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Wish you were more creative? Try taking a walk

With exercises and effort, anyone can train their brain to be more creative, says Dr. David Fessell.

The Next Idea

What is the mental fuel for innovation? What internal power plant do we tap into?

Creativity. It drives innovation, collaboration, and in many cases, success. It involves everything from the everyday creativity of the hard­working woman who figures out how to make a pound of hamburger feed her family for a week, to the genius-­level creativity of Steve Jobs.

However, it’s common for individuals to have a belief that “I’m just not creative,” or, “Creativity is something you’re born with — either you have it or you don’t.”

In reality, creativity is something we all possess, from our sometimes bizarre night dreams and our often escapist daydreams, to what we are continually learning about how the brain can, in some ways, rewire itself to compensate for damaged areas. Science can lead us toward more creativity. And here in Michigan, we can certainly use more of this highly-­prized quality to enrich our economy, our institutions ... and most of all, our kids.

My life’s journey is one example of how creativity can make us more productive.

Though I was successful in school and eventually became an M.D., I felt and acted very un­creatively throughout my time as a student. I was used to coloring inside the lines and checking the boxes — boxes others had drawn — to advance in our educational system. Despite the fact that much of my work at an academic medical center involved teaching and presenting in front of groups, when it came to public speaking, I actually felt nauseated and scared in front of a crowd.

"... emerging science suggests that creativity is not due to special parts of the brain that only some people have, but rather it can be learned and improved with practice."

At the urging of a friend, I tried an improvisational comedy class. The fundamental improv concept of “yes, and ...” was transformative. “Yes, and...” meant accepting what was offered by my classmates in an improv scene and adding to it. Combined with the tenet that nothing is a failure — it’s all just fuel for making the scene go — I was hooked. My personal creativity and confidence began to grow. I noticed that I had access to a more playful energy within me. I began showing up in meetings, relationships, and everyday encounters with more spontaneity and presence. And it drew me to wonder about the connection between that creativity and the science behind it.

So, what is going on in the brain when we are creative? 

A specific type of MRI scan of the brain is unlocking some of those secrets. Recent studies have put rappers, jazz improvisers, and poets in the MRI scanner and looked at what's going on in their brains when they're in the act of creation.

The images showed that those who are experienced with creativity tend to “dial down” activity in brain areas that typically filter out unusual ideas or thoughts, and “dial up” activity in specific areas involved with creativity. Thus emerging science suggests that creativity is not due to special parts of the brain that only some people have, but rather it can be learned and improved with practice.

Scientifically, it makes total sense that the “nothing is a failure,” and the “yes and...” rules of improv do actually help us be more creative. Being safe from failure allows us to move beyond using the primitive “critter” part of our brains and the “fight or flight” response that has helped us survive over eons. We can then access the more complex and highly developed parts of our brain that “connect the dots,” and combine two or more things into something greater than the sum of their parts.

Here are a few ways that you can help train your brain to be more creative while also having some fun: 

Play games

How does this translate into daily practice? Simple improv games can be played with two or more people. Games like “One Word Story” are easy and fun. Going back and forth, each person contributes one word to create a story that has never been told before. “One Line Picture” is similar but is played in silence. Each person silently adds one line to a sheet of paper to create a picture that has never been drawn before. Such games develop presence, deeper listening and observing skills, teamwork, and yes, creativity.

Meditation is another easily accessible activity and is spreading in popularity. Many kinds of meditation have shown a positive impact on well­being and mood. Scientific studies are also showing that some, but not all, types of meditation can boost creativity. This appears to work by dialing down those filter areas of the brain and improving one’s ability to observe the world and have those treasured “ah-­ha” moments.

Go for a walk

Two scientists at Stanford liked to go for walks and talk about their research ideas. Recently they decided to study if the very act of walking has an effect on creativity. It turns out that a simple eight-minute walk does have a measurable and positive impact on generating creative ideas. Walking inside is good, and walking outside is even better. Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Dickens, Beethoven, and many others credited their frequent walks as essential parts of their creativity. Now we have the science to support their secret! 

Take up a challenging hobby

Most recently I’ve taken up juggling. I was encouraged by a report in the scientific literature that showed a positive impact on the brain, as well as by a friend’s success. I grabbed a few balls, watched a free on­line video, and just tried it. Juggling may seem like an impossible task, but it’s fun, and helps break down the fear of failure. Two things are certain — ­­balls will be dropped, and you will improve with practice. Learning new things — a musical instrument, a new language, or a new dance — has wonderfully positive effects on the brain and on our confidence, and can provide yet another safe space for our creativity to emerge. 

So take an improv class or play some improv games with your family, students or team members. Learn to juggle. Partner up in the fun. Get outdoors and walk. But beware — your creativity will soar!

Dr. David Fessell is a professor of radiology at the University of Michigan Medical School.

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