Creativity is a quality inherent in all of us. It doesn’t matter if you say, “I’m not a creative person. I have no imagination whatsoever!” I’m here to tell you’re wrong!. You are creative; it is part of the human psyche and can be activated easily. You just aren’t tapping in or maybe you don’t know how.
Some will argue, “Fine, I’m creative, but I’m not interested. Why should I bother with even 10 minutes of creative expression? How will that improve my life, work or relationships?” OK, that’s a fair enough question. So allow me to respond with what creativity is not, and then add just a few benefits of why engaging in activities that encompass creative expression is so good for you.
What creativity is NOT, is an end product worthy of being hung in the Louvre or at the least sold in a craft fair. Creativity is a processand way of seeing things from a different perspective. It is that part of us where we house our imagination, where we feel our inspiration and where we express our innovation. It’s about being engaged in a life that continues to learn, grow and connect with others. Creativity is making, thinking, doing something that hasn’t existed or been seen or done in quite the same way. It’s about reconfiguring our brain to see possibilities, patterns, potentials, design and wonder. It’s newness.
There are countless benefits to fostering a healthy and diverse creative component to your state of being. Let’s start with enjoyment and quality of life.
Creative pursuits are intended to facilitate enjoyment. It is living in the moment. Simple and manageable activities that merge action with awareness. As a result we often “flow” into an altered consciousness where time and space seem distorted. We become so involved in the moment and engaged with full participation that it’s easy to stop being aware of yourself as separate from what you’re doing. We enter into a state of optimal experience. In such a state of complete focus we tend to let go and forget all the worries and unpleasant facets of life. We “zone” out. And for a time, we exist in a state of pure enjoyment and engagement. Doesn’t that sound enticing?
Without enjoyment life can be endured, and it can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment. To gain personal control over the quality of [life] experience, however, one needs to learn how to build enjoyment into what happens day in and day out (Flow, pg 48).
Did you catch that? “To improve life, one must improve the quality of experience. Today’s culture over emphasizes wealth, status and power as symbols of happiness. However, the ideas we have that are commonly associated with success and happiness can be deceptive and mislead us into thinking that a reality of status and wealth is the key to bliss. And while there is a slight correlation between wealth and well-being that may provide elements of pleasure through the pursuit of this lifestyle, it isn’t enough. Longer lasting benefits resulting from a higher quality of everyday life experiences will reap more satisfaction, fulfillment, and most importantly, enjoyment, all of which is achievable through creative pursuits.
Another advantage of creative living that can’t be overemphasized are the many health benefits. Especially for us Baby Boomers. According to Gene Cohen, M.D., PhD, professor of healthcare science, psychiatry and behavioral science and director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, there is a definite and profound correlation between the arts and creative expression and the positive impact it has on health with aging. His pivotal research showed how creativity impacts the body and mind. In his publication, Research on Creativity and Aging: The Positive Impact of the Arts on Health and Illness.” Cohen identifies three main areas of impact.
SENSE OF CONTROL MECHANISIM: A large body of research has been done regarding the positive outcome that results when seniors engage in creative activities in which they experience a sense of control and mastery. This allows for the feeling of self-empowerment, a quality that becomes increasingly threatened with the loss of mobility, responsibility and diminishing cerebral abilities.
The arts provide some of the best opportunities to experience a new sense of control or mastery. In the arts, the opportunities to create something new and beautiful are endless and offer an enormous sense of satisfaction and empowerment. (Cohen)
THE INFLUENCE OF THE MIND ON BODY: There is ongoing research into the connection between mind and body, in particular the interactions between the nervous system and the immune system. Based on these studies there are definite influences between positive emotions and increased immunity.
Scientists view the positive feeling associated with a sense of control as triggering a response in the brain that sends a signal to the immune system to produce more beneficial immune system cells, including T cells and NK cells (Cohen).
SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT: Creative expression activities such a collage work (my specialty) provides a social environment where in groups can gather and create a colorful, fun and often humorous collage filled with images and pictures. Other forms of creative expression, including dance, music, poetry reading, painting, chorales can also provide great opportunities for beneficial social engagement. Several studies have shown that regular social engagement among aging persons have been associated with lower blood pressure and decreased stress levels. Even more astounding is the influence on brain plasticity with the formation of new synapses and thus better communication among brain cells.
Challenging activities and new experiences induce the sprouting of new dendrites, thereby enhancing brain reserve. Art activities are especially good because they are more likely to be sustained and just like the impact of physical activities over the long term, the benefits of challenges for the brain increase when they are ongoing (Cohen).
To further support the healthy benefits of creative pursuits in your everyday life, David Eagleman, in his PBS series, The Brain, shares some amazing research done on Alzheimer’s and cognitive function. He reports on the more than 1,200 nuns, priests and brothers who have agreed to part in a unique research study of exploring the effects of aging on the brain. Each year these participants provide detailed records of how they spend their time. What they do daily, what they are engaged in is well documented. They also commit to extensive physical, genetic, and cognitive tests, and if that weren’t enough, after they die, all the participants have agreed to give up their brains for further study. WOW! Now that’s impressive.
Whenever one of the participants dies, Prof David Bennett, Rush University Medical Center is notified. He and his staff are on call 24/7. From there the research continues by carefully examining the brains of their donors. The tissue is intricately examined for the tell-tale microscopic indications of age related brain disease. The goal is to extricate links between brain degeneration and cognitive performance.
