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3 Things to Do When You Don't Feel Creative

Look at art. Listen to sounds. Sniff good smells.

Go to art festivals, fairs, and flea markets

The festival drew me in, and I strolled down block after block of artwork. Every possible medium was represented. Chiseled stone columns formed into flowing water features. Sculptures of aluminum painted with bright paint. Textile art made of woven, stiffened, painted, and fringed fabric bent into interesting shapes and embellished with metal, buttons, pebbles, beads, and bone. Pottery in the shape of faces. Photography on metal. Color everywhere!

My favorite finding was art that appealed to my love of ephemera. One artist had re-purposed all kinds of maps into a new kind of picture. Vintage road maps, sailing diagrams, and black star charts became the background canvas for paintings, co-mingling watercolors with longitudes and latitudes. Hand-colored turtles and fish swam through a map of the Caribbean. Mermaids floated around the Florida coast. Constellations came to life on a dark sky map.

After an afternoon of visual stimulation, I was pumped up, feeling creative. Anything was possible. I could go home and write words that would rattle the world. What was going on? Is there research that explains my euphoria?

The link between visual art and creativity

Now I know why I was so pumped up. Brain and Cognition journal reported that looking at art

“…triggered responses in brain regions associated with visual understanding and object recognition, as might be expected, but viewing artwork also was connected to activity associated with emotions, inner thoughts, and learning. Other research tells us more about how art can change the way we see the world.”

Other research indicates that after viewing art

  • Critical thinking skills in students are strengthened

  • Students become more socially tolerant and are more socially tolerant.

  • Arts programs may stabilize the cognitive health of older adults and slow mental decline

Tanner Christensen, in his blog, “Why We So Often Look to Art for Creative Inspiration” says that art gives us inspiration because

  • it allows us to travel somewhere else

  • it jolts our perspective into something we may have not seen before

  • it frees us because art feels limitless

  • it transports us to a different time or place

  • it acts as a seed, growing differently in each person’s mind

“the power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness.”

The link between music and creativity

It’s not just art. Music helps me, too. It drowns out outside noise and provides an undercurrent of rhythm that keeps me going. If I’m creating a draft from scratch, I’ll listen to instrumental music so that I’m not distracted by the lyrics.

So does research back me up? Does music work stimulate my creativity in the same way that looking at art does?

It depends.

Music may actually stifle problem-solving in the early stage of creative thinking, according to one study which evaluated participants working on word puzzles either in quiet or with music playing.

Whether that music was familiar or unfamiliar, vocal or strictly instrumental, people’s scores on average fell on the creativity test compared to their scores in the quiet condition.

If your task requires intense focus, music may distract you. BUT once you’re past the problem-identification and need to come up with creative solutions, music will help!

Happy music works best for several reasons:

It provides enough distraction that you aren’t focused intensely on the problem while you’re listening. This allows your mind to wander, giving your brain time to meander on different paths. Such wandering is what leads to unique, innovative creative solutions.It stimulates the brain network that research has shown is responsible for creative insight.It promotes a positive attitude and a sense of well-being that contributes to creativity.

A different study, “Happy Creativity…” showed that

“…participants who’d listened to happy music had significantly higher scores on divergent thinking than those who’d performed in silence. In other words, they came up with more total ideas, and more creative and innovative ideas.”

Just turn on your “happy tunes” to get the innovation and creativity flowing.

Wait! There’s more than just sight and sound.

The link between scents and creativity

Really need to be creative? Pull a triple whammy. Look at art. Listen to happy music. And turn on your nose.

A smell can encourage creativity. No kidding.

One study noted that when students were given a creative writing assignment, they felt more expressive and creative when surrounded by the smell of coffee or the fragrance of laurels. (Is the aroma of coffee the reason so many writers work in coffee shops?)

The fragrance factor is why so many writers light candles at the beginning of their session. Research shows that the smell of frankincense alleviates depression, cinnamon-vanilla invigorates, and oranges reduce anxiety. Smells evoke emotions and memories and may stimulate creative thinking.

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.” ― Hellen Keller

Science is just beginning to study the impact of fragrance on creativity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if — in the future — we’ll have room atomizers formulated specifically for writers, painters, sculptors, actors, musicians, and dancers. Olfactory supplements for creative minds.

Smells good, doesn’t it? And doesn’t it make you want to run to your studio and start creating?

Yep. Me, too.

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