To Solve Any Problem…Sit in a Blue Room: And Other Tricks to Unlock Your Brain Power

Think you’re not a creative thinker? Many people assume that some people are born with the ability to be creative while others simply are not. But recent psychological and neurological research has found that almost everyone has the capacity to be creative—and there are some surprisingly simple tricks that can help us significantly boost our creativity. Among them…

Think blue. Amazingly, the color that we’re surrounded with when we do our thinking has a dramatic effect on our creativity. A study published in Science found that test subjects doubled their creative output when placed in a room painted blue rather than one painted red. (Those in red rooms exhibited superior accuracy and attention to detail, however.) The researchers speculated that the human mind associates blue with relaxing images, such as clear skies and calm seas. A relaxed state of mind is crucial for creative thinking.

Restate problems using less specific verbs. Overly specific words can significantly restrict thinking. Researchers at Eastern Kentucky University discovered that simply restating problems using unspecific verbs allowed as many as 60% of test subjects to solve creativity problems that few or none could solve when specific verbs were used.

Example: If you wonder, Now how am I going to drive to work? when your car is in the shop, you might come up with solutions that only involve driving. Replace the word “drive” with the less specific “get,” and your mind is more likely to come up with a broader range of potential solutions. These solutions might include riding your bike to work, getting a ride from a colleague or investigating public transit options.

Set your alarm clock a few minutes earlier. Our minds tend to be drowsy and unfocused just after waking. Drowsy, unfocused minds are prone to wandering, and wandering minds are great at making creative connections between seemingly disparate concepts.
Trouble is, we tend to be in such a rush to get going in the morning that we don’t listen to the connections that our drowsy minds are making. Drexel University psychologist John Kounios, PhD, recommends setting our alarm clocks a few minutes earlier than necessary so that we can spend a few minutes lying calmly in bed—just thinking.

Alternative: Having a few alcoholic drinks is another way to encourage relaxed, creative, unfocused thinking. A study published in Consciousness and Cognition this year found that a blood alcohol level of 0.075%—slightly under the legal limit for intoxication—improved performance on a test of creativity by more than 30%. But cut yourself off at two drinks. The creativity advantage declines when drinkers become intoxicated.

Travel abroad. Spending time in foreign lands seems to significantly boost creativity—even after we come home. A 2009 study by the graduate business school Insead and Kellogg School of Management found a strong correlation between time previously spent abroad and success with a challenging creative problem. Spending time in different cultures increases our ability to see situations from varied perspectives, which aids creativity. Time spent abroad also teaches us to think like outsiders. Outsiders must practice creative thinking because they lack access to the information and resources available to insiders—if you don’t speak the language, you can’t ask locals for instructions and instead must use creative thinking to figure out how to get where you need to go or do what you need to do. Sometimes outsiders see things in creative ways simply because they don’t understand the intended meaning.

Example: It wasn’t until Ruth Handler was on vacation in Switzerland that she spotted the doll that would inspire Mattel to create Barbie in 1959. In the early 1950s, Handler noticed that her young daughter often gave paper dolls an adult role, such as waitress or mother. When Handler suggested to her husband, an executive at Mattel, that the company create a doll that looked like an adult rather than an infant, he ridiculed the idea. But on the trip to Switzerland, where she was an outsider unfamiliar with local culture, Handler saw an attractive blond doll with an ample bosom in a cigarette shop window and used that to convince Mattel. If Handler had known that the Swiss doll, called Bild Lilli, was actually a popular sex symbol sold to middle-aged men, she would have rejected it as tasteless and Barbie might never have been born.

Spend time in big cities. Cities are factories of creative ideas. The more time we spend in cities—and the larger those cities are—the more likely we are to interact with a broad range of people who have divergent backgrounds.

According to researchers at the Santa Fe Institute, moving from a city of 500,000 people to a city of one million increases the number of patents and/or trademarks that an entrepreneur produces by 15%, on average. Moving from a city of 50,000 to a city of six million triples the output. If you can’t live in a big city, visit one frequently. If you can’t do that, expand your social network to include a broad range of individuals with different areas of expertise and divergent opinions.

Replace brainstorming sessions with debate. There’s just one drawback to brainstorming—it doesn’t work very well. Summarizing decades of research, Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, PhD, said that “brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” A cardinal rule of brainstorming sessions is that criticism is not allowed—but it turns out that we don’t fully engage with ideas when we’re not allowed to criticize them. A study by a psychologist at UC-Berkeley found that when traditional brainstorming is replaced by idea-generation sessions that allow criticism and debate, the number of ideas produced by the group surges by about 25%.

Helpful: The famously creative and successful movie studio Pixar allows criticism during its idea sessions. It overcomes the potential for hurt feelings through a concept it calls “plussing.” When group members criticize an idea, they also try to include a “plus”—a new and useful idea that builds on the original flawed one. This refocuses away from the negative and onto the positive.

Think back to when you were seven. What would you do if you had an entire day to yourself with no responsibilities? A study published in 2010 by psychologists at North Dakota State University asked participants to spend 10 minutes writing their answers to this question. Half of the participants also were instructed to imagine that they had this free day because they were seven years old and school had been canceled. Participants then were given tests of creativity. Those who had spent the previous 10 minutes imagining their seven-year-old selves produced more original responses. It’s no secret that young children are great creative thinkers.
What is surprising is that it seems adults can recapture some of that creativity of youth simply by imagining their youthful selves.

Source: Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired magazine. He writes the “Head Case” column for The Wall Street Journal and is author of Imagine: How Creativity Works and How We Decide (both Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). www.JonahLehrer.com

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One thought on “To Solve Any Problem…Sit in a Blue Room: And Other Tricks to Unlock Your Brain Power

  1. Pingback: Red and Blue: What behavior do they entail? « Some Interesting Facts to Know

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