Part 2: Want to be more creative? Understanding how your brain works can help. | PDD

Part 2: Want to be more creative? Understanding how your brain works can help.


on April 13 2011

To be more creative we need to take control of our attention but also relax, according to David Rock’s fascinating talk on “Your Brain at Work.” In it, Rock relates cognitive neuroscience research to real-world issues such as how to be more creative, and how to manage teams and people. In this 2-part series, I’ve summarised the key points and drawn some conclusions on the implications of his research on the (creative) design process and collaboration, in case you don’t have 55 minutes to  listen  to his talk on YouTube (but it’s worth it).

Part 2:  Control & relaxation

In Part 1 I discussed how the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the limbic system’s competition  for resources actually decreases our capacity for creativity. Part 2 provides an overview a few simple techniques to control attention, the importance of a quiet brain for creativity, and some top tips for getting the most from your brain.

Controlling attention

There are ways we can control our attention by shifting from the limbic system to the PFC. When we feel threatened by something, we can regain some control by labelling the threat- defining our experience in a few words. For example, you notice you are agitated during a meeting, you acknowledge the agitation, and ascribe your state to having too much coffee. Thus, your label would be, “agitated from too much coffee”. If you can say the label aloud it has an even stronger effect (more parts of the brain are recruited), but even thinking it still has a positive effect and lets you gain more control over your emotional state by shifting away from the limbic system to the PFC.

The second  method  for mastering emotional regulation is to reframe the situation and find something positive in it. For example, if you are stuck in traffic, rather than getting frustrated, you can reframe the situation as an opportunity to do something productive (read an article, call a friend).  A highly effective way of reframing is to see humour in the situation, or even just laugh.

By reframing the situation we defuse the threat response, releasing the emotional stranglehold of the limbic system and allowing the PFC to perform.

A relaxed brain is a creative brain

Finally, as important as the PFC is in creativity and solving insight problems, directing conscious attention to it is not the best way to use it, as it is a very limited resource. Firstly, conscious thought is a serial process that requires effort. Imagine adding 2+2 or 10+5 or even 20+30. Compare that to 253+ 738. In the first case, we’re using subconscious processes which are automatic. In the second, we have to marshal resources to  complete  the computation. Anything that requires effort is perceived as a threat. And, when we’re threatened, we’re not very good at being creative.

Secondly, the PFC can’t hold very much at any one time. If you think about the amount of  information  as a volume that can be measured, the PFC can hold about 1 cubic foot (at full capacity), compared to the rest of the brain which can hold the equivalent volume of the Milky Way.

Thirdly, research has also shown that most insight problems are not solved with the PFC-in 60% of problems, people cannot explain (rationally) how they solved them. The trick is to dampen down the rational, conscious thought process, and let the brain “go into idle”, or “focus on being unfocused” and let anything come into consciousness. A relaxed, quiet brain, is able to make connections between previously unrelated things, thus improving the chances of solving insight problems.

Interestingly, research has also demonstrated that you open your field of view when you’re happy and close it down when you’re anxious. Happy people make more connections in their brain between previously unrelated concepts, and consequently are significantly better at solving insight problems.

Top tips

1. Be aware of your emotional state. If you’re feeling threatened, re-label, reframe, or laugh!
2. To enable collaboration among people from different groups, ensure they feel part of the same in-group
3. Relax and let the brain make connections, don’t force a solution
4. Be happy, be creative


David Rock’s GoogleTech Talk, “Your Brain at Work”

David Rock’s website

Positive Mood Seems to Boost Creativity

How to Get to Genius

The Eureka Hunt: Why Do Good Ideas Come to Us When They Do?

Study Illuminates the ‘Pain’ of Social Rejection