Don’t Look Now, Our Creativity is Leaking

Portions of this post are based on excerpts from the book by Michael Easter, The Comfort Crisis. We spend an awful lot of time consuming digital media, lest we get easily bored. A recent study looked at what happens to a bored mind without easy access to media?

The Canadian neuroscientist James Danckert recruited some volunteers and put them into a neuroimaging scanner, and induced them into a mood of being bored They had them watch two guys hanging laundry for eight minutes. You could say they were bored out of their gords!

While bored, a part of their brains called the “default mode network” fired on. It’s a network of brain regions that activates when we’re unfocused, when our mind is off and wandering. Mind wandering is a rest state that restores and rebuilds the resources needed to work better and more efficiently when we’re focused on the outside world.

Mind wandering is also a key driver of creativity, which is why other studies have found that bored people score significantly higher on creativity tests. Research dating back to the 1950s may explain why we’re now facing a “creativity crisis.”

If I didn’t already know this was a 1950’s Classroom, I would have guessed it. Has that look and feel – BTW, where are the little girls?

Ellis Paul Torrance was an American psychologist. In the 1950s he noticed something off target about American classrooms. Teachers tended to prefer the subdued, book-smart kids. They didn’t much care for the kids who had tons of energy and big ideas. Kids who’d think up odd interpretations of readings, inventive excuses for why they didn’t do their homework, and morph into mad scientists every lab day.

The system deemed these kids “bad.” But Torrance felt they were misunderstood. Because if a problem comes up in the real world, all the book-smart kids look for an answer in … a book. But what if the answer isn’t in a book? Then a person needs to get creative.

He thus devoted his life to studying creativity and its uses for good. In 1958 he developed the “Torrance Test.” It’s since become the gold standard for gauging creativity. The TTCT (Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking) assess how creatively a child’s mind works and are often given to children to determine advanced placement or as part of an entrance examination. Instead of traditionally taught subjects such as reading or math, these tests assess creativity. Children are scored on a number of aspects, including:

  • Creative titles for pictures
  • Expressions
  • Imagery
  • and Humor

He had a large group of children in the Minnesota public school system take the exam. It includes exercises like showing a kid a toy and asking her, “how would you improve this toy to make it more fun?”

Torrance analyzed all the kids’ scores. He then tracked every accomplishment the kids earned across their lives, until he died in 2003, when his colleagues took on the job. If one of the kids wrote a book, he’d mark it; if a kid founded a business, he’d mark it; if a kid submitted a patent, he’d mark it. Every achievement was logged. What he found raises big questions about how we judge intelligence.

The kids who came up with more, better ideas in the initial tests were the ones who became the most accomplished adults. They were successful inventors and architects, CEOs and college presidents, authors and diplomats, etc.

Torrance testing, in fact, bests IQ testing so much so that a recent study of Torrance’s Kids found that creativity was a threefold better predictor of much of the students’ accomplishment compared to their IQ scores.

Now, according to Easter, we’ve killed off one of the main drivers of creativity: mind wandering. The result? A researcher at the University of William and Mary analyzed 300,000 Torrance Test scores since the 50s. She found that creativity scores began to nosedive in 1990.

She concluded that we’re now facing a “creativity crisis.” The scientist blames our hurried, over-scheduled lives and “ever increasing amounts of time interacting with electronic entertainment devices.”

And that’s bad news. Particularly when we consider that creativity is a critical skill in today’s economy, where most of us work with our brains rather than brawn.

Despite what productivity gurus will have us believe, the key to improving creativity might be to occasionally do nothing at all. Or, at least, not dive into a screen. We’ll think distinctly, in a way that delivers more original ideas.

Yet, ironically, society’s tech giants still deliver more advanced software to supposedly aid us in our creativity, while holding us increasingly captive. A proper balance has yet to be realized. And may not ever.

While it may sound silly, occasionally doing nothing works. At least for me, it does. Of course, my body may not be doing anything but my mind is usually traveling at warp speed. It’s usually during these times that I let my mental forces do what they’ll do. More times than not, they produce . . . an idea . . . several ideas . . . a partial script . . . something to which I can apply time-in-the-future to develop.

Boredom is just one evolutionary discomfort we’ve lost from our lives. Easter’s book, The Comfort Crisis, investigates nine others, covering what happens to our bodies, minds, and sense of self without them—and the benefits we can reap by reintroducing these evolutionary discomforts into our lives.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Look Now, Our Creativity is Leaking

  1. It certainly is, MJ! I’m not sure but I believe when you leave a reply here, it automatically captures your email and, thus, subscribes you — I think. FWIW, it’s not via Cynapsus.

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