How to train your creative brain

Creativity isn't just for artists. We all need it every day, and we can develop it at any age.

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Whether or not you think of yourself as a creative person (and, by the way – you are creative!), you will reap benefits from honing your natural creative abilities. Recent studies indicate that you can improve your physical health, your enjoyment of life, and your productivity by engaging in creative activities. It will also model creative behavior for your grandchildren and show them that the adults they look up to value creative work. This is important because creativity is not just the domain of artists, writers, and musicians. Creative thinking skills are also highly prized in business, industry, sports, and other careers to which your grandchildren may someday aspire. In fact, many top job recruiters list creativity as one of the most sought-after qualities in tomorrow’s CEOs.

In my book, Your Creative Brain, I discuss how important our creative brains are to our past, present, and future happiness and survival. I present evidence from recent neuroscience research and describe seven different brain activation patterns (which I call “brainsets”) that can enhance our natural creative capacities. The good news is that we can learn to control our brainsets through exercise and practice.

Train your brain to see the world

I’d like to explore one brainset in particular with you now – the envision brainset. This brainset is associated with mental imagery and imagination. Mental imagery is the ability to see in the mind’s eye things that are not actually being perceived through your sensory organs. You may have heard that the mind can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is only imagined – this is because mental imaging recruits much of the same brain circuitry used in normal vision. These circuits, in combination with the planning abilities of our prefrontal cortex, allow us to “see” the consequences of actions without actually having to perform these actions. For example, we can use our brains to visualize what will happen if we decide to jump off a high cliff and try to fly like a bird. Clearly, the individual who can envision the consequences of jumping off a cliff has a better chance of survival than the person who actually has to jump in order to determine the consequences!

This same envision circuitry that evolved to help ensure our survival has also allowed us to develop creative abilities. It allows us to mentally rearrange our living-room furniture, make up a new character for a novel, devise an original plan for robbing a bank, or conceive a plan for powering a winged aircraft. Einstein, Michelangelo, and Mozart are among the many luminaries who have described how their imaging skills enabled them to “see” masterpieces before they were brought to into being.

Here are two exercises adapted from Your Creative Brain that will help you develop your mental imagery skills and enhance your creativity. You can do both exercises alone, or try them with your grandchildren:

1. Visual mental imagery: Your bedroom

Begin by closing your eyes and imagine that you’re standing in the doorway to your bedroom.

Now in your mind’s eye, look to your left and see the wall adjacent to the doorway. If there is furniture against the wall, see it. See any pictures, windows, or drapes that may be on this wall. If the open door is against the wall, see it as well. Move from wall to wall and make your way around the room, noticing windows, curtains, furniture, pictures in each part of your room.

Look around the room once again. Is the bed made? Are there clothes lying on the bed or the floor? Is there an odor in the room? Smelly gym socks or a scented candle? Take a moment to sniff.

Now open your eyes. Try to imagine the four walls of your bedroom vividly with your eyes open. Move from wall to wall and try to see things in as much detail as you did with your eyes closed, superimposing the mental image on the actual space in front of you.

When you have finished the tour of your room, think about whether it was more difficult to imagine the room with your eyes open. Practice this exercise once a day for a week, using other rooms, your office, or a closet as the focus of your visualization. With practice, you can learn to envision productively in any setting.

2. Hypothetical thinking: “What if?”

One way to enhance your ability to visualize and use mental imagery is to imagine consequences to improbable circumstances. The following “What if?” exercise, for example, will help you develop both your ability to use mental imagery and your ability to use your imaginative faculties:

Set a stopwatch for five minutes. Now visualize this scenario: We know that dolphins are intelligent and have large brains. Imagine that a deep sea race of dolphins have developed opposable thumbs and have been able to fashion a machine that allows them to live on dry land and communicate with humans. What changes do you see occurring economically? Socially? Professionally? How would you personally be impacted? Allow your imagination to visualize the scenario and stay with it until the timer sounds. [If you’re doing the exercise with grandchildren, talk about what each of you is envisioning.]

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In order to fine-tune your imaginative abilities, practice a “What If?” exercise daily. To come up with your own scenarios, you can take stories out of the local newspaper and change one element of the story. For instance, what if the National Endowment for the Arts provided $200,000 to barbers and hairdressers to exhibit sculptures made of hair clippings? What if environmental groups proposed legislation that made it illegal to kill cockroaches? Make up one scenario each day and spend five minutes visualizing the consequences of your scenario. Don’t let reality or propriety constrain your vision.

Soon you will find that you are more open to new ideas and that each new event you read about will suggest all kinds of possibilities that allow your imagination to soar!

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., is a Harvard University psychologist and creativity researcher, and the author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity and Innovation in Your Life (Jossey-Bass), from which this article is adapted. To learn more about the book, visit ShelleyCarson.com.

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