The Unpredictability of Creativity

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The other day I was having a conversation in the pub with a friend about how unpredictable our bursts of creativity are. The following morning, appropriately, I woke up with this blog in my head and for reasons I can’t understand, this one too. Normally hangovers (2 and a half pints – that’s embarrassing) and lack of sleep conspire to prevent a single original thought entering my head, so why I woke up in a creative frame of mind is beyond me. It only goes to reaffirm the conversation my friend and I were having; creativity is a funny old thing.

 

How do we access our creativity? It’s a very pertinent question, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s very popular talk on TED goes to show that it’s one many of us are interested in. In her talk she reveals that on some days she sits down at her computer and that spark simply isn’t there – and this is from a bestselling author. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with some of my more creative friends; some days it’s there, some days it’s not, and it’s hard to nail down why that is.

 

My take is that the triggers are deeply varied and complex, and I’m not so sure that a creative frame of mind is something that can just be switched on. Not to mention, each brain is different, and what works for one person may stifle creativity in another. What we can do is try to create the conditions that are conducive to creativity, that improve the likelihood of finding ourselves in a creative frame of mind. Although as I’ve said, these will vary from person to person. A few things that I find helpful are:

 

#1 Taking a mental break from whatever the creative activity is. I find that creativity comes more easily when my mind isn’t on the task and I’m not trying to force it. Somewhere in my unconscious ideas have been churning away, and I just need to give them the space to do so.

 

#2 Talking to people about the creativity activity. Interaction challenges and develops my ideas as I’m exposed to new ones. Sounds obvious, but sometimes we think people won’t be able to grasp our idea and so we stay quiet about it.

 

#3 Getting peace and quiet. There’s an unbelievable amount of noise in modern society, and so much information to be distracted by, which then occupies the mind. I know many writers who will shut themselves away somewhere isolated when they need to write, although this does make #2 difficult!

 

#4 Listening to music. This is a big one for me, but film and books can also inspire me. I recall reading not so long ago a neuroscience article about a study showing that music is good for creativity because of the areas of the brain it triggers activity in. There’s a good justification for playing music in the office!

 

#5 Mood. Confidence plays a big role in my creativity, so I need to be in quite a positive frame of mind. I know for some this is different – creativity is linked to any strong emotional state, positive or negative.

 

#6 Going for a walk! I’m not sure whether it’s the fresh air or the mild exercise, but after a walk I always come back refreshed with new ideas and focus.

 

What works for other people?

Time to re-think our values?

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Over the last few years I have watched enormous resources (human, financial, material) thrown at various social and environmental issues. Organisations coordinating the programs all report back with tremendous positivity about the impact they are having. And yet…at a holistic level we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I recall working on a project attempting to tackle homelessness, and we were told by the experts that homelessness has actually increased, quite remarkably, in parallel with the resources invested in tackling it. Have we really made such great progress in areas like health, education, economy, environment, poverty? There have been many leaps forward (we have met some of the Millennium Development Goals already), and yet personally I do not feel that we are making particularly impressive progress given the resource investment. Perhaps we are tackling the symptoms, and not the cause.

 

I believe to understand where all of humanity’s problems come from we must first accept a most uncomfortable truth:

 

We are the cause of every single one of them.

 

I have learned from my experience of depression as well as my time in social enterprise that we must first accept a problem in its entirety before we attempt to tackle it. Taking responsibility is perhaps also an important step, given how inclined we seem to be individually and collectively to absolve blame and point the finger elsewhere. By taking responsibility for a problem, we can then take responsibility for tackling it.

 

I am not telling you of course to take responsibility yourself for the entire 2 billion people living in poverty. A problem of such scale is not the fault of one individual, or even one nation, but the fault of billions of individuals collectively. Whether you like it or not, you have had a role to play though, as have the people you see around you. By buying materials and produce made by those living in poverty at such a reduced rate you are contributing. We buy from corporations whose greed-driven purpose is to maximise profit, by nature then exploiting those who have so little. On a systems level we are all players in the game of capitalism, which polarises wealth.

