Overworking Your Brain Can Spark Ideas

09 Jun

Mental exhaustion can unleash creativity, research shows

college student studying
As we go through our day, juggling multiple tasks and deadlines, our mind works hard to stay focused on a single task. There is the added pressure to keep distractions at bay – meetings, e-mails, news updates, and so on. At the end of it all, we are left feeling exhausted. At such times, instead of shutting down and relaxing, we should perhaps learn to capitalize on the mental fatigue and try to kindle our creative genius.

credit: CollegeDegrees360 via flickr

If you walk down to the office gallery at Pearlfisher Inc., a design agency based in London, you are bound to hear the unmistakable cluck of plastic balls colliding. At first, you might dismiss it as the sound of employees chilling out on a ping pong game. But if you walk further, following signs for “Jump In!,” the sound will turn into a rattle like that of maracas. What you see next might take your breath away – a huge ball pit filled with 81,000 white plastic balls. But frolicking in the pit are not preschoolers or kindergartners. They are in fact corporate managers and associates, dressed in business suits, in an afternoon brainstorming session.

Companies relying on innovation go to astonishing lengths to imbue creativity in their staff. Jump In!, the wacky brainchild of Pearlfisher’s creative strategist, is for instance, built on the premise that interleaving work and play can spark creativity in grown-ups, just like it did back in school days. Many companies including Google, Skype and Facebook similarly emphasize the power of play, while others, such as the news website The Huffington Post, insist on peace and quiet during the break hours. Their offices instead sport nap nooks, where employees can grab some z’s and feel refreshed before returning to write. In theory, both strategies can inspire creativity – one perhaps better than the other depending on whether, for instance, you design products or pen stories for a living. They essentially have the same effect on us: they help us relax and unwind, restoring some of our dulled senses.

But it turns out that mental exhaustion from overwork can itself unleash creativity. When we are tired, our mind can be too weary to control our thoughts, and eccentric ideas that might normally be filtered out as non-relevant can bubble up, suggests a recent study by Rémi Radel at the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis, France. This means that perhaps creative ideas can be hatched at the workplace, right when we feel drained from a mental overload.

In their study, Radel and colleagues overtaxed the minds of a group of undergrads by having them perform a computerized task that demanded attention: finding the direction of a center arrow by ignoring the directions of surrounding arrows. The task was iterated across 2000 trials. In conflict trials, the center and surrounding arrows pointed in opposite directions whereas in non-conflict trials, all arrows pointed in the same direction. The controls and test subjects faced conflict in 10% and 50% of the trials, respectively. After the students finished the attention task, the scientists measured their creativity in verbal tests. First, they asked the students to enlist multiple, innovative uses for common objects, such as paperclip, newspaper, shoe. Next, they tested the students’ ability to connect unrelated words. They presented the students with a “priming word” followed by “target word” – for example, they flashed the word tiger followed by the word loni, jumbled from lion – and asked the students to vote whether the target word was a real or a non-existent word.

Radel found that students who took the rigorous attention task turned out to be more creative than others who had taken milder versions of the task. They came up with more numerous and quirkier ideas than the latter – one student, for instance, proposed to use a paperclip as a plectrum for guitar, and another saw its use as a compass when inserted into a piece of cork. These students were also more likely to connect unrelated words in the word association test. They identified more non-existent words as real words especially when the prime-target pairs were seemingly related, such as tiger and loni. They perceived loni as lion when it appeared after tigerand hence, called it a real word. Their ability to associate unrelated words, Radel suggests, came from a reduced filtering of irrelevant information – here, for instance, the priming word tiger – from the mind.

Radel’s attention task induced creativity in the students by exhausting their inhibition, which is the brain’s ability to sift out unwanted information from the conscious mind. Although inhibition is essential for day-to-day activities such as problem-solving and focusing on tasks, it stifles creative thinking by gating out eccentric thoughts and ideas. Uninhibited minds, on the other hand, can unleash our creative genius.

Low inhibition is in fact the basis of the paradoxical creativity seen in psychosis and the reason behind enviable accounts of sudden artistic output. For example, in a certain type of psychiatric disorder called fronto-temporal dementia, patients acquire artistic skills anew as their disease progresses. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, is an expert in the field. He proposes that in these patients, the damage to parts of the prefrontal cortex – the brain’s seat of execution, in the area of the forehead – particularly in the analytical left hemisphere, releases the inhibition on the right side. As a result, their right prefrontal cortex – the region that fosters visual expression and metaphorical thinking – is liberated from control, and allows a flowering of creativity. The patients develop a sudden compulsive interest in painting. Of course, the sustained loss of inhibition has devastating problems on behavior including changes in social conduct and poor impulse control.

Creative, healthy minds on the other hand can control their inhibition more effectively. In an elegant experiment, back in 2008, neuroscientist Charles Limb at Johns Hopkins University captured brain activity in jazz pianists as they played a specially designed keyboard inside a functional MRI scanner. He saw that the pianists switched to an uninhibited state when they spontaneously improvised a musical piece but not when they played the C-major scale from memory. In the former case, which requires more creativity, Limb could observe a waning of activity in regions of the prefrontal cortex associated with planning, execution and self-assessment, unveiling newer activity in areas for self-expression and individuality. Of course, the inhibition was intact when the pianists played a learned order of notes from memory, a task requiring greater attention.

Being creative is not just about achieving a state of low inhibition, which is probably what we get from alcohol or drugs, but about tweaking inhibition for brief stints without losing control. Harvard psychologist Shelly Carson, author of Your Creative Brain, calls this process “flexing the brain.” She says that creative people can turn down the volume of inhibition to let novel ideas inspire them, and then, turn the volume back up to put their ideas to meaningful use.

Any strategy aimed at upping our creativity should do exactly this – help “manipulate” our inhibition. For beginners, Radel’s technique of overtaxing the brain, to find a sweet window for a creative spell, may be a good place to start. As we go through our day, juggling multiple tasks and deadlines, our mind works hard to stay focused on a single task. There is the added pressure to keep distractions at bay – meetings, e-mails, news updates, and so on. At the end of it all, we are left feeling exhausted. At such times, instead of shutting down and relaxing, we should perhaps learn to capitalize on the mental fatigue and try to kindle our creative genius.


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