7 scientifically-proven methods to improve creativity (apparently)

If you’re skeptical about a psychologist’s capacity to measure creativity, you’re not alone. In my opinion, creativity can’t always be measured by someone’s ability to come up with novel uses for a yoyo, brick, candle, or something of the sort.

However, this hasn’t stopped thousands of psychologists focusing on the science of creativity. With a healthy dose of skepticism, the experiments below can be helpful tools.

1. Get more sleep

whywesleepConsidering we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, you think we’d know more about it. But truly, scientists have no idea why we sleep. The best answer they can come up with is, ‘we sleep because we’re tired’.

However, we do know that sleeping ‘reorganises’ our neural pathways – clearing out useless connections and strengthening relevant ones. A good long sleep can give you  insight into a problem you were previously stuck on. The old saying, ‘sleep on it’, rings true.

2. Get less sleep

(He can't reach the alarm clock)

(He can’t reach the alarm clock)

Or at least, work when you’re groggy.When I put juice on my cereal, some people might call it sleepy stupidity. I call it creativity.

Researchers found that people were more likely to employ divergent thinking at non-optimal times of the day, times when they were feeling drowsy. (And for most participants, this was early morning)

If you’re mega committed, you can try waking up on the hour – every hour – throughout the night. Kudos to Seamus Fagan at Ogilvy for putting up with this.

3. Drink. Drank. Drunk.


Any creative knows Ernest Hemingway’s (most probably misattributed) famous words, ‘Write drunk, edit sober’. Regardless of the author, it turns out they might have been onto something.

A 2012 study found that participants with a blood alcohol level of 0.075 solved more creative problems in less time. And, were “more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight”.

4. Empathise

In my opinion, empathy is the best creative strategy. The ability to think like your target audience, not to mention other specialists – ‘How would an engineer do this?’ – is incredibly powerful.

In part of a 2011 study, “Participants carried out a structured imagination task by drawing an alien for a story that they would write, or alternatively for a story that someone else would write. As expected, drawing an alien for someone else produced a more creative alien”.

Putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes really can work.

5. Get away


There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest living in a foreign country boosts creativity, i.e.  that ‘travel broadens the mind’. Perhaps there is an ‘outsider-looking-in’ effect that gives travellers a unique perspective on their host’s culture. Whatever the reason, there is evidence that supports the claim.

Empirical research found that both people currently living abroad and people who have lived abroad in the past, outperformed those who had not travelled in creative tasks. However it is worth noting that correlation does not imply causation – perhaps creative people are more likely to travel, rather than travelling making people more creative.

 6. Be blue


There is plenty of research into the psychology of colour. In a 2009 study, researchers found people were more successful in creative tasks when there computer background was blue, as opposed to red. Why not test a number of colours as opposed to a pure comparison? Who knows. But if you have a choice between a blue or red room, pick the blue.

7. Stop brainstorming, start writing


(I can proudly say this article has two pictures of people with blue faces)

There are a number of problems with brainstorming. People are afraid their ideas will be judged. The group’s thinking tends to go in one direction. Not everyone contributes equally. And a number of other issues. Basically, and research agrees, it just sucks.

A 2011 study found that private brainwriting, as opposed to group brainstorming, yields more creative results. Participants who practised brainwriting, “that is, silently sharing written ideas in a time and sequence structured group format”, elicited more high-quality answers when faced with organisational or societal problems.

If you know of any other scientifically or anecdotally proven ways to boost creativity, throw them up in the comments.