BY: BRAEDEN ETIENNE
Creativity is the one thing that makes human beings completely unique. There’s no other animal on this planet (that we know of) that can take experiences or emotions and turn it into songs, paintings, sculptures, stories, and so much more. Every culture in the world throughout history has forms of creative expression. It doesn’t matter where in the world, or what time you come from — yes I’m talking to you time travellers — there is some form of art or creative expression happening as part of every day.
Creativity is ingrained into our DNA just as deeply as language or walking or breathing. Despite these facts, people consistently walk into The Making-Box and tell us, “I’m not creative. I could never do what you do.” While I respect and understand people feeling that way, the reality is, that excuse is a sky-high pile of poo.
Creativity and art are lumped together on a frequent basis. So if people think they aren’t artistic, they’ll think they have no creativity. However, art is simply one way creativity manifests itself. Creativity expands far beyond painting, or music or theatre, and is used every day in many more contexts.
Do you think Einstein would’ve thought up the theory of relativity without creative thinking? Do you think engineers would overcome structural conundrums without a little ingenuity? Heck, even mathematicians used a little creativity to show why 2 + 2 doesn’t necessarily equal four.
Are We Born With Creativity?
Have you seen a kid before? Of course we are.
Walk into any kindergarten classroom and you’ll see kids painting with their fingers, building full-blown structures out of sand, creating entire worlds out of the playground equipment and colourful pieces of plastic. These kids have no shortage of ideas for games, explorations, pieces of art, but why is that?
Kids simply don’t give a hoot what you think about their creative expressions. They’re just playing. The kid who’s telling you that the carpet is made of lava is the same kid who will run across a public beach in the nude without a care in the world. They haven’t been told enough times that their creativity doesn’t make sense, or isn’t appropriate for a certain context. Or worst of all, kids haven’t been told their creative behaviour is wrong.
Kids unbridled creativity can come off as silly because they’ve yet to learn the important (yet heartbreaking) lesson that there can be limitations to their ideas.
“Yes Timmy, it would be cool to build a 3-storey building out of popsicle sticks and lego, but that gunky uncapped glue-stick isn’t going to hold it all together.”
Timmy doesn’t take that personally. He just comes up with another idea.
But what happens as kids go through school? Kids gain knowledge and experience. That’s what turns them into adults. But in the process, these objections and limitations to their creative ideas start ringing with more truth.
This ability to rationalize is a good thing, for the most part. Society doesn’t need a bunch of creative-thinking kiddos running the joint. However, with more knowledge comes more hang-ups about being wrong, there’s more focus on using the knowledge we already have to solve problems, rather than explore new solutions.
Knowledge and rational thinking saves time and makes us more efficient, but we also develop a paradigm where there are right ways and wrong ways to do everything. We pass or we fail tests. We’re given grades on our art projects. And while it’s important to learn structure and rules, this type of thinking can wreak havoc on a creative mind.
Suddenly, people are less concerned with expressing themselves, and more concerned with fitting in and following the rules. And without flexing that creativity muscle, we turn into people who no longer believe they have capacity or a need to be creative.
It’s not meant to bum you out. However, if you’ve said you’re not creative, try to remember yourself as a child. Perhaps you are not the creative catastrophe you’ve been telling yourself you are.
How Does Creativity Even Work?
There’s a few different schools of thought in how creativity actually works. And it’s actually a tougher question to answer than you might think.
Creativity comes as inspiration either based on past life events or experiences mixed with new contexts and understanding. A lot of the time, you don’t expect a creative thought, it sort of just pops into the brain. And conversely, if you force creativity, it often yields unsatisfying results.
The creative process is a complex one, and doesn’t have clear rules. Everyone’s process is different. And when the creative process is working, the focus is on the moment. We can feel when the creative process is working in full capacity, event without completely understanding exactly how it’s working. Many artists describe a “zone” or a flow state that happens when creativity is working. When they’re in the pocket of their creativity and able to intensely focus on the art or work at hand. There’s no sure-fire way to induce this state, but we’ve all felt it in different ways.
