In this blog I’m going to encourage you to lose your inhibitions, so that you can be even more creative.
Specifically, I mean losing some of your cognitive inhibitions, rather than behavioural ones.
By inhibitions, I mean those conscious or unconscious restraints, or filters, in our thinking that prevent is from taking action.
Behavioural inhibitions are useful because they prevent us doing socially inappropriate things.
Cognitive inhibitions are useful because they stop us from overprotecting all the masses of information that our senses are continually absorbing: light levels;. This includes many kinds of noise; full details of what we see; our background thoughts and so on. We are literally absorbing hundreds and hundreds of items of external and internal data at any moment. Cognitive inhibition means that that we are able to filter all of the background stuff out so that we can instead focus on what matters to us to survive or to perform.
To be creative, we need both freedom and constraint in our thinking.
Whilst cognitive inhibition is really helpful for us most of the time, some of the information that we are naturally filtering out can be quite useful from a creativity perspective. We can learn to consciously turn our cognitive filters down to access more information for greater insight. How we do this is by changing the electrical frequency of our brain activity. Normally at work, when we are ‘switched on’ and engaged in active thinking, our brains are using high frequency, low amplitude beta waves. To access a more relaxed and open mental state, we need to slow down the frequency and increase the amplitude of the electrical activity in our brains. These slower frequencies and wide amplitudes are alpha waves (when we are engaged in relaxed, reflective thinking) and theta waves (a more drowsy state than alpha waves).
Research by the late Colin Martindale and his team shows that highly creative people access low frequency states more readily. The good news is that this is something that we can all practise and get better at. Here are a couple of evidence-based, research-supported ways of losing some of your cognitive inhibitions and engaging in lower frequency brain states.
This one is based on Hobson and Stickgold’s research into the sleep-wake cycle.
They found that the brain can more readily access information from the unconscious mind if we wake up right after a period of R.E.M., the type of sleep that we dream in.
First, reflect on the problem or opportunity that you want to solve creatively right before you go to sleep, reading any useful information about it to give your brain the data it needs to process your challenge while you sleep.
Go to sleep and then wake up about half an hour earlier than usual, when you will hopefully be more of less straight out of REM sleep. Jot down your thoughts on your problem or opportunity straightaway. You should have some insights and solutions!
Yes, mindfulness is very topical right now – and for good reason and with plenty of scientific support in many cases.
Mindfulness slows down our brain activity, helps us to balance our cognitive functions and notice more of the details around us.
It can help in different ways at different stages of the creative process:
By meditating before you go into idea generation, you can promote divergent thinking, a mode of thinking that opens up your mind to new possibilities and ideas.
When you want to reflect on, or further develop, your ideas, walking meditation can be a great way of working them through without any conscious effort or attention to your problem or opportunity. There is a great article on walking meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh
More generally, practising regular meditation can help us to become more likely to notice those moments of creative inspiration when we have them. It quietens the mind, which means that that we have clearer visibility of our insights as they come up.
Give your frontal lobes a break
The creative spot for our flashes of insight happen in a brain lobe called the superior temporal gyrus. Our left brain has short dendroids that are great at pulling in easily accessible information from nearby, but the dendroids in the right brain reach out much more widely. They can connect more disparate and more creative thoughts and concepts to combine them in a new way, giving birth to ideas that are pulled back into a part of our brain called the superior temporal gyrus.
The frontal lobes of the brain come into play as well. Think about when you have had some of your best ideas. The chances are that they came to you while you were doing something unrelated, and especially when you were more relaxed, doing a repetitive task, or when your mind was wandering. This is because, when we are focused, or actively engaged in working in more deliberate mode, the frontal lobes act as a sort of gatekeeper to prevent apparently non-related information or thoughts interrupting our process. But when our minds wander, or we relax, our frontal lobes take the opportunity to go on standby, which means that ideas can flow more freely and new thought connections, or ideas, can happen.
Researchers such as Kounios, a professor of Psychology, have discovered that literally milliseconds before these moments, just before you have your idea, your brain momentarily shuts down its visual area, in a sort of ‘brain blink’. In fact, all of us reduce visual stimulus when we need to have ideas, such as having to think on our feet to respond to a difficult question, which we do by looking down before we respond.
Shutting off visual stimulus allows us to focus on looking inwards just before the idea is created. But increasing visual stimulus at other times, for example by mindfully observing more of what is going on around us, increases creativity measured by the number, originality and usefulness of the ideas we have.
Know that you can grow your own creativity
Creativity is not an exclusive, fixed ability that only some people have. Of course, how your individual brain is structured, your environment and your own unique frontal lobes do impact your levels of creativity, but you have much more flexibility to improve and grow your idea generation capability than you might think.
Our challenge is that, like other aspects of how we are made, our brains are inclined to take the path of least resistance, and do what comes easiest and most naturally to us. So we literally can get into a rut with regard to how we think. To be purposefully creative, it helps us to go out of our way sometimes to deliberately disrupt how we normally approach things, to challenge our brains to take on new information and work from different perspectives. This can feel uncomfortable and clunky at times when we start to do this, but that’s good news because it means that we are waking up different parts of our minds! And as with any exercise, the more we disrupt our thinking, the better and more fluid our thought processes will become, and ideas will begin to flow more naturally, in the same way that when you start to lift weights in the gym at first it feels challenging and heavy, and your muscles become sore soon after your sessions. But by lifting the weights regularly, your muscles strengthen and the same weight feels less challenging over time, at which point you can increase the weight so that you continually feel challenged and grow in strength.
I hope that you go ahead and enjoy losing some of those (cognitive) inhibitions from time to time, to help with your idea generation and creative process in general. If you want to become even more advanced and develop your own creative thinking skills and potential to make greater impact in your work, take a look at my Idea Time Membership here.