Getting Creative

Arts and Crafts was never my strong point growing up. In Year 8, we had to make a paper mache model of a planet. I thoroughly disliked the sloppy mess of glue and paper. When it came to painting it, my attempt at mixing paints resulted in a poo-brown colour. We had to craft clay planets and stars which would hang from paper mache planet but mine ended up looking like clumpy rocks. The whole process was a traumatic experience and I banished myself from the Art room for the rest of high school.

I never considered myself as "creative" when I was younger. That label was attached to people who could draw or craft or sing or play music or act. I wasn't necessarily good at any of those things. I enjoyed scribbling, but it never looked like anything. I was always fascinated by instruments but didn't learn to play until I was 18. And I hated the attention of acting or presenting but I always loved stories. Which begs the question: do you actually have to be good at arts to be "creative"?

I think there's room for separation between "creative" as a label and creativity as processes. I think for most of us, we encounter creativity as a label, attached to those whose giftedness lies in the visual or performing arts. The issue with this label then is that those of us who don't receive that label feel like impostors when we try to engage creative processes. This is highly unfortunate because creative processes are not only natural, they're necessary. I'll get to the science in a second, but research proves that engaging in creativity has real impact on our physical and mental well-being, by lowering stress, relaxing the muscles, reducing indigestion and inflammation and increasing self-esteem and productivity.

But first, lets get things straight: creative is a label, creativity is something we all can and should engage in - and probably do without realising it. Creativity is defined by influential neurologist Alice W. Flaherty as:

a creative idea will be defined simply as one that is both novel and useful (or influential) in a particular social setting
— http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2571074/

Being creative is expressing new ways that influence your world. It might seem like a big ask to come up with something novel and new but in fact, we do this all the time, it's inherent: you could say dog twice and a spectrograph will be able to record differences between the two ways you say it.

Think about the creative process as a state of "flow". Athletes talk about this when they get into a zone: they can't miss a shot, their body is pumping at all cylinders, they can't be beaten. Or a songwriter is pumping out hit song after hit song in the recording studio. Or a speaker gets up and doesn't even need a script, their hitting the points and the crowd is feeling it. But "flow" isn't just experienced by "creative" people. Have you had days where you were smashing through your to-do-list? You were responding to emails and not only were you clearing your inbox, you were providing insightful replies? Have you ever smashed out whole sections of an assignment or report without even being tempted to procrastinate? And while you were doing it, you didn't even feel time, you didn't feel the expectation, everything was just...flowing!

So we've established that creativity isn't just for visual and performing artists, more than just a label, it's a process. That process occurs when any new or useful ideas are produced, which is what our behaviour is doing constantly. And often this can look like a state of "flow", where we are deeply engaged and produce optimal results. Cool, so how does this benefit our health and help us to do life better?

I noted above some of the physical and mental benefits of being in a creative state. The reason behind the benefits of creativity lies in the neural activity that occurs during that flow state. A study was conducted on this topic, by monitoring the neural activity that occurred during freestyle rap (yes, freestyle rap). Brain activity was compared while subjects performed freestyle and prepared verses and what was found was that while freestyling the parts of the brain concerned with executive function relaxed, while the parts of the brain that lit up were those concerned with association, context, events and emotional responses.

What this means is that while we're creating, our brains actually shut off from a lot of the stimuli which cause us distress, anxiety, worry or just busy-ness; allowing us to de-stress while contributing and influencing our "particular social context" (as we said in our definition of creativity). We get to feel good, grow our emotional intelligence (the part of the brain that lit up during the freestyling study was associated with emotional responses) and we get to positively influence others - that's a win-win! So how do we develop our creativity?

 

Exercise

One study conducted looked into the effect of exercise on creative processes. A group of 60 uni students performed a creative task, either after doing no exercise, 30 minutes after exercise or 2 hours after exercise. The exercise included aerobic activity such as jogging, swimming, fast walking, stationary bikes and stair climbing. What the study found was that exercise did have a positive impact on creativity and had lasting effects (even up to 2 hours)!

 

Meditation

Similarly to the freestyling experiment, studies have shown that meditation also has impacts on the brain: parts of the brain also decrease and increase activity during meditation. Mindfulness meditation or contemplative prayer, which openly reflect on different sensations, can improve creativity.

 

Appreciate different forms of art and literature

The visual and performing arts are meant to inspire. Rather than being jealous of those we've labelled as "creative", we can allow them to literally inspire our own creative processes. Appreciating different forms of art and literature light up the parts of the brain that are engaged when we create. So it seems that art imitates art!

 

Keep notes

Sometimes, creativity is just completely random! Often our best ideas come in the shower or when we're driving - when our mind is in a relaxed and distracted state. Keeping notes in a notepad or on your phone will preserve ideas that can spark creative flows later on.

 

Ultimately, the only way to get better at being creative is to find the forms of creativity you enjoy and best engage in and to just create. I mentioned that I never considered myself creative when I was younger, but I do consider myself creative now. And that's because of two lessons I've learned.

  1. Creativity involves sharing your novel ideas. I've always loved writing, but I was terrified of sharing my work (I still am!) - but by keeping my writing to myself it wasn't contributing to my social context. Don't get me wrong, sometimes we create for our own rehabilitation, but we only grow that craft and engage in flow when we share it out.
  2. Growing creativity might also mean engaging in new crafts or creative endeavours. Throughout high school, most of my friends were musical. Our hangouts often involved them having a massive guitar jam-session. Sometimes I could get involved by writing songs but I had (falsely) accepted  that it was beyond me to ever learn an instrument. Six months out from high school I had self-taught myself basic chords and was enabled to write music to go with my lyrics. Sometimes we do limit our own potential to influence through creativity. Stretching beyond our comfort zone allows us to do life better.
If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
— Vincent Van Gogh

So, wherever we feel we sit on the creativity spectrum, there are practical things we can do to improve our mindset for creativity: through exercise, meditation and appreciating different forms of art. Taking notes captures the often sporadic nature of creative thought. Finally, creativity also grows through (publicly) practicing our crafts and by stretching ourselves to learn new ones. I used examples from my life of creative arts (writing and music), but the message rings true for all professions:

Develop a creative mindset, practice your craft and stretch your creative pursuits and not only will you do life better, but you will (in more ways) positively influence others.