Book Synopsis: Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer (HMH, 2012), dissects the creative process into bite-sized “a-ha” morsels that simplify its mysteries and offers advice for fostering it in ourselves and our organizations.
How do people like Bob Dylan cultivate their creative genius? They do it in part through dry spells.
“The act of being stumped is an essential part of the creative process,” says Lehrer, author of Imagine. “Before we can find the answer—before we probably even know the question—we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach.”
After ascending to the pinnacle of his music career, Dylan withdrew to a remote cabin to escape the pressures of writing and performing. An emotional block had descended into his brain, and he decided to quit altogether.
But sitting in that cabin, he found breakthrough.
“Before Bob Dylan could reinvent himself, writing the best music of his career, he needed to believe that he had nothing left to say.” While Lehrer’s conclusion certainly doesn’t inspire creativity in itself, there are much easier ways we can stimulate our own breakthroughs.
Relax to Awaken Insight
The rest of us non-rock stars can’t rely on hopelessness to produce our work. That’s why I love Lehrer’s advice on how to buzz our brains with positive, creative waves.
Researchers have discovered that alpha waves in the brain result from a relaxed state. (Maybe this better explains Dylan’s breakthrough.) When our minds are at ease, we’re more likely to direct our attention inward, connecting with the brain’s right hemisphere, which churns out new associations between unrelated ideas.
But when we focus on a problem by analyzing its details and force ourselves to reason our way to a solution in left-brain fashion, we actually prevent the right-brained alpha-powered connections that lead to insights.
Ever had a great idea in the shower? The relaxed feeling stimulates alpha waves, even when we’re tired. Many people feel creative in a coffee shop because the relaxed ambience makes waves in their right hemispheres.
Go Blue to Awaken Insight
Another way to alpha-charge the brain is with color.
According to researchers, people associate red with danger, which makes them more alert and aware. If you’ve got a red environment, you’ll be better at activities that require accuracy and attention to detail, because the brain will be more alert.
Blue, on the other hand, generates much more creative output. The color automatically triggers associations with the sky and ocean. “We think about expansive horizons and diffuse light, sandy beaches and lazy summers days; alpha waves instantly increase,” says Lehrer.
So when you daydream, pay attention to your insights, and let your imagination roam. You just might be able to convince your boss you’re working while you’re staring out the window.
Go to the Kitchen to Awaken Insight
When Steve Jobs ran Pixar, he forced people to have random conversations.
He did this by locating the kitchen and bathrooms in the middle of the building, creating chance encounters in the hallway and around the coffee pot.
“Office conversations are so powerful that simply increasing their quantity can dramatically increase creative production,” says Lehrer. “People have more new ideas when they talk with more people.”
Pixar’s producers would mingle with its animators, and what started as small talk often blossomed into an exchange of ideas and breakthroughs that ultimately led Pixar to its award-winning Toy Story franchise.
Got a problem that needs a creative solution? Forget brainstorming with a group. Take in the sky, go to the kitchen, linger in the shower.
Tom Harper is president of Networld Media Group, a publisher of online trade journals and events for the banking, retail, restaurant and church leadership markets. He is the author of Leading from the Lions' Den: Leadership Principles from Every Book of the Bible (B&H).
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