Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Boost Your Creativity

We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of the absurd – of embracing this idea that life has no meaning and all that spins from that insight. Part of that is cultivating a detached view of yourself.

By cultivating a detached view of yourself, we mean that you try to achieve a little distance in how you look at what you are doing. You see the bigger picture around you. You see yourself as playing a role. Kind of hard to describe, but we know sometimes we sit at our favorite café and “zoom out” – like in those commercials where they show a guy, then the guy around his house, then zoom out to his neighborhood, then the U.S., then the planet… It’s just a way to disengage your immediate emotional self and gain perspective. You pull away and see things at a more abstract level.

Well, it turns out this kind of detachment can also boost your creativity.

A reader of ours, Jack Sparrow, forwarded to us a piece in Scientific American about this idea of “psychological distance.” It concludes that achieving this state of mind can actually boost creativity. An excerpt:

“Psychological distance affects the way we mentally represent things, so that distant things are represented in a relatively abstract way while psychologically near things seem more concrete. Consider, for instance, a corn plant. A concrete representation would refer to the shape, color, taste, and smell of the plant, and connect the item to its most common use – a food product. An abstract representation, on the other hand, might refer to the corn plant as a source of energy or as a fast growing plant. These more abstract thoughts might lead us to contemplate other, less common uses for corn, such as a source for ethanol, or to use the plant to create mazes for children. What this example demonstrates is how abstract thinking makes it easier for people to form surprising connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, such as fast growing plants (corn) and fuel for cars (ethanol).”

And the conclusion:

“This research has important practical implications. It suggests that there are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality. Perhaps the modern environment, with its increased access to people, sights, music, and food from faraway places, helps us become more creative not only by exposing us to a variety of styles and ideas, but also by allowing us to think more abstractly. So the next time you’re stuck on a problem that seems impossible don’t give up. Instead, try to gain a little psychological distance, and pretend the problem came from somewhere very far away.”

You can find the full piece here.


  1. This is great. It reminds me of Buddhist meditation--seeing without the illusion of "self," the goal being a more separated experience from attachments and feelings.

    I recently wrote a post on a topic that could be considered "absurd" in regards to creativity on my blog, The Cultivator.

    Here is the link:

    In it is the Zen philosophy of "Beginner's Mind," which says that going back to basics unlocks creative paths that seem impossible by an "expert."

    While it's not perfectly "absurd," it does downplay experience and knowledge as if they don't matter, even when time and time again those two traits are held as being decisive
    qualities in a given field and/or position.

  2. A great movie to watch in the context of this idea is "The Truman Show" (Jim Carrey 1998). In a way we are all participants in our own Truman show, observing and directing life as it happens.

    The connection between creativity and detachment is also profoundly practical, even biological (in my opinion).

    "Ego," in the negative sense of the term, is something to be nurtured and watched and protected. All of this takes up energy and resources, just as a mother expends considerable energy and resources caring for a demanding child.

    To be focused on self (i.e. non-detached) is to be focused on ego, which reduces available mental energy for whimsical explorations. This is why self-centered and stressed out people generally have a tougher time being creative.

    A sense of detachment is also required to let the brain goof around -- to engage in "combinatory play" as Einstein called it. Overly ego-oriented people are more likely to use up the free minutes and moments worrying about their problems, concerns about self-image as others perceive them, and so on.

    To shun the caring and feeding of ego, then, is to at least temporarily lift a draining burden from the mind. Releasing ego (i.e. becoming detached) also allows one to explore inquiries such as "what if I am wrong" -- important in opening up pathways otherwise closed to those who cannot risk the ego damage of being wrong.

    To have no stake in a predefined conceptual outcome -- i.e. to be fully detached -- is what true "open mindedness" is about, allowing for greater creative range in result.