4 Ways Play Gets You Out of a Brain Rut, and Helps One Deal with a Crisis.
The human brain can get stuck in a rut thanks to neural pathways and a fondness for the familiar. So how can you free your brain and lead it on a path to innovation? Based on research and real-life examples from great minds, here are four ways Play can get you out of a brain rut:
1. Cross Train Your Brain
Each cross-training activity works a different, but complementary, part of the body that will help get you stronger in the overall event, task or project. In other words, if you’re a novelist, try your hand at poetry. If you’re a painter, dabble in sculpting. If you’re a computer scientist, play around with web design. For instance, how did playing violin help Einstein theorize about matter and energy?
A study from UC Irvine and the University of Wisconsin found that giving piano lessons to preschoolers significantly improved their spatial-temporal reasoning— a key skill needed for math and science—much more than giving computer lessons, singing lessons, or no lessons at all. So try a new activity within your field or related to it; you’ll expand your neural connections and strengthen your brain overall.
2. Take a Shower, Go for a Walk or Do Some Other Mundane Activity
First, creativity and relaxation could be linked. I’ve found that whenever I’m really tired, my creativity just hits a wall. Trying to go on is fruitless. Wrap it up and go to bed or walk away from whatever it is you’re working on and come back to it in several hours or the next day. Depending on when you’re doing this, try something boring, like showering or taking a walk (though some folks would argue that this exercise is not boring) or go for a swim. These tasks don’t require substantial cognitive effort, so our brains are free to wander. And contrary to popular belief, a brain “at rest” isn’t really resting at all.
Some researchers believe there is a positive correlation between our daydreaming state (occurring in a brain region that becomes more active at rest) and creativity. Mind-wandering may allow the conscious to give way to the subconscious, so the brain can connect disparate ideas.
Second, distractions may boost creativity. Research by Harvard professor Shelley Carson found that high creative achievement was associated with low latent inhibition, or the capacity to screen out irrelevant information, especially if the participants had a high IQ. For the creative mind, inspiration can be found everywhere. Sometimes, you just need to distract yourself long enough to notice it.
3. Sleep On It
Regarding the process of discovery, scientists have proposed that there is an incubation period during which “unconscious processes contribute to creative thinking.” In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway reveals how he safeguarded his creativity through such a process: “I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything…” And in a later chapter: “I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing; but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
In 2009, a study out of the University of California San Diego was published suggesting that sleep may assist combinatorial creativity. In particular, researchers found that study participants who were allowed to slip into Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM)—the stage during which we dream—showed an almost 40% improvement over their earlier creative problem-solving test performances, while those who had only non-REM sleep or quiet rest showed no improvement.
The authors of that study hypothesized that when we’re in REM, our brains are better able to integrate unassociated information, which is essential to creative thinking (it explains why dreams are so bizarre). As mentioned earlier, when you’re stuck on a problem or the creative juices stop flowing, try going to bed. You’ll have a refreshed and different perspective the next morning.
4. Feed Your (copy) Cat
Is anything truly original? Uh, doubtful. In fact, according to artist Austin Kleon, the answer is no. Kleon presented a TED Talk “Steal Like an Artist” and a book of the same name, in which he asserts that nothing is original and all artists build upon previous work. With this in mind, don’t plagiarize someone, but get inspired by and improve upon someone else’s creations.
In this Age of the Internet, one can’t help “borrow” from someone else’s idea. That’s in part why I’m both sharing this article from Amy Rigby and the Trello blog but also adding some of my own perspective. Suggestions:
- If you’re suffering from writer’s block, buy a pack of those word magnets and rearrange them until you come up with creative phrases on your fridge;
- As previously mentioned, break your concentration, especially when it’s hard for you to focus, and go for a walk or go to bed (depending on the time, of course);
- If you’re not sure how to move forward on a project, bounce ideas off of your teammates and see if you find any hidden gems in their suggestions;
Three more suggestions:
- If you’re building a product and stuck in the design phase, search for competitors who have made similar products, find where their customers are unhappy, and design something new that solves the problems your competitors failed to address;
- Step back from your computer or tablet or canvas or whatever tool you’re using and try and get a bigger or completely different picture of what you’re doing. Go wherever your mind wants to go. Although you may want to continue working on a particular piece of creative, your mind may not. Try doing what it wants. You’ll end up with a different perspective, and, maybe even a new project or topic.
- During crisis times, our emotions seem to be at their peak. Don’t let them get the best of you, but learn from them. You’re already jacked so let your new-found motivation help guide you to your (new) goals; what was important yesterday may not be as important today.
We all get stuck in a rut at times, even the greatest minds in history like Einstein did. If you need a new way of thinking, Play will give your brain a boost:
- Participate in creative cross-training to expand your brain’s neural connections;
- Let your mind wander by doing something mundane or even boring;
- Go to bed and let your subconscious mind connect the dots during REM sleep;
- Use another person’s work as a springboard for inspiration and improvement;
- Go where your mind wants to go and gain a different perspective.
- Emotions tend to peak during crisis times; learn from them.
So, go “play” when you get stuck.
Thanks to Amy Rigby
Hopefully making a ruckus, one blog post at a time!
Be sure to check out my other blog,Joe’s Journey, for personal insights on life and its detours.