered in the snow sculptures above). And blues music is, after all, based on feeling blue.
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What if?: To hone your mind's eye in a way that helps you imagine hypotheticals, try this activity. First, set a stopwatch or timer for five minutes. Next, pick an article from a local newspaper and change one key aspect of the story in a "What if?" scenario. For example, think "What if children were allowed to vote to decide the next president of the U.S.—and their votes counted?" Imagine the scenario and visualize the consequences—socially, politically and economically. What changes would occur in that alternate reality?
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Envision Brainset: Think visually. Imagine objects and manipulate them in your mind's eye to see new patterns and similarities between disparate concepts. To enhance your ability to imagine things, try this exercise: Stand a few feet away from an object in your surroundings. Hold a pencil far out from your body and trace the outlines of the object in the air, starting with its outer edge and then proceeding to its interior contours. After two minutes close your eyes and try to envision the object. Try to do this exercise daily with increasingly complex objects. You can also try visualizing a familiar object from different angles each day.
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Thought-Stoppers: To be able to think logically, you may also need to train your brain to block out thoughts that are upsetting or distracting. You can do this by writing "thought-stopping" commands on a three-by-five index card. Choose four of the following to write on your card: "I need to stop thinking these thoughts." "Don't buy into these thoughts." "Don't go there." "Stop this thought now!" "Mentally walk away." "These thoughts won't help the situation." Add two more directives of your own to the card. Now, whenever unwanted notions enter your mind imagine a mental stop sign or take out your card and recite these instructions to yourself.
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Reason Brainset: You can also solve a problem by manipulating information in your working memory, a type of short-term memory that functions as a mental sketch pad. People perform this conscious mental gymnastic whenever they are setting a goal, devising a plan, making a decision or just thinking about something. To grease your reasoning machinery, bone up on this eight-step problem solving process: 1. Recognize that you have a problem. One clear sign is the presence of negative emotions: stress, anxiety, shame and depression are often signs of something that needs to be addressed. 2. Define the problem. Decide exactly what it is and what caused it. 3. Set a goal for solving it. Make sure this goal is realistic for you to accomplish. 4. Brainstorm solutions, using your connect brainset. 5. Evaluate those solutions by making a list of pros and cons for each one. 6. Choose the best solution, ranking the one with the least cons higher than the one with the most pros. 7. Make a plan to implement your solution. 8. Assess success: Did your solution work? If not, try another.
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Novel Solutions: To improve your ability to mentally connect the dots, try this activity. Get a stopwatch or timer, three pieces of paper and a pencil or pen. Set the timer for three minutes and then write down all the uses for a soup can that you can imagine. Use the whole three minutes. For the next three minutes, jot down all the white edible things you can think of. Lastly, on your third sheet of paper, spend three minutes noting what might happen if humans had three arms instead of two. On other days, practice thinking of new uses for household objects such as a paper clip or chair, and considering the consequences of other weird changes to the human body! Now consider a social scenario that bothers you. Perhaps one of your co-workers talks to you so much that you can't get your work done, or your neighbor complains about your dog's barking. Or perhaps your child throws tantrums whenever you do homework together. Set the timer for three minutes and write down as many ways to solve this problem as you can think of, without judging the quality of the solutions. Look over your list. Are there surprises? Sift out the silly ideas, holding on to the gems. Spend at least 15 minutes daily, or whenever you can, thinking in this "divergent" way about a practical problem in your life.
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Connect Brainset: Here, you relax your focus so that you can see the connections between very different types of objects or concepts. This process of so-called divergent thinking helps you generate multiple solutions to a problem rather than just one. The more ideas you can come up with for a difficult conundrum, the more likely one of them will work. This brainset enables you to "think outside the box," and generate flashes of insight. Use it, for example, to solve the following problem: Connect all the dots in the array pictured above using four straight lines, and without lifting your pencil from the page.
A Certain Slant of Light: To become more aware of your environment and enhance your ability to perceive the world around you, try this exercise. First find a stopwatch or a timer of some kind, and set it for five minutes. Wherever you are, try to take in the sights, sounds and other sensations around you. Observe your surroundings with curiosity but without judgment. Look for patterns of color and light. View edges and angles of objects or walls. Notice movement by people, objects, insects and shadows. Listen to sounds. Pay attention to the tonal qualities of voices, the variations in any music you can detect, the rhythms of incidental noises such as dogs barking, rain hitting the roof or pavement, splashes in a bathtub or the hum of traffic. Also note tactile sensations: the contours or texture of the surface on which you are sitting, the temperature and humidity of the ambient air. Finally, take in any faint odors—say from food, flowers or fuel—again without rating their quality. Continue this process until the timer sounds. If performed frequently, this exercise will condition you to become attracted to what is new around you. You may soon inhabit a sensory world that, as William Blake wrote, is "clos'd" to others.
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Absorb Brainset: In this state of mind you are taking in reams of information from your surroundings uncritically. Paying attention to disparate sights, sounds and smells is useful while you are incubating an idea and gathering data. An open mind and an interest in novelty are helpful here. In one famous example of the use of this brainset, Alexander Fleming noticed the absence of bacteria in a section of a lab dish that had been contaminated with a mold. That observation led to the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin.
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