How our brains hinder creativity

Written by
Adam Kingl, author, keynote speaker and advisor

22 Mar 2021

22 Mar 2021 • by Adam Kingl, author, keynote speaker and advisor

Our brains have learnt to sabotage our creative thinking efforts. Adam Kingl explains why taking the time for creativity can help address this issue.

Too many schools minimise or ignore creativity, too many parents discourage it, and too many companies devalue it. Our firms sometimes abrogate responsibility for innovation to a select fraction of the employee population, often someone with a lofty title like Chief Creative Officer, which of course communicates to the rest of the company that they should ‘leave creativity to the experts’. 

If we observe how our leaders spend their time, and by extension how we should spend ours, too many are tacitly telling us that creativity is relegated to possibly a few minutes a week and ideally in one’s free time, not when we’re on the clock. In my advisory work to global corporations, I usually find this last condition, lack of time, to be the most common and pernicious. 

Why we should make creative thinking a priority 

The problem is that if we budget very little time in our lives to innovating or adapting to try new ideas, we typically incur a double deficit in our creative capacity. 

First, we never make the time because creativity is always at the bottom of our priority list. Inevitably, we can never plan on all the firefighting and pop-up meetings that will occur in the week, so our real week is much more full of dealing with the day to day than our diaries suggested on Monday morning. 

Allowing time for creativity is the only way to yield results

Second, if we do keep and honour a tiny fraction of our week or month to creative thinking, brainstorming and the like, we find our attention span is constantly distracted. We never seem to produce anything worthwhile as a result, and so we face each new window of opportunity for innovation with an ever growing, soul-sucking impression of dread or, at the least, resignation. 

What we’re learning now is that we’re unfortunately training our brains to deliver this depressing result. Recent neuroscientific research has revealed how we repress and invigorate creativity. These hurried, captured moments of precious time for innovation yield paltry results. Our brains can’t turn on the magic for such short, unsustainable periods of time. 

The five brain states explained 

There are several brain states from deep sleep to deep focus and peak performance. The higher the performing brain, the greater the frequency of brain waves, hence Hertz is the degree of measurement:

  • Delta – deep sleep: 1-3 Hz
  • Theta – deep meditation, light sleep: 4-8 Hz
  • Alpha – relaxed, calm consciousness: 9-12 Hz
  • Beta – normal, alert consciousness: 13-30 Hz
  • Gamma – super-focused mind, increased brain power, peak state of consciousness and performance: 31-70 Hz.

Which of these do you think is our typical brain state during a normal work day? 

I imagine many of you are thinking Theta! Sad but true – light sleep can be our normal work state. That’s rather depressing if that’s your normal. But Beta is probably our usual state, right? This is what we require of our brains to accomplish our normal tasks of answering emails, solving our workaday problems…and possibly Theta state when we’re in committee meetings.

Typical business routines encourage us to work in a state where the Beta waves (business as usual) in our brains are dominant, though we now know that maximum innovation and insight occurs when we are in Gamma state. 

How to remain in Gamma state for longer

Neuroscientific research has also revealed that our brains can stay in Beta for a long time, and in fact are conditioned to stay there. As a result, if we crank the mental engine to get up to Gamma, the brain through habit easily and proactively often drags us back to Beta.

Therefore, if we need our brains to be in Gamma in order to be truly creative, genuinely adding previously unheard-of insight and exponentially big ideas, our brains would struggle to do that in, say, a one-hour meeting once a week. Beta state is like a constant and familiar noise, the ever-present static of our work lives that can block Gamma state. I liken this to how I find it hard to think when I’m eating an apple because I have this magnified, crunching noise in the echo chamber of my skull.  

Mundane and creative  why getting the balance right is important 

We can’t easily shut off this Beta activity, the laundry list of actions and decisions we have to make, even if we’re completely confident in our ability to make them. Beta is our habit, our rhythm, our tyranny. 

Because we don’t have balance between the mundane and the creative, we can’t achieve creativity even if we give ourselves those fleeting thirty minutes a week to do so. We must change our routines so that we give our brains more time to marinate in Gamma and increase the frequency of those marinades. Like any muscle, the creative function in our brains requires exercise in order to improve, but as importantly, to be receptive to create in the first place. 

The point is not that we denude all traditional routine from our organisations. We need some of that. But most of companies that I’ve experienced usually operate at a ratio of about 99% business as usual to 1% creative time…on a good week! So if you’re feeling uncomfortable that I’m suggesting something like a fifty-fifty balance, I’m not saying that. But the better ratio surely has to be closer to eighty-twenty at least? I’m merely entreating us to ask ourselves honestly, ‘Is the balance right?’ 

Adam Kingl is the author of Next Generation Leadership (HarperCollins) and is a keynote speaker, educator and advisor.

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