Tag Archives: Creativity

Give Your Brain a Rest

Generally, our minds have no problem with coming up with lots of ideas — it’s fairly easy for us to think about creating something new. And with perseverance, we can often turn our ideas into reality.

But too frequently, we don’t recognize which ideas should have just stayed in our minds until we’ve already expended our time, our energy and our resources — just think about New Coke, Qwikster or M. Night Shyamalan.

So is there way for us to better determine which ideas are worth pursuing in the first place, and which are not?

It turns out that there is. While hard work is the way ideas get actualized, rest is an effective way for us to evaluate our ideas.

In a recent article for Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment which shows the value of a mental break. In this study, 112 students were given two minutes to create as many solutions as possible to the problem of how to improve the experience of waiting on line for the cash register. Half the group was then told to go straight to work with no break, while the other half played a unrelated video game for two minutes, giving their brains a short respite.

While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, there was a huge difference in terms of how well they recognized good ideas. As Lehrer explains:

[G]iving the unconscious a few minutes…proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.

And yet it’s not simply taking a break that helps us evaluate our ideas — it’s also about using that rest to engender positive feelings. As Lehrer tells us, “Taking a break is important. But make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.”

So rest and joy are two things that can help us assess our ideas before we try to transform them into reality. And those two aspects are what define one of Judaism’s signature contributions to the world — Shabbat.

Judaism recognizes that unbridled creativity isn’t all that constructive. And so Jewish tradition has even set up guidelines to help us deliberately stop creating.  According to the Mishnah, there are thirty-nine specific activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, which include lighting fires, writing, and cooking. The common theme among those thirty-nine items (called melakhot) is that they were the specific actions that the Israelites undertook when the were building the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.

So even though building the mishkan was sacred work, the Torah reminds us that even sacred work needs to stop for one day a week. And to the Rabbis, that meant that no matter how important our work may be, on Shabbat, anything we want to make, anything we want to do, anything we want to design — it has to wait.

And yet taking a break is only part of Shabbat. While we are supposed to be intentionally non-creative on that day, the Rabbis also outline certain things we should do to help make Shabbat a day of joy and peace.  Not only are we supposed to shamor, “guard” Shabbat by avoiding certain tasks, we are also supposed to zachor, “remember” Shabbat by elevating our sense of holiness and delight.

So on Shabbat, we’re supposed to have a festive meal, with special food and a celebratory atmosphere. We’re supposed to be with friends and family — and to truly be with them. We’re supposed to read, to reflect, and to rediscover the blessings in our lives.

Ultimately, Shabbat is there to remind us that it’s far too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant business and constant busyness. And as Lehrer argues, constant creativity prevents us from distinguishing mediocrity from excellence.

So if we want to invest our precious resources in developing only our best ideas, then we need to structure our time so that we have an opportunity to stop creating, and give our brains a rest.

 

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The Opportunity of Multiple (Aspects of Our) Personalities

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about our natural desire to want to “create” our identity. The idea is that we want to be the ones in control of how we see ourselves, and when we are denied that opportunity, we’re likely to push back.

In the last few days, there have been several new articles about how Americans don’t want to be boxed in when it comes to our sense of identity. Sunday’s New York Times had an article entitled “More Young Americans Identify as Mixed Race,” and author Susan Saluny notes that

[m]any young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”

But while it’s not a surprise that young Americans want to choose how they present themselves in different situations, what is surprising is that when people do have a chance to embrace multiple aspects of their identity, they end up being significantly more creative. Author Jonah Lehrer explains:

According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity.

In the first experiment, the researchers gathered together a large group of Asian Americans and asked them to design a dish containing both Asian and American ingredients. In the second study, they asked female engineers to design a new mobile communication device. In both cases, subjects who are better able to draw on their mixed backgrounds at the same time were more creative than those who could only draw on one of their backgrounds. They designed tastier dishes and came up with much better communication devices.

Because their different social identities were associated with different problem-solving approaches, their minds remained more flexible, better able to experiment with multiple creative strategies.In contrast, Asian Americans who felt that they had to “turn off” their Asian background in an American setting – this is an example of “low identity integration” – or female engineers who believed that they had to be less feminine to be effective at work, had a harder time drawing on their wealth of background knowledge. (Jonah Lehrer’s “Frontal Cortex” blog — “The Advantage of Dual Identities”)

I think there’s a clear reason why people with multiple senses of identity were more creative — they had started by needing to create their selves. If we have to think about who we are — a most basic and fundamental question — in new and inventive ways, then we’ll be that much more likely to start thinking of programs, products, and situations in new and inventive ways, as well.

And that provides a great opportunity to the American Jewish community, which by definition, involves at least two aspects of our identity — “American” and “Jewish.” As Rabbi Elie Kaunfer notes in his book Empowered Judaism:

That Jews are increasingly unwilling to settle for a broad definition is a positive. Why? Because someone can no longer get away with telling you “I am Orthodox” (ed. note: or equivalently, “I am Reform”) and assume that you understand what kind of Jew she is. Instead, people are forced to explain why they practice in a particular way or what, specifically, they believe in. A world without convenient categories is a world that calls on people to take more ownership of the type of Judaism they want to practice in the world…It is a major step forward because it leads to a rich discussion about what being Jewish means in our richly textured, highly individualized, twenty-first-century lives. (Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism, 147-148)

Quite simply, creativity leads to ownership. Indeed, at a recent session to learn about community organizing (a process Temple Beth El is going through now), there was a line that stuck with me: “People are not transformed by what they receive. They are transformed by what they create.”

For better or for worse in our society, we get to create our identity. So the question is whether or not that’s the end of the discussion. Do we simply say, “This is who I am,” or do we go further and say instead, “This is who I am…and this is what I want to create with it.”

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