This flow can be described as an intense focus, where self-editing and concerns of others are turned off. Professional athletes have described being in this state as well. When you see Kyle Lowery sinking three after three, it’s because self doubt is turned off.
So this is where we look to science. Can it shed some light on what happens inside our brains while we’re creating?
A study by Charles Limb from John Hopkins University found that when people are being creative, the neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) light up. This makes sense. This area of the brain is typically involved with retrieving and connecting long term memories; decision-making; drawing associations and emotional responses between different times, locations, and events; as well as self-expression.
However, no part of the brain works in complete isolation. One brain part getting in the way of the creative process is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). This is the part of the brain associated with impulse control. It lights up anytime someone second-guesses an initial impulse. As we grow up, this part of the brain becomes stronger. It’s the part of the brain that says “we can’t”, “we shouldn’t”, and reminds you what failure feels like.
Can you shut that off?
Obviously, impulse control is a good thing in everyday life. It’s what keeps you from the seventh plate of food at a buffet, or crashing your car into that butthole in the Hummer. But impulse control also blocks creative impulses.
While uncomfortably full stomachs, and damaged automobiles are consequences one should avoid, the consequences of a poor creative decisions are hardly as dire. In fact, self-control impulses during the creative process are going to halt it, preventing the creator from making or exploring new connections and associations.
In the study from Charles Limb, he found that improvisers (in this case, jazz pianists) were able to shut down the function of the DLPFC when they were improvising, while the MPC was still lighting up. In other words, the self-censoring and impulse control section of the brain stopped telling the pianists what they could or couldn’t do in their improvisation.
After Charles Limb’s research, more research was done to find if the same brain state happened in other improvisational artists like freestyle rappers, caricature artists, writers, and comedians.
Limb says “that the state of creativity is a different functional brain state, and it’s measurable.” And the idea that some people are left-brained creatives, while others are right-brained logical thinkers is a myth. A creative brain state can happen in anyone. More to that, this skill can be learned and practiced. Those with more practice in improvisation are far more skilled at turning off the impulse control part of their brain to focus solely on making new creative connections.
Ask the Creatives
So I’ve taken upon myself to find some students from improv classes who are also creatives in other areas to ask about their experience of creativity and if practicing improv has affected their creative process at all.
The first person I asked, was my friend, Alanna Gurr, who is a wonderfully talented musician playing at Elora Riverfest this year, and co-founder of Holy Smokes Music Festival (a festival for female and non-binary musicians). Not only that, she improvises with me on The Making-Box Battalion.
I asked what her creative experiences with music were like before and after taking her first improv class:
“Before I started improv, I had been involved in music for 10+ years, in a band or solo. We have toured across Canada and I am very comfortable being on stage while playing an instrument, but always tensed up when the music stopped and I needed to speak into a microphone. As a teenager I had tried to get involved with drama classes and auditioned for plays but never got into anything as I was told I was too quiet/had too soft of a voice so I lost a lot of self-confidence after that about being on stage...improv has definitely helped me loosen up, I have played hundreds of shows on all different types of stage but improv was definitely the scariest of them all in the beginning. Once I was able to jump that hurdle and start to learn how to embrace the weird and awkward it really helped me to just have more fun and gain self-confidence back.”
When I told Alanna that improv had some pretty measurable effects on the brain when it comes to self-doubt and self-confidence, she responded:
“Thinking on it, I don't think I realized that that happened but I can definitely see it looking back. There was a point where I had to say to myself, If I was going to continue with doing improv, I had to drop the judgment on myself. I allow myself to look back after a show and think about moments where I was having fun, but if I go into the self-doubt section of my brain I quickly retreat. I know that being hard on myself will only hinder my creativity next time so I have to compartmentalize that.”
