Creative pursuits have a surprising purpose, beyond the satisfaction of making ‘stuff ’. A study published in the journal Art Therapy found that just 45 minutes of craft work can reduce levels of the serotonin-crushing stress hormone cortisol, while knitting has been shown to lower the heart rate by 11 beats per minute. But here’s the thing: in daily life, creativity is less about what you make and more about how you think.
HOW IT WORKS
Some bodily functions, such as 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.
Your brain can help you generate a creative idea in two ways: through the famous ‘aha!’ moment of insight and via more analytical thinking. In fact, your brain solves thorny problems even as you sleep, daydream or relax, and those sudden moments of realisation 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 am, explains neuroscientist Dr John Kounios.
Creativity can spring from deliberate stepby- 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 fi nding solutions to things, the more eff ectively you’ll be able to navigate the world and the healthier you’ll be, says cognitive neuroscientist Dr Julie Fratantoni.
A WIN FOR YOUR WELLBEING
A growing number of studies over the past 15 years has found that participating in creative efforts can help stave off loneliness, mitigate dementia and enhance engagement. And when we’re not exposed to anything new, cognitive decline may accelerate. Any activity that keeps the brain active helps with ageing, explains Dr Kounios. When you learn new skills, take up new hobbies or encounter new situations, you grow new brain cells and form fresh connections between existing ones.
Working on puzzles, reading murder mysteries or researching subjects all count. When you solve a whodunnit or discover something new, your brain’s neural reward processing signal is activated, and that helps boost your power of insight.
The brain’s default mode network involves imagination, daydreaming and spontaneous thoughts. People spend about 30 per cent of their day there, says Dr Fratantoni. Turn off social media and other inputs, such as TVs and computers, and give your mind time to wander and dream during the day.
CHANGE YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Being outside or in a room with high ceilings can help expand your attention, enhancing creative thinking, Dr Kounios says. Sharp edges, loud colours and striking music can instill a hint of anxiety and distract the mind from letting itself wander. “The ideal situation is a spacious, warm, fuzzy environment with rounded, soft edges and muted colours,” he says.