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“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play.” Albert Einstein
We intuitively view creativity as the natural state of the child — doodling, dawdling and dreaming their way from one fantastical notion to another. According to Dr. Stephanie Carlson, an expert on childhood brain development at the University of Minnesota, kids spend as much as 2/3 of their time in imaginative play.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Our views and beliefs completely change when faced with the topic of creativity in the adult world. Whether seen as a trait or a gift, there are assumptions and perceptions a-plenty when it comes to ‘creativity’.
You either have it or you don’t.
It comes in ‘bursts’, a ‘lightbulb’ or an “a-ha” moment.
What is seen to be completely innate in every child seems set to default to unnatural in most adults.
Of course, the highly creative individuals that speckle our lives are the exceptions to the rule. And because our human nature generally establishes what you can’t relate to or don’t understand to be unnerving, another sub-set of society is generated — the ‘creative types’.
Even as we start to value creativity more in adults, or more personally, in our peers and colleagues, we make assumptions about these talented people. Uninhibited? Lacking in discipline? Away with the fairies?
Childlike, right? We assume it goes hand-in-hand with creativity.
Certainly, one child-like trait we associate with creativity is self-control, or the lack there of. Self-control, or executive function, is self-regulatory, in that we have to actively think about it. Our executive function allows us to do things such as refrain from blurting out something inappropriate, or to wait in line without getting socially-unacceptably frustrated.
As you might assume, executive function is not well-developed in young children. In fact, the pre-frontal cortex, (the brain’s remote control – weighing outcomes, forming judgments and controlling impulses and emotions), is not fully developed until well into the teenage years.
Executive function and imaginative play; self control and creativity — are they mutually exclusive?
I would argue that the practice of pretend aids in exploring alternative ways of being and different ways of perceiving an issue, resulting in better problem solving. Let’s investigate.
In order to imagine, you have to be able to employ focus and inhibit the normal way you’d act within your reality. To pretend a stick is a magic wand, you must persistently remember that the stick is not in fact a stick, and you must resist the inclination to throw the stick for the dog, or to hit railings with it, or to relate it to a tree in any way. This involves calling upon and exercising your executive function.
Creativity and self-control complement each other in collaboration.
When we think more deeply about creating–or about problem-solving–we realise we know this. We know, for example, that the diligent, methodical scientist whose work takes dedication and preparation is also undoubtedly innovative. It’s hard to imagine that the cure for cancer would appear to someone from an alternate profession in purely an “a-ha” moment, or a ‘burst of creativity’.
Facts and research are a critical part of the creative process. But so is imagination. To reach inventive ideas and solutions, we have to constantly toggle between analysis and assembly, between reality and possibility – between what is already and what could become.
Creativity in problem solving requires this constant shifting; the more creative someone is, the better they are at shepherding their brains into bilateral mode.
It makes sense then, that keeping our imagination exercised is highly useful in creative thinking and problem solving.
There are plenty of reasons determining why, as we mature, our natural creativity seems to fade. As we go through the motions of logic and reason in study and work, we have less time to spend floating to the heights of our imagination.
As adults, we’re also much more afraid of being wrong! Kids don’t care. Maturity brings with it a realisation that being wrong often carries negative consequences or the risk of penalization.
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
Sir Ken Robinson
Since creativity inherently requires a willingness to possibly be wrong, and an assumption that you’re bound to be at some point, we begin to avoid it. Even though being wrong is merely the process by which solutions are created.
For many of us, we become so good at avoiding it that we convince ourselves we’re “not creative”. We revert back to techniques that seem to help us mitigate the risk of being wrong, which also seem entwined with that executive function — fact, reality. We rely less and less on our imaginative behaviours.
And now for the best bit. The obvious tool to think differently and problem-solve more creatively?
Just pretend. In any which way you like.
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