Maybe you’ve heard, being constantly busy is bad for your brain. “Many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day,” claims a Scientific American article rounding up the research on the subject. Doing nothing now and then is required to replenish motivation and attention, and to form stable memories, science shows.
It’s also required for maximum creativity, according to new research.
Your cluttered mind is a creativity killer.
The study comes out of Bar-Ilan University in Israel where researchers Shira Baror and Moshe Bar asked a group of volunteers to complete a creativity-gauging word association task. For instance, if the researchers said ‘white,’ the participants were asked to name whatever related word first popped into their heads.
Now here’s the twist. The participants had to do this while carrying various mental ‘loads’. Some were simultaneously asked to remember a string of seven digits, while others had to commit only two to memory. How did their performance differ?
“We found that a high mental load consistently diminished the originality and creativity of the response: Participants with seven digits to recall resorted to the most statistically common responses (e.g., white/black), whereas participants with two digits gave less typical, more varied pairings (e.g., white/cloud),” writes Bar in a New York Times article explaining the research.
That was true no matter how long the participants took to respond, so it wasn’t the case that those with a lot on their minds were simply slower to come up with answers. And this finding isn’t just relevant in the lab. It’s important to understand how this effect plays out in real life too, Bar insists.
“In everyday life, you may find yourself ‘loading’ your mind in various ways: memorizing a list of groceries to buy later at the supermarket, rehearsing the name of someone you just met so you don’t forget it, practicing your pitch before entering an important meeting,” he writes. “These loads can consume mental capacity, leading to dull thought and anhedonia–a flattened ability to experience pleasure.” In short, your cluttered mind is a creativity and happiness killer.
To clear some space for creativity, Bar offers a simple (and incredibly common) prescription — try meditation. That’s no doubt a great suggestion, but there are plenty of other less structured, everyday ways to unclutter your mind as well (personally, I go in for running).
And there’s always the most old school fix of all – simply seize control of your schedule and guiltlessly do nothing for an hour, a day, or even a week to get away from all those grocery lists and presentations, giving your creativity space to run wild.
Plus, New York Magazine’s Science of Us offers another thoughtful takeaway from this research. “The originality–or lack of it–that came with mental load demonstrates how creativity isn’t entirely a fixed, inborn trait,” the blog’s write-up notes. It’s a helpful reminder that you are largely in control of your own creativity.