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

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


on April 5 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).

Main image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/jepoirrier/954701212/

Part 1: The link between attention and creativity

Attention is a limited resource

For the brain to function it needs energy (in the form of glucose) and it can only store and process a certain amount of glucose at any one time. When we direct attention to a certain area of the brain, or when a certain area demands our attention, glucose is sent there to keep it active. When glucose is directed to a particular part of the brain, the overall store of glucose depletes as does our ability to use other parts of the brain, as they don’t have as much energy. Even after that glucose-greedy part of the brain is no longer activated, there is a lag before the glucose store is built up again and can be directed to other parts of the brain.

The struggle for creative  resources

When it comes to creativity, one area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is key. The PFC is the area that lets us imagine, make decisions (by getting info from various parts of the brain, holding it on stage, and comparing it to other bits) and be creative (by getting information from various areas of the brain and combining them in new ways to create a novel thing). However, another part of the brain, the limbic system, trumps all other parts when it’s aroused. The limbic system is constantly looking out for threats and  rewards  and controls our emotional responses to situations.

The way the limbic system works is that BAD things (threats) get a lot more attention than GOOD things (rewards). The more the limbic system is aroused (by good or bad things), the less resource there is for the PFC, and the less ability we have to imagine, make decision, and generate creative solutions. In other words, when the limbic system is aroused, we are at the mercy of our emotions.

Social threats are scarier than physical ones

When we think of threats, we typically think of threats to our physical bodies, someone chasing us with a knife, the screeching of  tyres  on pavement, a spider in our wardrobe. However, research shows that social threats generate an equally strong but even longer-lasting threat response in the limbic system than threats of physical violence. The key social needs that can be threatened are status (one’s standing in the community they live in, whether they are better or worse compared to peers), certainty (one’s ability to predict how people will react, how events will unfold), autonomy (ability to have choices, make decisions), relatedness (perception of others as a friend or foe, in-group or out-group), and fairness.

An example of a status threat is when your manager says, “let me tell you what other people have been saying about you.” The limbic system fires up preparing for the threat that we will be compared (less favourably) with our coworkers.

An interesting thing to note when you’re structuring collaboration sessions, is that people will not collaborate well (be thoughtful and creative) with people they perceive to be in the out-group.

Up next, Part 2:  Control & relaxation

We don’t have to be ruled by our limbic system. By practicing a few simple techniques we can control how our brain deals with threats and shift attention to the areas we want to. Part 2 introduces a few simple control techniques, as well as some top tips for getting the most from your brain.


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