Monday, March 8, 2010

A creative frame of mind

Creativity is not just for artists, in fact there is currently a tremendous amount of research into creative problem solving. Individuals (and teams) who are able to find new, innovative ways of approaching problems tend to be more successful in the business world. This is relevant for children, too. Who doesn't want to be able to solve problems that might ordinarily seem overwhelming? Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone could turn their mountains into molehills?

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that our emotional state may help us to do so. In their 2005 study, Friedman and Förster found that individuals primed to an "approach" state (in which they were actively seeking something) tended to use the right hemisphere of their brains to a greater extent. Individuals primed to an "avoidance" state used the left hemisphere more.

What does this mean? The right hemisphere is generally associated with creativity and the left with logic. Although logic is an important component of problem solving, use of the right hemisphere allows an individual to "see the big picture," getting a global view of things. This is part of what allows them to view problems from new angles, which can allow them to circumvent the problem (or block, if you are an artist). This evidence suggests that when we approach a situation that requires some creative thinking, we should prime ourselves to be in an open, "approach" frame of mind.

One of the aspects of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way involves ridding yourself of your negative perceptions... of your inner critic, that little voice in your head that tells you that you cannot do something. She also recommends figuring out which people in your life play a similar role and minimizing contact with them. The inner critic and critical friends and acquaintances act to put us into an avoidance state. When we listen to their criticisms, we fear the potential outcome of a creative effort. We are sure, before we even begin, that we will fail to find the way to the other side of the mountain blocking our path. When we go into it with this point of view, we are guaranteed to fail.

But when we recognize those voices for what they are and tell ourselves that we can, it does, in fact, put us in a mental frame of mind that allows us to surmount the problem at hand (remember the Little Engine That Could?). Scientific research supports the anecdotal evidence, by demonstrating that individuals are better at solving problems when in an "approach" state of mind.

When we think we can, we quite often can. Perhaps not in the way we originally envisioned, but that's what creative problem solving is all about: finding an innovative solution. Maybe the mountain really is a molehill, and we can step right over it. Maybe it's a steep mountain that requires some switchbacks before we can reach the summit. Or maybe there is a valley to the side that provides a better, easier alternative for reaching our goal.

This ties in to the role of exercise in creativity, since physical activity has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, two factors that elicit avoidance behavior. So find a way to relax... go for a walk, do some yoga, meditate, watch a movie... these should all help to get the creative, problem-solving juices flowing.

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