Experience weird and boost creativity


In our day to day routine we get used to the way things normally work.  That includes processes like the way we approach making dinner, the route we take to work or get ready for bed, and it includes the way things work, the function of pedals in a car or the keyboard on a computer.  These normalities are brilliant for efficiency and in some cases give us the mental space to be able cogitate and form new ideas (see Why is the shower great for creativity).  But, throwing out our expectations is another way to boost the creative muse.

One of the standard tests in creativity research is the Alternative Uses Task – which basically counts and rates for unusualness the number of alternative uses you can come up with for a particular object, like ‘a brick’.  Well it turns out that experiencing some of those unusual, weird, uses may well put you in a frame of mind needed in the first place to come up with those alternatives!  Unusual experiences can enhance creativity, or more formally, increase cognitive flexibility.

Dr Simone Ritter and colleagues conducted a number of experiments to come to this conclusion, my favourite being given instructions to make a chocolate chip sandwich.  But it’s not the sandwich filling that’s unusual, the chocolate chip sandwich being a popular breakfast choice in the Netherlands where Dr Ritter lives.  It was simply that after buttering the bread the chocolate chips should be tipped onto a plate, and the buttered bread applied to chips, rather than the usual sprinkling of the chips on to the buttered bread.  This simple violation of the norm increased cognitive flexibility.

I think its important to realise that our capacity for creativity isn’t fixed – despite the fact we often describe people as creative or otherwise.  It’s certainly true that some people are more creative ‘by default’ but we can all boost our creative muscle… and one way to do that may be as simple as bypassing our normal routine. Would typing on our keyboard using a pencil stuck to our head with blu-tack weird you out enough to boost creativity?  Well, if not, it would at least lighten the day of whoever observes you doing it.

Be remarkable and do something weird,