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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 27-Nov-14 11:14:55

The chemistry of creativity

"I'm just not creative", "My brain doesn't work that way". For those of you who profess not to have a creative bone in your body, author Betsy Tobin begs to differ. Creativity, she says, is within us all - and there's a science to it too...

Betsy Tobin

The chemistry of creativity

Posted on: Thu 27-Nov-14 11:14:55


Lead photo

Betsy Tobin on the key to creativity.

Is creativity inherited? Divinely inspired? The stuff of genius? Or just dumb luck?

In fact, creativity is hard-wired into each of us. We've all got that spark deep inside: we just need to access it. I'm a writer and over the years I've done a lot of teaching. Time and again I've found myself telling students that the imagination is like a muscle: if you don’t flex it often and vigorously, it will atrophy.

I learned this intuitively from my own cycles of productivity: the longer I went without working, the harder I found it to kick-start my creativity. But that wasn't the only thing I noticed. Certain conditions inhibited the flow of ideas: tiredness, stress, depression and anger were all barriers to creativity. While others seemed to help: sleep, fresh air, exercise, nature (trees especially!) laughter and learning – all helped unblock my imagination.

In recent years, science has begun to understand why. The chemistry of creativity is directly affected by the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay signals between nerve cells in our brain, channeling information throughout our bodies. Some act to stimulate the brain, while others stabilise and balance it. Serotonin is one of the latter: it regulates memory, learning, sleep and mood, among other things. So if we're feeling happy and fulfilled, serotonin is probably why. Bright light, exercise and a good night’s sleep all increase serotonin, while the use of stimulants such as caffeine can deplete it.

Certain conditions inhibited the flow of ideas: tiredness, stress, depression and anger were all barriers to creativity. While others seemed to help: sleep, fresh air, exercise, nature (trees especially!) laughter and learning – all helped unblock my imagination.

Dopamine belongs to the 'excitatory' class of neurotransmitters, and famously gets blamed for a host of society’s ills (eg. lust, addiction) because it controls our reward and pleasure centres. It also regulates movement and emotional response, and helps us concentrate. Exercise, sleep, diet (bananas, almonds, avocados) and anything rich in anti-oxidants increases dopamine.

The more dopamine and serotonin whooshing around our brains, the more easily we will access our creativity, which really is more likely to emerge from the right hand side of our head. This is because the branched extensions of nerve cells on the right reach further than those on the left, so are better at drawing together distant pieces of information. It is this juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated things that often leads to a ‘eureka moment’ of creative insight.

Apart from sleep, exercise, fresh air, and diet, what else can we do to stoke our creativity? Anything that reduces stress and relaxes us will help. Laughter works, as does alcohol (moderate!). Both increase our ability to make connections by inhibiting our focus, which has the perverse effect of stimulating our imagination. For the same reason, daydreaming and boredom can be productive. (This may be why Einstein once described creativity as 'the residue of time wasted.'). The colour blue also leads to better associative thinking, funnily enough - which may just explain Picasso's blue period.

But why should we even want to develop our creativity? Because there are all kinds of knock-on benefits, both for our minds and for our bodies. Creativity gives us a sense of purpose, balance and order. It engages us and helps us engage with others. This is true for everyone, but it is especially true for older people. Studies show that creative activity among the ageing fosters a sense of competence, purpose and growth. We stay healthier longer and enjoy ourselves more, make fewer doctors’ visits, take fewer meds and are more sociable.

So as we grow older, we should 'grow' our creative selves. Buy yourself a box of crayons, a beautiful journal, or a ukulele – and see what happens!

Betsy's new book Things We Couldn't Explain is published by Accent Press and is available now from Amazon.

By Betsy Tobin

Twitter: @BetsyTobin

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 27-Nov-14 11:26:45

I think you'd need to eat an awful lot of bananas to increase the amount of dopamine in your brain. grin

But I'm sure the book is a very enjoyable light read. smile

alex57currie Thu 27-Nov-14 12:31:38

I thought I didn't have a creative bone in my body. Until I read a few years ago that cooking activates the part in your brain that deals with creativity. Also housework and how you add attention to detail. I'm not a domestic goddess, but I do approach both with a positive mental attitudegrin

Brusselsgran Fri 05-Dec-14 11:32:31

It has been said that listening to music by Mozart enhances creativity... what's interesting to me is the idea that creativity is about connectivity, i.e. letting one thing in your mind lead to another one ...

Tegan Fri 05-Dec-14 11:37:04

If serotonin enhances creativity, how come so many authors/poets/artists seem to have suffered from depression confused...?

GadaboutGran Fri 05-Dec-14 12:04:59

Because after all that creativity no one will sponsor them or pay for what they produce & other people still don't understand them?

jinglbellsfrocks Fri 05-Dec-14 12:09:48

It's a chicken and egg thing. Does creating something increase the serotonin, or does being blessed with a plentiful supply of serotonin make you want to create?

Or is the whole idea a load of old bollocks rubbish?

soontobe Fri 05-Dec-14 12:10:26

Maybe they go too far with the creativity, and become too inward looking?

soontobe Fri 05-Dec-14 12:13:59

I do think I will print out this blog however.
I think she does have some points which are useful. I do think that we can all get stuck in a rut.

GadaboutGran Fri 05-Dec-14 12:32:08

My SiL is exceptionally creative musically & in other ways. He has Adult ADHD & Dyslexia so his brain is wired in a particular way though neurology still has a very long way to go before the brain is anywhere near completely understood. Creativity must be a very complex interaction between physical, chemical, personal & social factors. SiL's medication doesn't stop his creativity but it may mean he is more likely to finish what he starts & not just whizz from one creative idea to another, or be ripped off by so-called friends. He gets depressed when real life pressures to earn money get in the way & he can't be doing what he wants to be all doing all the time, to the exclusion of anyone else's needs. Many creative people who are financially successful usually have someone around them who will meet their every practical need & live their own life through the creative ones.

catbower Tue 09-Dec-14 23:09:02

As a child and young adult I lived in my imagination (lonely child at boarding school) but life rather squashed it out of me later. Now I'm on my own again (but not lonely and not at boarding school) I'm exercising the muscles and it's coming back, just as you say, but I still have to work at it, which I didn't so much as a child. And it's sometimes easier just to let yourself be diverted by outside things. However, there is nothing so precious as being able to live in your imagination when necessary - you don't need any equipment and it's completely free!

catbower Wed 10-Dec-14 11:24:24

Yes, I think 'un' creative people are often drawn to creative ones because they want to live through them. Unfortunately, unless each is very giving and loves the other very much, they can both get fed up. Neither really understands the other and what seemed like two halves of a whole to start with, ends up being two very separate and different individuals who have nothing in common. And yes, I think there is a real danger that people can become too inward-looking, fall off a cliff in their own mind and smash on the rocks below (metaphorically).

viney Sun 11-Jan-15 16:29:08

I wonder if the need for more serotonin is what subconsciously drives depressed people, who are authors/poets/artists, to work harder at being creative? wink

Mishap Sun 11-Jan-15 16:35:47

Tegan - interesting point about creativity and depression - and a bit close to home at present. I have found the opposite - I write poetry and belong to a poetry group, but during this depressive illness it is as if a black hole has opened up where my ideas used to come from. I am wary of trying at the moment as it is in itself depressing to confront that black hole.