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How to have good ideas, according to science


"The chief enemy of creativity is good sense," Pablo Picasso once stated.

Good sense – aka that fear of non-conformity or failure which stops us from sharing our ideas with others – and getting older, are both the enemies of creativity.

Just look at the results of George Land's Creativity Test from the 1960s, originally designed to select the most innovative engineers and scientists for NASA. It was applied to children at various points in their childhood: they scored 98% at the age of five, by 15 they were down to 12% and by adulthood, participants scored a measly 2% (you can watch him discuss his research at his TED talk here). So we know that creativity is there initially; now we just need to discover how to regain it.

No matter what industry you're in, creative skills are essential to producing moving, trailblazing work. Let's find out what science has to say about it all...


1. Work somewhere noisy

From our schooldays, we're told to go sit somewhere quiet whenever we need to work, and as we progress through education and our careers, we almost expect our best work – idea generation, writing, going over notes before a presentation – to require an atmosphere of total silence.

However it turns out that nose – in moderation – can boost creativity: A 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research examined how ambient noise impacts creativity, and found that while high levels of noise can hurt creativity, "moderate distraction, which induces processing difficulty, enhances creativity by prompting abstract thinking".

So the next time you work remotely, go to a buzzing coffee shop or juice bar. As long as you have all the software you need across photography, video, design and social, you can work anywhere. Programmes like Adobe Creative Cloud for Teams allow you to work independently or collaboratively with your team members. Even better? If you're feeling inspired in the moment, when out and about, you can capture what you need to on your mobile before refining on your computer and turning it into a presentation to share with colleagues and clients.



2. Skip the coffee… creativity happens when we're feeling out of it!

While we instinctively tend to think that our most productive work moments come after a night of restful sleep if we're morning people, or late into the night if we're not, Mareike B. Wieth, a psychology professor at Albion College studied the effect of time of day on problem-solving.

While the actual time of day didn't impact the results, participants were more creative and produced their best work at a "non-optimal" time of day for them (e.g. if they were night owls they did better work in the mornings, when their brains were still not firing at 100%).

"During your optimal time of day, your cognitive processes, especially a process called inhibition, is working very well. So inhibition basically keeps your brain free of clutter. It's really good at screening out irrelevant things. During your non-optimal time of day, your cognitive processes aren't as good at screening out things," Wieth told Fast Company.

It's those moments when we're not feeling as inhibited that some of the Big Ideas can come. So maybe skip the coffee next time you need to brainstorm; grogginess can be good!

3. Try free association and get those creative juices flowing

French Surrealist writers like André Breton – who desperately sought to create work that had never been seen before – embraced automatism, an automatic writing technique where the artist writes down flow-of-consciousness words without editing them.

They were onto something: One study of 138 undergraduates used path analysis to study the relationship between thought patterns and creativity, like how self-reflection, suppressed thoughts, associative thinking and a wandering mind can impact on your creative capabilities.

The results? Instead of blocking out those distracting thoughts that interrupt our ordinary stream of consciousness and look on them as interfering, we need to embrace the feeling of "being found by thought." They also found that creative ability was fuelled by associative ability – that same free association the Surrealists were desperate to translate into the written word.


4. Collaborate with your colleagues

We always hear about how important collaboration can be when producing creative works – and sharing them. Psychologist Paul Paulus, PhD, of the University of Texas at Arlington, used a process called "brainwriting" in a study on idea generation and found that the "idea exchange process in groups may be an important means for enhancing creativity and innovation in organisations".

You see, Paulus' group of collaborative brainwriters produced 28% more possible uses for a paperclip than those brainwriting alone, likely because the collaborators bounced ideas off one another, inspiring them to come up with new ones.

Now, how many uses for a paperclip can you think up?

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READ MORE: Creativity in business? It all comes down to your team