The first set of findings, when published, caught everyone by surprise. The results showed that nearly a third of the tested donor brains had characteristic signs of full- blown Alzheimer’s yet the cognitive tests taken while they were alive, revealed that the brain owners had shown no symptoms of the debilitating disease. The brains were indeed sick but the individual’s behavior remained unaffected. The findings didn’t make sense.
The conclusion was astounding. Those who remain fully engaged in life, keeping active with meaningful activities and social interactions, maintained responsibility and continued to learn new skills, kept the brain active which protected the individuals from the cognitive symptoms of the disease. Eagleman states, “Even as parts of the brain tissue degenerate, mental and physical activity can build new pathways for solving problems. This is called “cognitive reserve.” I definitely want to include some “cognitive reserve” into my retirement plan, right alongside my IRA! Don’t you?
Both Cohen and Eagleman talk about “brain plasticity”. It is a field of behavioral neuroscience that has revolutionized the way we understand the brain’s ability to adapt and keep itself vibrant and healthy. By challenging ourselves through our activities, engagements and creative pursuits, we can alter the brain and form new synapses, and increase bilateral brain involvement that integrate left-right brain together.
More synapses (contact points between cells) means better communication among brain cells and increased opportunities for new ideas connecting. When branchlike extensions (known as dendrites) from one brain cell (neuron) achieve contact with extensions of other neurons, new synapses are formed. Challenging activities and new experiences induce the sprouting of new dendrites, thereby enhancing brain reserve (Cohen).
Exercising your creative muscles through new experiences and creative pursuits will encourage the sprouting of new dendrites, and thus beef up your cognitive reserve. We each have about 100 billion brain cells, give or take a few.
Virtually every form of art provides optimal utilization of the benefits of simultaneous brain involvement…it is hypothesized that these activities are like “chocolate to the brain” in the way the brain metaphorically savors them (Cohen).
Chocolate on the brain? I’m all for that! What about you? Are you convinced yet? Wouldn’t you like to make each and every one of your brain cells deliciously happy and healthy? Well, you can! And now you have a BILLION reasons why you should.
Let’s face it. You are a creative being. Creativity is in your DNA. We are born with the ability to imagine, create and innovate. Even Albert Einstein stated that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s time to drop the left brain life for a while and engage in the right. And now you have a billion reasons why.
So, to beef up not only your creative powers, but also your “cognitive reserve” try one or all three of the exercises below. See what you come up with. Remember, all rules implied in these exercises are really just suggestions. There is no “right” or “wrong”. You have the freedom to innovate on the fly and adapt to your circumstances. But you have to start somewhere. And as they say, “The first win is to begin!”.
Here are three fun 10 minute exercises to help you stir up the creative juices, get the imagination flowing and find inspiration. Each exercise builds upon the previous. You will not only develop your personal creative expression but will also find the experiences can relieve stress and tension. See for yourself.
ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOM. Most of have a cell phone with camera capabilities. Let’s start with that. Take you camera on a walk. It could be in your office, backyard, living room etc. You get the picture, no pun intended. Wherever you might be, get your camera out and walk up to an ordinary object, get in close and personal and start taking pictures. Don’t be afraid to really ZOOM in. Nature is great for this exercise. Zoom in as close as you can. Then share your images with your family and friends, asking them if they can figure out what it is.
SCISSORS, PAPER, CUT. For this challenge, get out a pair of scissors and some magazines, junk mail, old calendars, brochures, cards etc. Start flipping through the papers and cut out bits and pieces of words and images. Again, zoom in. You don’t have to cut out the entire face, maybe just and eye or nose. Don’t think about it…just go with your feelings as you see the images. What stirs you? What brings you joy? What frightens you? Whatever gives you a reaction is what you’re aiming for. Take a break from your daily routine for 10 minutes to do some cutting. You’d be surprised to see how relaxing and calming this can be. It is also a prelude to another 10 minute creative workout. Play with this daily for a week, cut and gather until you have a nice collection of random pictures and images that you connect with.
CREATIVE COLLAGE Here’s the third 10 minute Creative exercise. Takeout your cut images and pick out a dozen or so. Just finger through your pile, see what comes up for you and put the rest aside. Take your images and position them on a table or desk, playing with them until you find an arrangement that you like. Congratulations! You just made a collage. Take a picture of that collage. Jumble up the pictures and do the exercise again. See if you can narrow it down. Take another picture. Try it a third time. Then ask yourself what insight you might get from this. What is your creative subconscious trying to reveal? Just use your imagination and come up with a story!! If you are really ambitious, get a glue stick and put your images down permanently on a poster board, and make a visual of your creative expression!
These 10 minute creative exercises are fun, easy and inexpensive. Do it as a family, a date or a team building experience at the work place.
However, here’s a word of caution…. remember, when fully engaged in these experiences you might encounter an altered state of consciousness. If you enter the “Flow” or “Zone” you will lose track of time and space. Your 10 minutes could easily turn into one, two, three hours or more! Don’t leave soup on the stove! But then again, this investment into your “cognitive reserve” account can lead to abundant experiences of enjoyment. You’ll keep yourself healthy, happy and rejuvenated for years to come! And create lots of chocolate for the brain….who cares about soup anyway?
By JoAn Smith, MA Transpersonal Psychologist & Life Coach
Adjunct Professor, Sofia University
Amabile, Theresa. “How to Kill Creativity.” Harvard Business Review, 1999.
Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Macmillan, 2016.
Cohen, Gene D. “Research on Creativity and Aging: The Positive Impact of the Arts on Health and Illness.” Generations, 2006. Research Library.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Row, 2009.
Eagleman, David. “The Brain.” What Makes Me? season 1, episode 2, PBS, 21 Oct. 2015.