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Mind Your Muses: Why Mental Breaks Boost Creativity

Learn how taking a mental break can increase your creativity.


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If you’re like me, you’ve got an arsenal of intensely compelling reasons to procrastinate whenever you’re in a creative rut: you work better on a full stomach, fresh air will spark your miracle mojo, a monthlong vacation in Fiji would really pique your genius so it’s imperative to look up airfare right now! Turns out, some of your slacker inclinations might be more inspired than you realize. Research shows that a change of scenery, from a midday walk in the fresh air to a year frolicking in a foreign country, can indeed summon your muses and be a great boon to your artistic brilliance.

It’s been said that genius is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration, but that 1 percent, which is infinitely more valuable than its corresponding bucket of sweat, can be frustratingly hard to come by. According to Northwestern University business professor Adam Galinsky, the best way to rev up your insight quotient is by jumping a time zone or twelve and bidding au revoir to the daily grind.

Galinsky, along with INSEAD business school professor William Maddux, conducted a study in 2009 to determine whether time spent living in a foreign country enhanced creative thinking skills. They developed five tests to measure adaptability, associational thinking, and insight skills, and found that subjects who’d lived abroad consistently scored higher than those who’d traveled abroad for shorter periods or those who stuck close to home. The reason for the globetrotters’ creative prowess, according to Galinsky, as reported on CNN.com, was they’d been immersed and actively engaged in new, otherwise unavailable perspectives, which challenged and enriched the way they viewed themselves and their lives back home.

But you don’t necessarily have to travel across the globe to get a fresh perspective. Getting your creative juices flowing might be as simple as giving your brain some much-needed downtime in a stimulus-saturated world.

Last year, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, observed brain activity in rats as they scurried around in unfamiliar terrain. The exploration sparked new patterns in their brains, but memories of the experience were only created once they stopped, suggesting that the brain needs a break from the bustle in order to make new information useful and relevant.

Assistant professor at UCSF Loren Frank told the New York Times that when the brain is constantly stimulated, as it is with digital devices, “you prevent the learning process.” So while we think we’re boosting our brainpower by cutting lunch short to catch up on the Huffington Post newsfeed, we’re actually fatiguing our brains with stimuli overdose and allowing for fewer aha! moments. A better option when you’re brain is buzzing is to take a leisurely walk around the block, sans earbuds, iPhone, or BlackBerry, to allow your brain to decompress and digest what you’ve been feeding it all day. You might even feel your gray matter grow since studies show that walking stimulates cell growth in the hippocampus, where memories are created and stored.

Whether you choose to ditch your digs and feast in France for a year, or just ditch your iPad for a few hours and tune in to your inner newsfeed, the secret to conjuring a creative spark seems to be whittling down the amount of time spent in a state of passive distraction and cultivating more moments of engaged attention. It’s no coincidence that creative innovators of our time, like the founders of Google, a company known for its out-of-the-box thinking and unconventional workplace, have offices equipped with pool tables, pianos, and gyms that offer yoga and dance classes. Activities such as these, which require a form of mental engagement that’s very different from sitting in front of a computer or TV screen, may help to keep the minds of those who work there nimble and receptive—key components for nurturing insight. So the next time you’re feeling stumped and your inner slacker tells you to take a break, big or small, pay attention. It might be your muse in disguise. 

By Renee Hurlbutt for Divine Caroline

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Health and Wellbeing,

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