Posted July 27, 2012 04:27 pm - Updated July 30, 2012 09:32 am

How to boost creativity, in any kind of weather

This summer’s weather is the mad rhino in the room. You can’t really talk about it within Juneau city limits without exposing blatant denial — better to deal with it in private.

My own process of self-delusion had been going pretty well until I was forced to jump the chasm between Thursday (the perfect day) and Friday (pity the picnickers). I found myself needing a new reason to be OK with it. So my inner Pollyanna came up with this: Maybe our cold grey summer has spurred an increase in creative energy all over town. Just like the long winters for the Russian novelists (keep quiet about all those painters in Provence). Maybe our weather, in addition to keeping our numbers manageable, is part of what keeps our arts community strong.

I turned to the Internet to see if I could back this up with some hard facts.

I found that, not surprisingly, creativity (defined in its broadest sense, as the ability to develop original ideas) is tough to measure, especially as applied to artistic work. I had been thinking about it practically, in terms of time — bad weather usually means more time indoors to work on projects — but the studies I read indicated that this is not the central issue.

The central issue, it would seem, is getting your brain out of its rut, and encouraging it to be more spontaneous and random, whether you are inside or outside, sun-baked or soggy. How you do this can vary widely. You can trick your brain into more abstract thinking — by giving it the background noise of a cafe to deal with, for example, while you work — or knock it off its established path — for instance, by taking yourself somewhere unfamiliar, such as into the woods.

This is good news for us Juneauties, since we have plenty of cafes and forests in which to try out our own creative experiments, and since, on the whole, we tend to be well-traveled and open to new experiences. 

A closer look at a few of the studies:

• Working in an environment with modest background noise, such as a coffee shop, can boost creative thinking, according to a recent study. The slight distraction created by the ambient noise is believed to encourage abstract thinking and the imagination. In other words, try working while your brain is busy looking the other way. In a quiet room with no distractions, such as your attic, the brain’s focus is more narrow.

• Extended periods of time in the outdoors can also increase your creativity, according to another recent study. Two sets of backpackers were given a standard test of creativity (the Remote Associates Test). One group took the test before they left for a hike, a second took it after a four-day hiking trip. The second group’s scores were nearly 50 percent higher than the first group’s, the study said. Getting the brain away from its usual cognitive paths was believed to be part of the reason for the increase in abstract thinking. The leader of the study, University of Kansas professor Ruth Ann Atchley, said in an Huffington Post article that the stimulations of life “sap our resources to do the fun thinking and cognition humans are capable of — things like creativity.” The study didn’t say this but it seems to me this is also a good argument for not being a slave to our habits in general, and mixing it up a bit. And for traveling.

• Another surprising study found that a minimal amount of alcohol could boost problem-solving skills such as word-association in men. The alcohol was believed to increase “sudden intuitive insights” in the study’s participants by loosening their focus of attention, and encouraging them to find new or unusual connections between ideas, rather than taking a head-on approach. It also freed them from worry about making mistakes. The participants who showed an increase in creativity had a blood alcohol level of less than .075 percent (more than that, or the equivalent of more than two drinks for most of the men in the study, had a negative effect on all kinds of thinking).

• Another idea that backs up these studies, known as the construal level theory of psychological distance, says that increasing one’s mental distance from something can increase creativity by forcing us to make new connections between concepts. For example, if we are trying to solve a problem, if we can envision it as happening in the distant future, or in a far away location — i.e., in a more abstract and distant way — the brain seems to have an easier time getting past its common associations with the topic. Basically, we force ourselves to take a new perspective.

I still don't have an answer for the question of whether or not bad weather spurs creativity, but it seems to me, based on all this information, that Juneau is in fact a great place to be an artist. We have great cafes, amazing forests, even our own beer ... so what if our sky isn't often blue.  



“Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research, from a June 2012 article in The Atlantic.

Ruth Ann Atchley’s study at the University of Kansas was carried out in conjunction with Outward Bound, as reported by the Huffington Post, May 2012.

The alcohol study was published in Consciousness and Cognition, as reported in Science News, March 2012.

The theory of psychological distance appears in “An Easy Way to Increase Creativity,” a July 2009 article in Scientific American.


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