Science

Does Creativity Help Brain Health?

Orignally published on 2021-10-17 14:39:58 by www.prevention.com

When my daughter was in preschool, we had a pretty regular thing going. I’d give her broccoli, she’d frown and fold her arms across her chest, and I’d sigh in resignation. Until one day I decided to draw on my previously nonexistent improv skills: “I need you to be the guard. Don’t let any ogres get near that tree, and especially don’t let an ogre eat it,” I told her. “Can you do this, guard?”

She knew I was joking, but she was in. As soon as I turned my back, she chortled and started eating her broccoli, purely for my horrified reaction: “What kind of guard are you?!” I said. The “guard game” soon became central to our two-person comedy skit whenever new foods were on the menu. I’ll never take my show on the road, but my little burst of inventiveness certainly changed our lives for the better. We often think of creative people as those working in the arts, yet in daily life, creativity is less about what you make than it is about how you think.

What is creativity?

Almost anything can be done by rote or in a new way, says Julie Fratantoni, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. Creativity can look like crafting a quirky road trip or picking out a unique present. It can also be coming up with an off-the-wall yet fun date idea or a method of Tetris-ing keepsakes into a closet. Creativity is an attitude.

“Creativity is not mysterious or magical, but something everybody can do,” says James C. Kaufman, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut. Within psychology, creativity is usually understood as the ability to produce things or objects that are new (at least to the person creating the work) and useful, or appropriate for the situation or purpose, says John Kounios, Ph.D., a professor of psychological and brain science at Drexel University. However, he prefers to define creativity as a way of reorganizing the elements of a situation or a thought.

For those in business or law, creativity is usually a form of problem-solving and a new way of seeing things while navigating change and innovating. In the workplace, creativity benefits both the organization and the employee, says Crystal Farh, Ph.D., a business professor at the University of Washington. “Engaging in creative work is extremely motivating and engrossing,” she says. “Creators report feeling happier, more fulfilled, and more energized than non-creators.”

Creativity can even be taught, or at least fostered. That’s the whole idea behind the nation’s first Ph.D. program in creativity at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Patricia Salkin, formerly a government lawyer and now provost at Touro College, is one of the nine students enrolled. The students’ backgrounds sound like the start of a joke, she says: “A lawyer, a filmmaker, and a psychotherapist walk into a classroom…”

The college’s immersion program asked enrollees to perform improvisational theater, use percussion instruments to make music, and discuss with artists the inspiration behind their works. “I don’t consider myself an artist in the sense of fine art, but every one of us can be an artist in whatever field we choose, as we create our own canvas,” Salkin says.

4 kinds of creativity: Which one are you?

See if you recognize your own ingenuity in these types, as identified by Kaufman.

  • Mini-C: Personal creativity you experience and enjoy, like crafting or doodling in the margins of a notebook.
  • Little-C: Creativity you generate that other people can also recognize and enjoy, like a paper clip sculpture for the county fair or poetry you perform at a coffeehouse.
  • Pro-C: Expert-level creativity. The writer gets published, and the entrepreneur finds financial success with her fantastic new paper clip idea.
  • Big-C: Creative genius. Genius is subjective, and the label is dependent on conventional wisdom to a degree. For example, composer Harold Rome was popular in the early 20th century, but contemporaries Rodgers and Hammerstein are considered creative geniuses. “People want to see Oklahoma, not a drama about factory workers. Does it mean Oklahoma is better? Not necessarily,” says Kaufman.

    How the brain innovates

    Where in the brain does creativity reside? Some bodily functions—like wiggling your toes—stem from a specific “address” in the brain. But creativity is more like a boat on a river than a stationary street address. It involves brain networks linking memory and language, spatial understanding, and fine motor skills. The networks are like interconnected rivers down which the party boat of creativity floats—rivers also used by ordinary barges to solve math problems, follow recipes, or read reports.

    Yet creativity isn’t as mysterious as it might first appear to be. Your brain can help you generate a creative idea in two ways: through the famous aha moment of insight, and via more analytical thinking. Your brain solves thorny problems even as you sleep, daydream, or relax, and aha moments rely on unconscious mental processes. A great insight is likely to arrive when you’re in a slightly unfocused state or you change locations. That’s why it might appear while you’re in the shower or on a walk, or even at 2 a.m., explains Kounios. Creativity can spring from deliberate step-by-step analysis and problem-solving too. When you consciously invent and tinker, evaluating and modifying ideas, you can wind up creating something entirely innovative.