 

I see the fault for many problems we face lying within our cultural values. Here are some of the values that define mainstream society today:

Greed

Throwaway culture

Short-term interests maximised at long-term cost

Break down of close-knit communities

Quantity over quality

Demand for constant growth

Consumerism

Lack of respect for environment we wholly rely on

 

Unfortunately many of these values have spread from the ‘dominant’ west which much of the rest of the world aspires to imitate. The west looks impressive on the surface with its big shiny buildings, fancy technology and 2 cars per household, but that conceals the rotten core beneath. Record levels of obesity, stress and mental illness are hardly symbols to me of a flourishing civilization. I can think of few who feel particularly satisfied or purposeful in how they are living their lives. And all this for a lifestyle which is, quite simply, unsustainable.

 

The car crash of our misplaced values is playing out in slow motion, right before our eyes, as our economy wobbles with little sign of recovery, the climate inches ever closer to dangerous levels of warming, and ever more of us find ourselves fighting over ever fewer resources on this planet.

 

Such a state of things has been caused by contemporary approaches and contemporary values. To chart a more sustainable and prosperous course for ourselves going forward requires a new approach. It requires new values.

Why does sunshine make us so happy?

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Well it does, doesn’t? We all know that beautiful feeling of waking up, looking out of the window and seeing blue skies with sunshine streaming in. It puts us in a great mood straight away. Conversely, when up above you is a blanket of grey clouds, we feel pretty fed up. A funny little observation I’ve made since being in Sydney is that people here, broadly speaking, are a little more friendly and cheery than in the UK. And it really is a noticeable enough trend to be obvious. And yet much of the population shares the same ancestry, so how did that happen? The UK’s not that bad is it?

But I’m not going to spend this blog convincing you that sunshine makes us feel happy. Most of us have already had this insight and if you haven’t…well you should probably stop reading here as the rest of the blog is based on this assumption. And you’re probably living somewhere without much sunlight – like Antarctica maybe. Go and take a holiday in the Caribbean and then read it again.

Neuroscientists have identified the physiological basis of this improvement in mood that occurs when we receive more sunlight. Depending on what you read, you will hear about increases in certain chemicals called endorphins and serotonin. Both have been frequently linked to mood, and indeed the main form of drug treatment for depression is a series of drugs called SSRIs, which artificially raise our levels of serotonin. I touched on the subject in an earlier blog (linked to brain changes blog).

For most Neuroscientists, they think that this increase in chemicals is a splendid answer to the question of the title. But not for me. You see, mood is an adaptive mechanism that has evolved over time to give us a biological advantage. We have reward pathways in the brain, which exist to give us a positive feeling when we do something that is good for us i.e. anything that helps us to survive or create more mini people. Likewise they give us a negative feeling when we do the opposite. Of course there are plenty of examples where this can go horribly wrong – such as with some recreational drugs, which act very powerfully on these reward mechanisms and confuse the hell out of our bodies.

So emotion isn’t just there because it’s nice to feel happy. It has a more adaptive purpose. With that in mind, why does the sun lift our mood? Or rather, why does our reward mechanism in the brain tell us that being in the sun is AWESOME? When I connect up the dots I’m left with the conclusion that sunlight obviously has an impact on our bodies that is important for us physiologically – important for our survival and health.

The best answer I can come up with is Vitamin D. Sunlight is well known to increase Vitamin D in our bodies, a vitamin that is quite tricky to get from any other source in the same quantity as from the sun. It’s good for our teeth, bones AND does truly marvellous things for our immune system. Well that’s pretty awesome. I guess with that in mind, it would make some sense that our brain is telling us to go and soak up more of it.

The bizarre lead on then from this then, is that those of us living in countries without much sunlight and feeling miserable (typically associated with higher levels of mental illness, especially seasonal affective disorder and even higher suicide rates) are actually receiving feedback from our brains telling us to LEAVE. It’s basically saying to you, “Look, you can stay in this country with its rubbish weather where I’m not going to get any of that delicious Vitamin D I like, but I’m going to make you feel bloody miserable if you do.” If this was the most powerful driving force for humans, we would probably see a very different population density across the globe, with hoards of people moving to Latin America and the Caribbean, and no one left in Scandinavia or the UK. I don’t know what would happen to Eskimos.

So those are my two cents on the matter. Hopefully I’ll uncover more reasons why our brains have adapted to encourage us to get outside in the lovely sunshine.

And in the mean time go and listen to ‘Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone’ by Bill Withers. It’s been in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this blog…