Ever felt stuck on a project or problem? Perhaps your normal efforts at finding a solution are getting you nowhere, and you start to feel a sense of hopelessness and panic as the deadline looms. We’ve all been there—that feeling when your memory fails you, your phone-a-friend is used up, and the ask-the-audience hasn’t worked out the way you hoped.
Creativity can bring instant energy to a dry topic or new insights to solving a tricky puzzle. Fresh takes on complex issues help us find answers. However, creative problem-solving is elusive. Sometimes by trying harder to be original, we can squelch the creative juices already at play.
How can we be more creative in our work?
To answer this question, let’s take a brief look at several scientific explanations of creativity and their implications for how to harness your brain’s creative power better.
The brain on fire
Psychologists have long been asking where creativity originates in the brain. Why are some people able to compose sonatas or design gravity-defying buildings? Why is it easier for some of us to envision unique solutions versus just attempting harder to push through problems?
A landmark study by Beaty et al[i] was able to identify the neural regions of the brain used in creative problem-solving. And no, it is not just left versus right brain. They found that creative individuals could move quickly between their default network (the brain region that generates ideas) and executive network (the brain region that evaluates ideas) using their salience network.
The salience network refers to neural regions that help seemingly opposing brain regions work together. Creative thinkers’ salience networks nimbly moved ideas dreamt up by their default network to their executive network, which decided which ideas merited further contemplation. Creative output was a product of greater brain functionality.i
In other words, the more creative thinkers in the study were not the ones with the biggest idea-generating regions but with greater overall connectivity. Their brain regions harmonized to create original ideas.
Chemicals and creativity
Unfortunately, Beaty did not provide tips for strengthening your salience network among his results. Science is a long way from developing a “creativity pill.”[ii] But there are other scientific explanations for creativity found in neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) and hormones (chemical messengers in the body), which have more immediate practical implications.
Researchers have noted links between creativity and serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and cortisol levels. Serotonin triggers positive moods, which generate more creative and original ideas. Similarly, dopamine and oxytocin can enable flexible thinking and idea exploration. Cortisol, the stress hormone, causes feelings of self-doubt that inhibit creativity. Increasing serotonin, dopamine, or oxytocin and decreasing cortisol can enable more creative problem-solving.[iii]
Correlation vs. causation
As with the majority of things brain-related, these links between chemicals and creativity have not yet been fully explored, and researchers haven’t firmly established cause and effect.
For example, a study by Zabelina, Colzato, Beeman, and Hommel on dopamine and creativity found a difference in types of creativity (divergent thinking vs. real-world creative output) based on differences in dopamine pathways between brain regions. They didn’t confirm that X people were creative because of X amounts of dopamine. Instead, they found that the way dopamine moved through a person’s brain impacted their ability to produce creative works or find innovative solutions (not both).[iv]
Chemicals and creativity are complicated. However, their linkage gives us hope to introduce more creativity in our daily lives. Because we are all wired differently, tips and tricks that work for some may not work for you or work in the same way for you. With that disclaimer in mind, here are three science-backed tricks to try to increase your creative problem-solving:
Tip #1: Reduce stress
The negative impact of stress on creativity explains why it can be hard to think out of the box when you are under pressure. Removing sources of stress is the best way to reduce stress. We all know stressful circumstances are not always under our control, so employing techniques like brainstorming, where you come up with ideas without the pressure of finding the right idea, can help reduce stress.iii
Tip #2: Improve your mood
Taking a break from your work to do a natural mood-boosting activity, such as attempting a new HIIT workout or playing outside with your dog, can get the chemicals (like dopamine) linked to creativity flowing again.
Tip #3: Work together
Collaborating with colleagues can raise levels of chemicals like oxytocin, boosting creative juices. If you are feeling stuck, reaching out to a colleague to run your ideas past them and get their input can give you the boost you need to develop a creative solution.
Ask any creative individual how they get “in the flow,” and they will probably have dozens more ideas for you. Likely their suggestions will revolve around the common theme of balancing your brain and body chemistry for flexible, open-minded thinking.
Creativity is essential to survive and thrive in our complicated, nuanced world. We need clever solutions and original content. However, reliably coming up with creative ideas can be tricky. Until scientists develop a way to directly improve the brain’s neural networks that facilitate creative thought, we can employ simple, natural tips for more flexible thinking throughout the day.
[i]Beaty R, Kenett Y, Christensen A, et al. Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018;115(5):1087-1092.
[ii]Brenner G. Your brain on creativity. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/experimentations/201802/your-brain-creativity, Published February 22, 2018. Accessed June 21, 20222.
[iii]Dow G and Kozlowski K. The creative brain. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/the-creative-brain. Published May 1, 2020. Accessed June 10, 2022.
[iv]Zabelina D, Colzato L, Beeman M, and Hommel B. Dopamine and the creative mind: Individual differences in creativity are predicted by interactions between dopamine genes DAT and COMT. PLoS One. 2016;11(1):e0146768.