There might not be a worse feeling than when you have some kind of huge project due and the creative part of your brain just slowly comes to a grinding halt. Some people have daily rituals they go through to try to jump-start their muse, from “take a relaxing walk” to “stealing someone else’s idea and then secretly murder them” (But let’s not do that).
Why not look to science to figure out what actually works?
Well, we don’t guarantee that any of the below will work for you — all we can say is that smarter people than us have gotten them to work under scientifically controlled conditions. They also happen to cost absolutely nothing, so if you need to force you brain to start thinking outside the box, try to …
#5. Work at the Worst Time of the Day, With the Worst People.
When it comes to solving problems, we like to think we know how to get the best results out of ourselves. We know if we’re morning people or not, and the types of people we work well with. When we’re in college, we choose our class schedules around the time of day our brains work best, and pick out our own study groups based on the unique blend of introverts, extroverts, and Asians that we know will complement us best. In the professional world, the more success you achieve, the more freedom you get to choose who you work with and when.
Well, science is here to do what science does best and tell us that we’re doing it all wrong. You are actually way better at solving problems that require creativity and insight if you work on them during the time of day when you think you’re at your worst. When you’re telling everyone not to bother talking to you until you’ve had another cup of coffee, it turns out your mind is at its most brilliant.
In one study, morning people actually performed better at problem-solving when they were brought into the lab at night, whereas night people scored better during the morning sessions.
We’re also pretty bad at judging how well we’re working within a group — studies found that people were worse at solving problems in groups with those that they felt most comfortable. Even weirder, the groups that had a merry old time fucking up the problem they were supposed to be solving had no idea.
According to the study, “The teams that felt they worked least effectively together were ironically the top performers.”
This flies in the face of everything we believe about how things get accomplished. We think that great teams work extraordinarily well together and experience success, and the good times keep on rolling. Whenever a great band, team, or company looks back on the time they were kicking the world’s ass, they usually describe it as magic. It turns out there’s a reason they don’t describe it as fun.
Think about the Beatles. They were the most famous rock band of all time, they had an almost supernatural ability to write music that would make them more famous, and they couldn’t last a decade. With hundreds of millions of dollars and unprecedented fame hanging in the balance, they called it quits faster than most failed marriages. If you prefer less artsy examples, keep in mind that Michael Jordan punched Steve Kerr in the face in practice the year they set a record for wins in a single season.
Being with your friends in a comfortable social setting is a great way to make yourself terrible at solving problems. It’s the same as the morning people doing their best work at night. Your well-rested, socially comfortable brain is pretty good at thinking inside the box — accessing that sensible place that appreciates old jokes and rejects ideas that seem too “weird.” But if you have to solve a truly difficult problem, you’re better off at 4 a.m. on your third slice of cold pizza with a room full of people wondering what it will take to get John Lennon to stop being such a d*ck.
#4. Try Doodling — But Only Make Smooth, Looping Lines.
You’ve probably seen people who, when hunched over a notepad and trying to force an idea, will start lazily doodling smiley faces or spirals in the margins. It probably just looks like a sad physical manifestation of their boredom and/or lack of any useful ideas, but they may be jump-starting their brain. It’s not just aimless doodling that does it — the success depends on what they draw, according to researchers at Tufts and Stanford universities, who found that drawing “fluid” designs can help abstract thinking.
They gathered together 30 subjects and divided them into two groups — one group was made to trace a bunch of jagged lines, while the other group drew a single elegant, looping strand.
Following the tracing session (but presumably before snacks and nap time), each group was given a creative-thinking task. For instance, they were given a set of “exemplars,” which are words that exemplify certain categories — “triceratops” would be a strong exemplar of the category “dinosaurs,” but not so much of the category “college football coaches.” The researchers then asked the groups to assign each exemplar to a category, and found that the group that had engaged in fluid movement prior to the task (drawing the looping line) was linking weak exemplars to completely unrelated categories, such as insisting that “camels” are an acceptable example of “vehicles.”
The point is, the group that was coming up with the most abstract and inventive answers was the one that had done the drawing with the most fluid, uninterrupted movements. The other group did the bare minimum, providing only boring and obvious answers until they were presumably asked to leave before further sabotaging everyone else’s creativity.
The theory is that it’s more about the hand motion than the drawings — the brain likes fluid, continuous movements rather than abrupt, rapidly shifting ones full of right angles and sharp corners. Whether it’s just more relaxing, or it somehow makes the brain more “fluid” in its thinking, it just seems to open up your creativity.
#3. Raise Your Eyebrows.
Despite what you may think, raising your eyebrows isn’t just the universal signal for “I didn’t know Ted Danson was in this movie” and/or bracing for an impending face punch. According to a study published in the Creativity Research Journal, the simple act of widening your eyeholes can actually serve as an adrenaline boost for your creative thinking and make you smarter.