    And the better you are at problem-solving, the more effectively you’ll be able to navigate the world and the healthier you’ll be, Fratantoni says. So while creativity is its own reward—and might get your kid to eat her broccoli—it contributes to your brain-specific health too. A growing number of arts organizations and studies over the past 15 years have found that participating in creative efforts can help stave off loneliness, mitigate dementia, and enhance engagement, Kaufman says. And when we’re not exposed to anything new, cognitive decline may accelerate, Fratantoni says.

    Any activity that keeps the brain active helps with aging, Kounios says. When we undertake learning new skills or hobbies or encounter new situations, we grow new brain cells and form new connections between existing ones. These brain-cell-generating creative experiences could include painting, writing, doing math, or learning a language.

    “Creativity can activate the brain’s reward system,” Kounios says. “This may be why art therapy, writing therapy, and other forms of creative expression are uplifting and effective for many people.”

    Lynnea Doublette, based in Minneapolis, thought adulthood meant she had to leave the arts behind, since she wasn’t going to become a film star or a world-renowned singer. “But it’s part of who I am,” she says. “When I’m not creative, that’s what seems to breed isolation and loneliness.”

    So Doublette found a way to bring her creativity into her daily life. She now works in both the performing arts and health care. With her two sisters and her mother, she often performs in a gospel quartet for health care professionals and those in nursing homes. She has also worked with Kairos Alive, a nonprofit that encourages older adult voices through storytelling, dance, and music. Last year she even wrote two songs—but only after having thought for a long time that she couldn’t be creative in that way.

    “When we think we’re not creative, it’s just not true,” she says. “Creativity can be in walking a certain way or doing a little dance when you get good news. Creativity is in you.”

    For Doublette, creativity enriches in both professional and personal ways. “The channels and pathways in my brain open back up. I see possibilities for how to handle a problem at work or deal with a task,” she says. “When I’m embracing myself as an actor or artist, I’m going into the fullness of myself, and ideas abound.”

    DAN SAELINGER

    11 Ways to Boost Your Creativity

    Some research on what assists in boosting or unblocking creativity is contradictory, Kaufman says. But that may just mean that various approaches work differently for different people. Try a few of these to see what works for you:

    Seek solutions

    Working on puzzles, reading murder mysteries, and performing research (genealogy, anyone?) all count. When you solve a whodunit or discover a new connection, your brain’s neural reward processing signal is activated, and that helps increase your power of insight.

    Daydream

    The brain’s default mode network involves imagination, daydreaming, and spontaneous thoughts. We spend 30% of our day there, says Fratantoni. Turn off social media and other inputs and give yourself time to dream during the day.

    Cheer up

    In one study, subjects could generate more word-association problems after watching a funny clip. “Figure out what gets you in a good mood,” Fratantoni says. This might include establishing a practice around gratitude and mindfulness.

    Sleep!

    “If there’s one thing a person can do to be more creative, it’s sleep more,” Kounios says. It boosts your mood, purges unhelpful ideas, and helps you process problems subconsciously. Even taking a 10-minute nap can help you generate new ideas and see connections you didn’t before.

    Consider your chronotype

    If you’re a night owl, you may get your best ideas in the morning, when your brain’s a bit fuzzy. In that case, work on your analytical thinking in your peak evening hours. Early birds should try the opposite, Kounios says.

    Change your surroundings

    Being outside or in a room with high ceilings can help expand your attention, enhancing creative thinking, Kounios says. Sharp edges, loud colors, and striking music can instill a hint of anxiety or danger and distract the mind from letting itself wander. “The ideal situation is a spacious, warm, fuzzy environment with rounded, soft edges and muted colors,” Kounios says.

    Don’t compare

    Recognize and appreciate your creativity when it pops up. Just because the bedtime story you told your child or grandchild isn’t Shakespearean doesn’t mean it’s not creative. Personally meaningful creativity should be celebrated, Kaufman says.

    Try something new

    Challenge yourself by seeking out novel foods and places, which provide new perspectives, critical to enhancing creativity.

    Ask for opinions

    Get input from people with diverse points of view when tackling a problem, especially at work. “Create the conditions where diverse perspectives are invited to have a voice in the room,” Farh says, “and where all individuals feel psychologically safe enough to put their ideas out there.”

    Do something else

    When your brain is stuck in fight-or-flight-or-freeze mode, it can’t access creative solutions. Get a glass of water, gaze out a window, or do a non-challenging task like folding laundry. “Taking a short break lets you pull together disparate information and put it together in new ways,” Fratantoni says.

    Establish limits

    Some studies have shown that constraints can make for better outcomes, Fratantoni says. For example, when one group was asked just to write a poem and another group had to write one featuring eight specific nouns, the poets with the constraint did better. Generate a constraint (even if it feels silly) that might work well for you.

    This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Prevention.

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Orignally published on 2021-10-17 14:39:58 by www.prevention.com

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