Creativity tops the heap. It’s the apex of “21st-century skills,” or those skills considered essential for children to thrive today. It’s the same ability that IBM -- after surveying over 1,500 CEOs -- found most critical to being a successful CEO. And, as mental health and successful aging have become national concerns, a bevy of research finds creative expression crucial to both short term happiness and long term satisfaction. Yet, despite being bedrock fundamental to so much that we want from our lives, creativity remains elusive: tricky to understand, nearly impossible to train.
In 2015, for example, the energy drink company Red Bull completed the first phase of Hacking Creativity, the largest meta-analysis of the subject ever undertaken. After combing through more than 30,000 scientific studies and conducting hundreds of interviews with experts, researchers concluded that creativity is, indeed, the most important skill for success in our fast-paced world. Unfortunately, they also found we have very little success teaching people how to be more creative.
But there’s a startling reason for this failure. We keep trying to train up a skill, but what we really need to be training is a state of mind.
A growing pile of evidence shows that non-ordinary states of consciousness -- a term defined by John Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof as dramatic shifts in perception, emotion and thought -- are the real key to unlocking our creativity. Consider three of today’s most familiar non-ordinary states: meditation, flow and psychedelics.
Research done in the 1990s on Tibetan Buddhists found that longtime meditation produces brainwaves in the gamma range. These unusual waves arise primarily during “binding,” the moment novel ideas snap together for the first time -- the telltale signature of "a-ha insight.” This means meditation amplifies creativity, but -- as those monks had put in 34,000 hours of cross-legged cushion time -- it was a finding with limited practical application.
Then researchers began to consider the impact of short-term meditation on mental performance. Was it possible to cut some monastic corners and get similar results? Turns out, you can cut quite a few corners.
In 2009, psychologists at the University of North Carolina found that even four days of meditation significantly improved both creativity and cognitive flexibility. “Simply stated,” lead researcher Fadel Zeidan explained to Science Daily, “the profound improvements we found after just four days of meditation training are really surprising. . . . [They’re] comparable to results that have been documented after far more extensive training.” So rather than pulling a caffeinated all-nighter to force a eureka insight (or devoting decades to becoming a monk), we now know that even a few days’ training in mindfulness can up the odds of a breakthrough considerably.
Similar boosts are showing up in the study of those “in the zone” moments of total absorption known as flow. A recent University of Sydney experiment used transcranial magnetic stimulation to induce the state, then gave subjects the nine-dot problem, that classic test of creative puzzle solving: Connect nine dots with four lines without lifting pencil from paper in 10 minutes. Normally, fewer than 5 percent pull it off. In their control group, no one did. But 40 percent of the flow group connected the dots in record time, or eight times better than the norm. This is also why, when McKinsey did a 10-year study of companies, top executives -- meaning those most frequently called upon to solve complex creative problems -- reported being up to 500 percent more productive in flow.
And comparable results are appearing in psychedelic research. In a national study of microdosing among professionals, psychologist James Fadiman found sub-perceptual doses of substances like LSD consistently enhanced pattern recognition and creative problem-solving. This also explains how the headline “Why Men Are Dropping Acid At Work” came to grace this month’s cover of GQ.
But the key takeaway here isn’t that mindfulness, micro-dosing or flow are the next "killer app." It's that tuning our states of mind -- regardless of mechanism -- makes us far more creative and effective.
And for anyone interested in this approach, but unsure where to begin, consider the protocols we developed at Google while beta-testing this research. Over a six week stretch, with 60 minutes a day of required practice, the subjects in our study averaged a 71 percent increase in both flow and heightened performance.
- Enforce rigorous sleep hygiene: Dark, cold and quiet. Want to go further? Learn your "chronotype" by taking Dr. Michael Breuss's The Power of When quiz and tune your circadian rhythm.
- Own the hour after waking: How we start our day has a massive impact on whether we stride or stumble through the rest of it -- so take time to hydrate, reflect, move and fuel.
- Defend your first 90 minutes of work: To heighten flow, eliminate distraction, use Brain.fm to block out noise and enhance concentration, push calls and meetings to afternoon and focus only on your most important tasks -- not your inbox. And if you're curious about your unique way to get into the zone, there's a free quiz.
- Periodize recovery: Just because you could sit at your desk for 5 hours without budging doesn't mean you should. Use a Pomodoro timer to get up and move for 5-10 minutes for every hour spent working. This will keep you from getting overtaxed, allowing you to stay in peak productivity longer.
- Practice active recovery: Passive recovery is when we're too fried to take the steps needed to rebound. Think Netflix and veg vs. workout and meditate. Instead, build time into your calendar to shift states and recover quicker. Download a heart-rate variability (HRV) app and spend 5 minutes calibrating your cardiac rhythm. Soak in an Epsom salt bath or take a sauna before bed. Get outside and move: Recent studies have shown that hiking in nature decreases "excess rumination" and boosts creativity and memory.
- Plan state shifting experiences and adventures: Book a float tank session. Do a weekend silent meditation retreat. Train for and compete in an adventure race. Ask your doctor if transcranial magnetic stimulation is right for you. Learn to hyperventilate with Wim Hof, or go to a raging dance party.
Anything that gets you out of ruts and routines, defrags your mental hard drive and resets your nervous system, pays big dividends over time.
Consider the gains: a 200 percent boost in creativity, a 490 percent boost in learning, a 500 percent boost in productivity. These are essential skills and those are big percentage gains. If they were merely the result of a few studies done by a couple of labs, they would be easier to dismiss. But there are now seven decades of research, conducted by hundreds of scientists on thousands of participants, showing that changing the channel of consciousness, no matter the method used, can unlock the creativity we’ve been searching for.