How to Train Your Brain for Maximum Creativity. (Here's What the Science Says.)

For starters: If you want to be more creative, you aren't going to get there if your brain is constantly fighting off negative stress hormones.

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By Sujan Patel


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Business success simply isn't going to happen without the creativity required to dream up new ideas and new visions for the future. Think about Steve Jobs, whose natural creativity changed the way we experience design and interact with devices.

Related: Maximizing the Potential of a Creative Mind

Still, while we may know how important creativity is, we're actually pretty bad at improving our own attempts at it. In one experiment at Columbia University, participants were asked to switch between logical and creative tasks during the course of an experiment; they could carry out those tasks at preset intervals or they could choose the time when they'd make "the switch," at their own discretion.

At the end of the experiment, when participants were asked how they had preferred to work, the majority said they'd chosen the option to alternate at their discretion. Yet the results clearly demonstrated that those who'd switched at preset intervals were most effective.

So, the implication was that,if we aren't good judges of our own performance and creativity, how can we maximize either one? Here's what the science says.

Reduce stress.

If you feel like you're naturally less creative when you're stressed, there's a good reason: As Zapier's Kathleen McAuliffe shared, "Stress hormones inhibit activity in the brain areas involved in goal-seeking and executive function, and that causes the 'thought spirals' and paralysis that make us procrastinate and derail our projects."

Related: 5 Ways to Boost Creativity in Your Business

Goalcast's Matt Valentine offered anecdotal evidence confirming this, based on his mother's experience juggling the stress of managing a multi-million dollar women's fashion business yet having a personal need to keep designing, herself.

"Being the boss, reviewing the finances and constantly managing the budget completely killed her creativity," Valentine said. "When bills were paid and things were planned out well, she could think clearly. When it wasn't, or she had an issue, she couldn't design anything, to save her life."

Stress may be unavoidable when you're an entrepreneur, and recommendations to engage in stress-relieving activities like meditation or journaling may seem trite. But the bottom line is, if you want to be more creative, you aren't going to get there if your brain is constantly fighting off negative stress hormones.

Leverage your adrenaline.

This next section is going to make me seem as though I'm contradicting myself here, but stick with me. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol can affect your ability to be creative -- but you can also learn to harness them.

One of my favorite ways to boost creativity is with skydiving and other extreme, potentially life-threatening sports. I try to go skydiving a couple of times each month, and I'll jump three to four times a day during a session. My stress hormones are through the roof, but far from being stressed out, I gain a ton of energy from building up my adrenaline and releasing endorphins. For the five or so hours afterwards, my brain goes into overdrive thinking of new ideas.

What's going on here? Gizmodo's Brent Rose described the biological process that differentiates this type of adrenaline use from the more typical, negative stress-related kind:

"Most of us are building up adrenaline all day in the form of stress," Rose said. "But then we don't do anything with it, because we continue sitting there in our office chairs or in our cars, and it doesn't get burned off. When we burn through the adrenaline during specific types of vigorous exercise, that's when the good stuff is released."

So, think about this: Set yourself up to hit the point when the "good stuff" will be released, by finding your own adrenaline-leveraging activity. Adidas Gameplan community member Orian Tal has said he's seen similar benefit from (the training discipline) parkour, walking, running or weight-lifting. You might see the same effect from scary movies! Test different alternatives until you find the activity that triggers a positive (safe and healthy) kind of adrenaline surge in yourself .

Try something new.

Exploring new adrenaline-triggering activities offers another creativity-boosting benefit, beyond altering the way your brain processes stress hormones. It may also increase your fluid intelligence, which research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has defined as "the ability to reason and to solve new problems independently of previously acquired knowledge."

Greater fluid intelligence means more creativity -- and the good news is that fluid intelligence is something you can consciously improve. The key to doing so, according to a Medium piece by Thomas Oppong, is challenging your brain with new stimuli.

"Whenever you learn something new, engage in new activities, or even ponder a new concept, your brain rewires itself in response to these activities," Oppong wrote. "Anything that makes you very comfortable is not really good for your brain development. If what you do doesn't challenge you, don't count on it to change you."

Related: How the Color of Your Office Impacts Productivity (Infographic)

The upshot? If jumping out of a plane just to boost your creativity doesn't sound worth it, don't worry. You can boost your fluid intelligence not just by learning to leverage adrenaline, but through the regular pursuit of new experiences. Even something as simple as a new museum exhibit or an interesting conversation with someone new can do wonders for your creativity.

What do you do to boost your creativity? Share your best suggestions with me by leaving a comment below:

Sujan Patel

Entrepreneur and Marketer, Co-founder of Web Profits

In his 14-plus years as a marketer and entrepreneur, Sujan Patel has helped hundreds of companies boost online traffic and sales and strengthen their online brand reputation. Patel is the co-founder of Web Profits and Mailshake.

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