I also asked another pal and comedy short-film maker (he also makes our “You’re a Weirdo” promotional videos), Jasper Tey, about his creative process. He recently screened one of his shorts at the Toronto Sketch Festival and I was wondering if improv had any changes on his creative process.
“[My] ideas are inspired by day-to-day life events, and my brain's tendency to ask "what if" questions about things that happen in the world we live in. I'd love to imagine twisted scenarios and outcomes of everyday life events in a satirical way. I've always had these thoughts since I was a kid, and they'd be locked away in my head for self-amusement. At some point during my university days, I was inspired to buy a blank journal book and turn it into an "Idea Book." I started writing all my weird thoughts and ideas down, so that I wouldn't forget them. After I discovered filmmaking, the ideas in the book formed into premises for comedy sketches. I'd guess that creativity is a result of the way my brain is wired, and the tendency to have an eccentric imagination about everything in life. And filmmaking and improv have been amazing outlets to express and nurture that imagination.”
Jasper also noticed a change to his creative process when improvising, versus filmmaking:
“I know that when doing improv, there's often no time and room for self-doubt. I'm too busy making sure I am present and supporting my fellow players on stage, and there are just so many things on the mental list ahead of self-doubt. I think it once again relates to surrounding myself with others, and creating that environment where I feel supported, creatively...I practice improv to stay connected with the people, and to keep getting better at it. When it goes well, it feels like achievements are being unlocked in a video game. When it's not going well, it's usually a reminder that my skills are rusty from not practicing enough improv. I suppose it's like an ongoing source of creative fuel.”
Not exactly related, but something Jasper said also made me consider another way improv helps remove doubt. Friends!
“Before improv, I was more of a solo creator. I had a lot of ideas and films I wanted to create, but only myself to rely on. It was really tough to find people to work with, and I felt alone, given that I didn't know many people from my day-to-day life that were of the creative type. After improv, I was suddenly among a growing community of people who enjoyed the world of weird and creative, and these people got excited about the things I wanted to create. My process changed from trying to do it all alone and being discouraged when an idea was too overwhelming to execute on my own (pre-improv), to more easily being able to involve others and collaborate with people on projects (post-improv).”
It’s far easier to execute creative ideas when you have a group of people who understand the importance of saying “yes, and” to creative inspirations and not affirming creative doubts or causing new ones entirely. That partnered with Limb’s neurological discoveries, starts showing why an improvisational tool kit is one you’ll want to acquire.
*Some answers have been edited for clarity
Wrapping it Up
If someone doesn’t feel creative, it seems counterintuitive to try improv — the art of being creative spontaneously. But looking at science and stories, you may find that learning to turn off the doubt holding you back, could actually be a great first step in unlocking creative potential. And as Alanna and Jasper pointed out, improv is perfectly collaborative, where instead of being a solo creative, you’re part of one big collaboration, there isn’t as much creative pressure on the individual.
Research into the neurology of improv is still very new. Of course all kinds of relationships between the brain and the creative process are yet to be discovered. And talking to more creatives, it became clear to me, just how different everyone’s processes are. However, the fact we have scientific evidence showing improv’s ability to shut down doubts, coupled with promoting acceptance of other people’s ideas, you are guaranteed to put forth something new you would never have dreamed up on your own.
Everyone doubts themselves when it comes to creative ideas - no matter how creative you are. However, it’s encouraging to see that learning and practicing improvisation can begin to reverse the programming keeping our creativity at bay. So whether you’re putting together your next big artistic project, collaborating on new ideas at work, or brainstorming your next big scientific paper, improv may just be the first step to your next big breakthrough.
Your brain on improv Washington Post:
The neuroscience of genius and creativity video:
Professional Comedians vs. Amateur Comedians brain functions: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00597/full
Interview with Charles Limb:
What Improv Teaches Us About Creativity:
How Improvising Makes You a More Creative Person: