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The epic formula for creativity

Dr Renata Schoeman. April 2018

· Life Skills,Mind

This blog was written by our colleague, dr Renata Schoeman and is used with her kind permission

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Dr Renata Schoeman (MBChB, MSocSc, MMed, FC Psych, PhD, MBA) has been in full-time private practice since 2008. She practises as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) and has special interests in cognition (i.e. disorders affecting attention, concentration, learning and memory – such as ADHD and dementia), eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and obesity), mood disorders and anxiety disorders.

Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (University of Stellenbosch Business School) and as a virtual faculty member of University of Stellenbosch Business School Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She is actively involved in student supervision, various research projects, training of general practitioners and peers, and community lectures. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD. Renata is a co-founder and director of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation (

Renata is frequently asked to provide second opinions and does extensive medico-legal work. She frequently attends, and contributes to, both national and international congresses and has published in various journals. During her post-graduate studies, she trained for a period at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. She served on the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of Stellenbosch.

She is registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as well as the General Medical Council (UK).

Often the seed of a blog is planted months earlier, and then has to mature until it is ready to sprout. But sometimes, we keep the soil very hard and dry, preventing the seed from pushing the fresh shoot above the soil – we are not granting the story permission to be told. The same goes for creativity…

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book “Big Magic: creative living beyond fear” defines creativity as “the relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration”. She discusses how we need to find the courage to allow ourselves to be creative, to permit inspiration to find us, and to persist and trust ourselves in our creative expression. “The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes”.

Looking back on 2017 – a jam packed, challenging, but good year – I was reflecting on what kept me energised. I am dedicated to healthy living (a healthy diet, limiting alcohol, exercising (almost) daily) and investing in family and friends. This kept me going. But what is the one additional ingredient which “spiced up” the year? Being creative – quilting, crocheting, gardening (despite the water restrictions – which is a challenge in itself), playing my piano or harp, or cooking up a storm in the kitchen. This required dedicated time. But it was worthwhile.

But what is creativity?

Creativity can be defined as

“productivity marked by originality”

“the purposeful generation and implementation of a novel idea”

“the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”

Ruth Noller, Professor Emeritus of Creative Studies at Buffalo State College, developed a symbolic equation for creativity, suggesting that creativity (C) is a function of knowledge (K) obtained through life experiences, imagination (I) to generate ideas or make connections, evaluation (E) of the advantages or disadvantages of a particular idea. There is one other critical element: a positive attitude (a) and the belief that you are creative, i.e.

C = fa(K,I,E)

“I am just not the creative type”

While we often think of creativity as an event or as a natural skill that some people have and some don’t, research suggests that both creativity and non-creativity are learned. Twin studies showed that roughly 20% of the variance in creativity is due to the influence of genes. Genetic variations may make some people’s brains more open to thoughts, sensations and behaviour that are expressed in creative behaviour, but research showed that practice, training and exposure to unfamiliar ideas and experiences are playing a bigger and essential role in shaping creativity. Certainly, some people are primed to be more creative than others. However, nearly every person is born with some level of creative skill and the majority of our creative thinking abilities can be developed.

Although we tend to think of creativity in terms of artwork and other creations, evolutionary, creativity was also expressed when early hominids started using tools for e.g. hunting, and building shelters. Symbolic expression through e.g. rock art only appeared later when the early humans’ prefrontal cortex (the “CEO” of the brain) – which is responsible for coordinating brain activities into goal-directed thoughts and behaviour – developed to have more complicated and better integrated connections with the rest of the brain.

Another crucial ingredient for creativity is social interaction and skills – exchanging ideas and learning from one another sparks creativity. According to Thomas “It is not how smart you are, but how well connected you are”.

Finally, being self-motivated and being interested in honing your skills (whether it is playing an instrument, crocheting a blanket, redecorating a room, or painting a work of art), are the determining factor in how you develop and express your creativity.

Our brains are “wired” to be creative

Heilman, Nadeau and Beversdorp, in a 2009 article, wrote that “creative innovation might require co-activation and communication between regions of the brain that ordinarily are not strongly connected.” Highly creative people who excel at creative innovation tend to differ from others in three ways:

  • they have a high level of specialized knowledge
  • they are capable of divergent thinking mediated by the frontal lobe
  • they are able to modulate neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline and dopamine in their frontal lobe.

Colin Martindale (University of Maine) found that highly creative people tend to produce more brain waves in the alpha region during creative tasks than less creative people, thereby allowing more information into their conscious awareness during creative tasks. In other words, focussing attention inward, away from the outside world, helps us to generate creative ideas. Other studies have also shown the frontal lobes to be hypoactive (underactive) during periods of idea-generation, thereby allowing less filtering of information. This enables us to daydream or mind-wander: allowing one memory or thought to spontaneously trigger another. While the frontal lobes can be seen as responsible for idea generation, the temporal lobes are crucial for idea editing and evaluation – enabling us to switch to analytical mode and focus on the most relevant properties of our generated ideas. This is then usually followed by the “Eureka!” moment – when the solution arrives into conscious awareness – characterised by a burst of gamma brainwave activity.

In 2003, Vandervert described how the cerebellum is responsible for “mental prototyping” and “rehearsal”. Essentially, when a person is confronted with a challenging new situation, visual-spatial and speech-related working memory (i.e. the information you are actively keeping in mind to use) are decomposed and recomposed by the cerebellum and then “blended” in the cerebral cortex in an attempt to deal with the new situation.

Not only is specific areas in the brain important for creativity – neurotransmitters also plays and important role. Dopamine levels in the limbic system (e.g. research conducted by Flaherty in 2005) are important for the drive to be creative through increasing general arousal and goal directed behaviours, and reducing latent inhibition. Reduced dopamine binding in the thalamus also increases creativity through decreased cognitive filtering and therefore allowing more information into conscious awareness. During the REM (rapid eye movement) period of sleep (i.e. dream-sleep), high levels of acetylcholine in the hippocampus suppress feedback from the hippocampus to the neocortex, and lower levels of acetylcholine and noradrenaline in the neocortex encourage the spread of associational activity within neocortical areas without control from the hippocampus. This helps the brain to form new associations in which information from the hippocampus is reinterpreted in relation to previous semantic representations or nodes.

Seven benefits of creativity

  • It relieves stress

Creative activities impact the body in a way similar to meditation. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly first described this phenomenon as flow: a few moments in time when you are so completely absorbed by an activity that nothing else seems to matter. During a 2004 TED talk, he said: “When we are involved in (creativity), we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” This, according to him, is the secret to happiness. Interestingly Stuckey and Nobel (2010) fond that you don’t even need to produce something yourself in order to de-stress. Observing creativity (e.g. attending a concert, visiting a museum, or reading a book) allows you to bask in the creativity of others – and still reap the meditative benefits.

  • It improves mood

Being creative improves our overall emotional health through improving psychological resilience – thereby increasing our control over emotional distress and pain, and depression. In a 2010 review of more than a 100 studies on the benefits of the arts (music, visual arts, dance and writing), Stuckey and Noble concluded that creative expression has a powerful impact on health and well-being on various patient populations. Most of these studies concur that participation and/or engagement in the arts decrease depressive symptoms, while increasing positive emotions. An interesting study by Riley and colleagues (published in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2013) evaluated the benefits of knitting on 3545 knitters’ personal and social well-being. Amongst the 3545 knitters who took part in the study. The results show a significant relationship between knitting frequency and feeling calm and happy. More frequent knitters also reported higher cognitive functioning. Knitting in a group impacted significantly on perceived happiness, improved social contact and communication with others.

  • It improves your social life

People bond through common experiences and interests. The study on knitters found that knitting in a group impacted significantly on perceived happiness, improved social contact, and communication with others. But socializing during creative acts also improves cognitive health! CNN reported in 2015 that elders who socialize are 55 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment. This reiterated findings from a 2008 study conducted at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health which found that socially active elders experience a slower rate of memory loss than those who aren’t: “In fact, memory decline among the most integrated was less than half the rate among the least integrated.”

  • It increases and rejuvenates brain function

Engaging in creative activities stimulates the production of new neurons, which are crucial for maintaining a healthy brain. In a Mayo Clinic study, Malchiodi (2015) reported that people who take on craft-based projects (such as painting, drawing and sculpting, woodwork, pottery, ceramics, quilting, quilling and sewing) in midlife and older have a 45 percent less chance of developing cognitive problems such as dementia. In a 2014 study, Bolwerk and colleagues reported that making art improves communication between different parts of the brain, which is vital to preventing cognitive deterioration. Being creative “exercise” our medial temporal lobes – directly benefiting our memory-making abilities. We also become better problem solvers: during creative engagements, we learn new and resourceful ways of solving problems in our “art” – which provides us with the experience and confidence to solve problems in life.

  • It enhances self-knowledge

Being creative is a journey inward – then outward. The more we create, the more we discover and understand our habits, impulses, and desires. When we dedicated time and energy to develop our own ideas, we respect our inner nature and innate creativity – and are better able to express ourselves to the world on a regular basis.

  • It builds confidence

When we create, we are given the opportunity to engage with the world without judging ourselves. We have permission to take risks, try new things, and strip away inhibitions in a healthy way. We do not have to be “good” or “smart” or “the expert”. When we create, we recognise that our work does matter even if it is not published, displayed or presented to the public. However, creativity does requires courage, dedication, commitment, and the willingness to fail and try again. We learn to trust our instincts and gain confidence from expressing them, eliciting feelings of accomplishment, but also humbleness and gratefulness. This confidence carries over into decisions we make in other areas of life. According to Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, those who credit innate talents, rather than hard work give up more easily when facing a novel challenge because they assume it exceeds their ability.

  • It saves money

It is true that some hobbies are more expensive than others and might require certain equipment and materials. However, creative expression, and planning for the process, can also help us to control the urge to buy impulsively. We can also save money by e.g. making gifts, instead of buying. Being creative is good value for money – considering the cost per hour!

Eight tips to cultivate your creativity

  • Schedule time

Schedule in creative activities, or else they might not happen. Don’t wake up in the morning and think, “I hope I feel inspired to create something today.” You need to take the decision-making out of it. “Genius arrives when you show up enough times to get the average ideas out of the way”. Take a break from screen time by setting aside your phone or computer. Just start. Produce something. Put pen to paper and sketch a drawing. Grab your camera and take a picture. Turn up the music and dance. Crochet one row. Even if you “do not have time”, utilise the minutes you do have – you will be surprised how much you can do sitting waiting for someone/something!

  • Capture your ideas

Take a twenty minute walk and let your mind wander freely. Not only will you destress, but you will also generate ideas, and integrate insights and intuitions. Considering starting “morning pages” – twenty minutes of writing down everything and anything that pops up in your mind – whether it is worries, or frustrations, random thoughts, or creative wish lists.

  • Expand your knowledge and interests

Expose yourself to new ideas. Read. Take an “artistic outing” – one new adventure a week! Visit a museum. Listen to a different radio station. Browse in a bookshop. Have conversations with others for novel ideas and perspectives.

  • Surround yourself with interesting ideas and people

Join or start a group. Working alone is usually the best way to come up with creative solutions. Once you have some ideas, casual interactions with others can help you develop them. Socialising in a creative way is good for you.

  • Do mental exercises

Think of alternative uses for objects (e.g. “what can I do with a paperclip?”). Describe objects in unusual ways (think “30 Seconds”). Perform common tasks in an unconventional order (e.g. can you make a sandwich by not cutting the bread prior to spreading it?).

  • Step outside of your comfort zone

Challenge yourself. Give yourself permission to create “junk”. You have to practice enough self-compassion to not let self-judgement take over. Don’t be scared of failing! Research has shown that failure directly produces resurgence, i.e. the emergence of behaviours that used to be effective in that situation are now adjusted through competition with new behaviour and connections. It stimulates creativity!

  • Play and have fun!

According to a 1997 study conducted in Michigan, by age 23, more than one third of children who had attended play-free preschools had been arrested for a felony as compared to fewer than one tenth of play-oriented preschool attendees. Play improves social skills, reduces stress, and help us to try new things (i.e. behavioural flexibility). As adults, we still need to play still need to play:body play (active movement/exercise without any time pressure or expected outcome), object play (create with your hands) or social play (e.g. board games, or even small talk and verbal jousting). Work will always be there, and will always get done – but it will never be done. But the happiness and renewed energy from play will compensate for “lost” time.

  • See it through

Complete something. Anything. Stop researching, planning, and preparing to do something creative. There are no artists, athletes, scholars, or entrepreneurs who became great by half-finishing their work. Tackle your UFOs (Un-Finished Objects). Hold yourself accountable – by setting timelines and goals, and sharing publicly. Post your progress and finished project on Pinterest of Facebook. “Show and tell” in your creative groups. What seems “simple” to you is often brilliant to someone else. But you’ll never know that unless you choose to share. The feedback will help you to improve, and will also inspire you to make and care more.

Creativity should be part of your self-care armamentarium. It is increasingly being acknowledged as a potent mind-body approach as well as a cost-effective intervention to prevent and address a variety of challenges throughout the lifespan.

Osho said, “To be creative means to be in love with life. You can be creative only if you love life enough that you want to enhance its beauty, you want to bring a little more music to it, a little more poetry to it, a little more dance to it.”

Make 2018 a creative year!

This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.