The Science of Creativity

Stress is a well-known creativity killer, says psychologist Robert Epstein, PhD. Time constraints are another, he says. Unfortunately, graduate school has both in spades, and that can sap the inspiration of even the most imaginative students.

“When you’re in graduate school, there are so many constraints on you. It’s detrimental to creative expression,” says Epstein, author of The Big Book of Creativity Games (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

Yet it’s almost impossible to conquer any graduate school activity without at least some innovative thinking. Collaborating with other researchers, finding a subfield that excites you, maneuvering your way through an unexpected set of findings, and balancing the demands of your work and home life all require creative problem-solving.

Despite the widely held belief that some people just aren’t endowed with the creativity gene, “There’s not really any evidence that one person is inherently more creative than another,” Epstein says.

Instead, he says, creativity is something that anyone can cultivate.

Routine creativity

Epstein, a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego, has conducted research showing that strengthening four core skill sets leads to an increase in novel ideas.

“As strange as it sounds, creativity can become a habit,” says creativity researcher Jonathan Plucker, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana University. “Making it one helps you become more productive.”

Epstein recommends that you:

  • Capture your new ideas. Keep an idea notebook or voice recorder with you, type in new thoughts on your laptop or write ideas down on a napkin.
  • Seek out challenging tasks. Take on projects that don’t necessarily have a solution—such as trying to figure out how to make your dog fly or how to build a perfect model of the brain. This causes old ideas to compete, which helps generate new ones.
  • Broaden your knowledge. Take a class outside psychology or read journals in unrelated fields, suggests Epstein. This makes more diverse knowledge available for interconnection, he says, which is the basis for all creative thought. “Ask for permission to sit in on lectures for a class on 12th century architecture and take notes,” he suggests. “You’ll do better in psychology and life if you broaden your knowledge.”
  • Surround yourself with interesting things and people. Regular dinners with diverse and interesting friends and a work space festooned with out-of-the-ordinary objects will help you develop more original ideas, Epstein says. You can also keep your thoughts lively by taking a trip to an art museum or attending an opera—anything that stimulates new thinking.

A study last year in the Creativity Research Journal (Vol. 20, No. 1), found that working on these four areas enhances creativity. Seventy-four city employees from Orange County, Calif., participated in creativity training seminars consisting of games and exercises developed by Epstein to strengthen their proficiency in these four skill sets. Eight months later, the employees had increased their rate of new idea generation by 55 percent—a feat that led to more than $600,000 in new revenue and a savings of about $3.5 million through innovative cost reductions.

Happy, rested and bright

Many practices that lead to better overall well-being also boost innovative thinking. For instance, creativity researchers suggest you:

  • Sleep on it. In a 1993 study at Harvard Medical School, psychologist Deidre Barrett, PhD, asked her students to imagine a problem they were trying to solve before going to sleep and found that they were able to come up with novel solutions in their dreams. In the study, published in Dreaming (Vol. 3, No. 2), half of the participants reported having dreams that addressed their chosen problems, and a quarter came up with solutions in their dreams.

“We’re in a different biochemical state when we’re dreaming, and that’s why I think dreams can be so helpful anytime we’re stuck in our usual mode of thinking,” Barrett says.

A 2004 study in Nature (Vol. 427, No. 6,972) also shows just how powerful sleep may be in helping people solve problems. Researchers at the University of Lübeck in Germany trained participants to solve a long, tedious math problem. Eight hours later, when participants returned for retesting, those who had slept during the break were more than twice as likely to figure out a simpler way to solve the problem than those who had not slept.

  • Collaborate—in writing. Plucker notes that much psychological research has shown that we overestimate the success of group brainstorming. Instead of working together to generate great ideas, group members often fail to share their ideas for fear of rejection. Yet research led by psychologist Paul Paulus, PhD, of the University of Texas at Arlington, points to the surprising effectiveness of group “brainwriting,” in which group members write their ideas on paper and pass them to others in the group who then add their own ideas to the list. In a 2000 Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (Vol. 82, No. 1) study led by Paulus, an interactive group of brainwriters produced 28 percent more possible uses for a paper clip than a similar group of solitary brainwriters. This may be because group members tend to build off one another’s ideas, leading to increased creativity and innovation. The effects of group brainwriting may even extend to groups that collaborate via e-mail, Paulus notes.
  • Let the sunshine in. Research by Washington State University professor of interior design Janetta Mitchell McCoy, PhD, suggests that spending time in natural settings may boost creativity. In a 2002 Creativity Research Journal (Vol. 14, No. 3.4) study led by McCoy, high school students designed more innovative collages—as judged by six independent raters—in a setting high in direct sunlight and natural wood than in a space mainly finished with manufactured materials such as drywall and plastic.
  • Get happy. A 2004 Creativity Research Journal (Vol. 16, No. 2.3) study with undergraduates found that sadness inhibits new ideas. This may be because when people are sad, they are more wary of making mistakes and exercise more restraint, says study author Karen Gasper, PhD, a social psychology professor at Penn State University.

Past research also supports the creativity boost gained from happiness. Compared with people in sad or neutral moods, those in happy moods are better at coming up with unusual word associations, developing patient diagnoses, solving moral dilemmas, generating story endings, and writing numerous answers to divergent thinking tasks, Gasper notes.

To avoid being overly cautious and stagnant in their work, Gasper recommends that students remember to have fun. “Take a walk, see a comedy, go out with a friend,” she says. “These breaks may help you feel better and see your work in a new light.”


Amy Novotney , “The Science of Creativity,” American Psychological Association, n.d. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.