You see, there are two different types of attention — perceptual attention, which is given to your physical experiences, and conceptual attention, which is allotted to your mental processes. The two are inextricably linked, like conjoined twins jumping rope with their umbilical cord. If one speeds up or slows down, so does the other. Likewise, if you increase your spectrum of perceptual attention (by opening your eyes really wide, for example, or going to see one of those panoramic documentaries at Epcot Center), it should kick-start your brain into broadening its scope as well, allowing you to make all kinds of creative connections that you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
The study tested this theory using two groups, one of which was asked to raise their eyebrows, while the other was told to keep their brows furrowed like a bunch of bitter old railroad tycoons in perpetual disapproval of their daughters’ common-folk husbands. The groups were then asked to come up with a caption for an image of a dog lying on a bed with a bagel in its mouth, because the really good science is only made by crazy people.
Anyway, the group with the raised eyebrows suggested things like “Betty the Beagle Beds a Bagel,” which, as you may have noticed, is a amazingly hilarious piece of sexual innuendo. The narrowed-eyed group, however, offered baffling captions, such as “Dog Who Breaks Rules,” which isn’t even a complete sentence. It also mysteriously refers to some prohibitive legislation governing dogs and the eating of breakfast food that, to our knowledge, has never existed at any point in the history of civilization. The point is, the first answer is clever and unobvious, while the second is lazy to the point of being meaningless.
#2. Try Looking at an Apple Logo.
There’s nothing magical about the logo itself, and even Apple fans wouldn’t claim that their devices have mystical brain-boosting powers. But, for about 30 straight years, Apple has been marketing their products as the tools of eccentric, outside-the-box thinkers (people who “think different,” in fact). And advertising works. So today, if you mentally picture a bunch of artsy eccentric types working in a room, you’re not picturing them with a bunch of Dells. You’re picturing a room full of glowing white Apple silhouettes. You just can’t help but make that association.
So, according to a paper from the Journal of Consumer Research, one way to keep your nonlinear-thinking muscles well-oiled and flexing like the cast of Predator might be to simply look at the Apple logo. Fortunately, odds are there’s one within your field of vision this very moment. Otherwise you may need to head to a coffee shop to get this one to work.
The study itself was originally based on the idea that people assign specific human traits to various corporate logos — the McDonald’s “M” seems warm and friendly, the Walmart brand is cold and impassive. All of this is based on how we view these companies in the culture, due to their relentless ad campaigns, or whatever other reason. So the researchers found that when people are “primed” with certain logos, it puts them in a certain frame of mind. And in the case of Apple, test subjects experienced an increase in both creativity and ingenuity just from being exposed to the company’s half-eaten-fruit bannerman.
The research was conducted with 341 university students split into two groups, with one group being shown a series of subliminal Apple logos and the other being shown the logo for IBM. Each group was then tasked with listing as many unusual uses for a brick as they could think of, because if you’re going to test a person’s ingenuity, you might as well give them an object with precisely one non-bludgeoning function.
Sure enough, the study found that the Apple group was able to come up with more uses for the brick than the IBM group, all because of the feelings of technomancing discovery the Apple logo had instilled within them. So if your boss happens to walk by your desk and see you staring intently at your iPhone, you can tell him or her that you are busy stoking the roaring fires of innovation without a shred of irony.
#1. Make Hand Gestures (With Both Hands).
The connection between abstract thinking and hand motions is both weird and pervasive. And sure enough, according to a study published in Psychological Science, making small physical gestures with both of your hands can help increase your creative thinking.
Not suggesting that you start juggling bean bags or doing card tricks at your desk (although that would make you irresistible to your co-workers), but the mere act of using your hands to represent different aspects of a problem can help your mind separate and organize ideas. It’s the difference between merely describing how you’d, say, perform a chokehold on a victim, versus actually getting up and demonstrating it. It just helps you visualize the idea — and the more complex the idea, the more help you need visualizing it.
And it helps to use both hands. A study examined a group of people who were presented with a series of common objects and asked to come up with unusual new ways the objects could be put to use, such as using a coin as a makeshift flat head screwdriver or, say, turning a bra into a slingshot. Some people were instructed to make gestures with both hands while they came up with their answers, whereas the others were told to use only one.
The group that made dual-handed gestures provided the most inventive responses, which makes sense when you consider that there are only so many gestures you can make with a single hand. But it’s surprising that limiting the ability to gesture actually prevented the rest from coming up with ideas … and that you might be stifling your brain by sitting there with your left hand on your chin and your right on the mouse.
5 Things You Can Do Right Now To Become Instantaneously Smarter.