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Let It Flow: How Psychology is Unlocking Creativity



Laura’s Word 6 March 2014

Let It Flow: How Psychology is Unlocking Creativity

Creativity. It’s the cornerstone of the industry; we devote awards to it, treasure it, sell it and bang on about it endlessly. But very rarely do we talk about what creativity actually is and where it comes from. While the advertising industry has fallen in love with all things psychological, from behavioural economics to brand personality, the one area that has been left curiously untouched is the vast body of research devoted to the science of creativity. It’s a mystical force, an innate personal quality, not a frog to be dissected in biology class, after all. When Dorothy pulled back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, all she found was a wizened old man fiddling with levers – but the creative process is in no danger of losing its magic if we decide to look a little closer at how it works. In fact a bit of swotting up could help us make the magic even more magical.

The psychology and science of creativity is an area I’ve been borderline obsessed with for quite a few years. I’m convinced that there is a lot that science can offer to help everyone in all corners of adland to think more imaginatively and ingeniously. What’s more, while these findings can certainly be applied at a personal level, I reckon there’s a lot of interesting bits of information that whole agencies could apply at an organisational level to nurture creativity. In the interests of time and my own sanity, I’m going to focus on one area: the concept of flow. 

Go with the Flow

Ideas are tumbling out of your brain, words spilling from finger to keyboard, beautiful images pour effortlessly from pen to paper. You have no idea what time it is, you don’t even care, all that matters is what you’re doing right now and you feel 100 per cent in the zone. You, my friend, are experiencing ‘flow’. It’s a mental state that was identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is highly associated with creativity. According to Csikszentmihalyi, being ‘in flow’ results in some pretty unusual brain patterns. The pre-frontal cortex – the area associated with our conscious decision-making – shows decreased activity. Because there is so much happening elsewhere in the brain and you’re devoting so much attention to the task in hand, you become less consciously aware of what you’re doing. You can, of course, be creative when not experiencing flow – but getting in the right headspace means that you can be more enjoyably and effectively so.  

Siesta fiesta

Now for the good news. Naps! Flow states are associated with the same brainwaves that characterise day dreaming and the early stages of sleep – which means that carving out time for a little siesta might not be a terrible idea if you’re experiencing a bit of a block. It also means that giving people time, space and permission to let their minds wander might not be such a bad idea either.

Death to Open Plan Offices

Remember the old days, when offices came with walls and doors? Open plan offices are the norm these days, rendered fashionable by the notion that they somehow facilitate creativity (although the fact that they are cheaper must also have played a part in their popularity). But the constant distractions and interruptions mean that they’re terrible for anyone hoping to achieve ‘flow’.  They might look cooler, but any agency that wants to prove its creative credentials might have to think about reviving the old fashioned cubicle.

Risky Business

In his book ‘The Rise of Superman’, author Steven Kotler examines flow in the context of dangerous action sports. He details ‘hacks’ to help get in the zone more easily – and one surprising finding is that risk is an invaluable ally. A high danger of failure, it turns out, focuses the mind splendidly. Just think about a jazz improviser freestyling flawlessly on stage who may at any moment hit a bum note, or the free climber who might tumble to death with one misjudged step. In the advertising industry, that translates to creative risks – and taking these risks instead of just talking about them. 

Messy desks

Kotler also advocates a ‘rich environment’ and ‘deep embodiment’ (bombarding the brain by paying attention to all sensory inputs at once) as shortcuts to flow. Complexity, novelty and unpredictability overwhelm the brain, demanding focus and pattern recognition. Faced with the torrent of information, the brain just can’t process it all consciously and the pre-frontal area dampens down to divert energy elsewhere. Being in nature is a great example – it’s a constantly changing backdrop of sounds, sights and smells. Changing up daily routines can help too. It also means that, with apologies to anyone who has the misfortune of working next to me, I can defend one of my worst habits – it turns out that messy, disordered desks foster greater creativity than tidy ones.

Orinocco Flow

Flow has been having a bit of a moment in the world of psychological research and there are definitely far more interesting tit bits out there that would be applicable to the advertising industry and creativity. What’s fascinating is that, although much of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s original research was focused on artists, these days researchers study everyone from elite athletes to gamers (true fact: my old university psychology department bought a massage chair and an Xbox for a study about flow). If you’re interested, there is lots of information out on the web and Csikszentmihalyi’s book ‘Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention’ is a good place to start if you want to go deeper. In the meantime, here’s some Enya.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 05 Mar 2014 16:24:42 GMT