There might not be a worse feeling than when you have some kind of huge project due and the creative part of your brain just slowly grinds to a halt. Some people have little rituals they go through to try to jump-start their muse, from "take a relaxing walk" to "steal someone else's idea and then secretly murder them." But why not look to science to figure out what actually works?
Well, we don't guarantee that any of the below will work for you -- all we can say is that smarter people than us have gotten them to work under scientifically controlled conditions. They also happen to cost absolutely nothing, so if you need to force you brain to start thinking outside the box, try to ...
#5. Work at the Worst Time of the Day, With the Worst People
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When it comes to solving problems, we like to think we know how to get the best results out of ourselves. We know if we're morning people or not, and the types of people we work well with. When we're in college, we choose our class schedules around the time of day our brains work best, and pick out our own study groups based on the unique blend of introverts, extroverts, and Asians that we know will complement us best. In the professional world, the more success you achieve, the more freedom you get to choose who you work with and when.
Well, science is here to do what science does best and tell us that we're doing it all wrong. As we've covered briefly before, you are actually way better at solving problems that require creativity and insight if you work on them during the time of day when you think you're at your worst. When you're telling everyone not to bother talking to you until you've had another cup of coffee, it turns out your mind is at its most brilliant.
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"4 p.m. already? Just give me a little more time -- I can't do anything at all before six."
In one study, morning people actually performed better at problem-solving when they were brought into the lab at night, whereas night people scored better during the morning sessions.
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"Wait, pickles with hamburgers stuffed in the middle!"
We're also pretty bad at judging how well we're working within a group -- studies found that people were worse at solving problems in groups with those that they felt most comfortable. Even weirder, the groups that had a merry old time fucking up the problem they were supposed to be solving had no idea. According to the study, "The teams that felt they worked least effectively together were ironically the top performers."
This flies in the face of everything we believe about how things get accomplished. We think that great teams work extraordinarily well together and experience success, and the good times keep on rolling. Whenever a great band, team, or company looks back on the time they were kicking the world's ass, they usually describe it as magic. It turns out there's a reason they don't describe it as fun.
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Which is going to make reading the eventual post-breakup interviews with members of fun. confusing as shit.
Think about the Beatles. They were the most famous rock band of all time, they had an almost supernatural ability to write music that would make them more famous, and they couldn't last a decade. With hundreds of millions of dollars and unprecedented fame hanging in the balance, they called it quits faster than most failed marriages. If you prefer less artsy examples, keep in mind that Michael Jordan punched Steve Kerr in the face in practice the year they set a record for wins in a single season.
Being with your friends in a comfortable social setting is a great way to make yourself terrible at solving problems. It's the same as the morning people doing their best work at night. Your well-rested, socially comfortable brain is pretty good at thinking inside the box -- accessing that sensible place that appreciates old jokes and rejects ideas that seem too "weird." But if you have to solve a truly difficult problem, you're better off at 4 a.m. on your third slice of cold pizza with a room full of people wondering what it will take to get John Lennon to stop being such a dick.
"Imagine you're not a douche."
"It's too hard, I won't try."
That's when you decide that you might as well chase whatever off-the-wall notion pops into your head, regardless of how tap-dancingly ridiculous it may appear. You start following those threads to their conclusion, until boom, you suddenly have a great idea that would never have occurred to you if you were operating during your optimal work hours with the people you like hanging out with, because your brain's anti-nonsense detectors would've been too strong.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid ... WHIP GUN!"
#4. Try Doodling -- But Only Make Smooth, Looping Lines
You've probably seen people who, when hunched over a notepad and trying to force an idea, will start lazily doodling smiley faces or spirals in the margins. It probably just looks like a sad physical manifestation of their boredom and/or lack of any useful ideas, but they may be jump-starting their brain. It's not just aimless doodling that does it -- the success depends on what they draw, according to researchers at Tufts and Stanford universities, who found that drawing "fluid" designs can help abstract thinking.
They gathered together 30 subjects and divided them into two groups -- one group was made to trace a bunch of jagged lines, while the other group drew a single elegant, looping strand.
They they were forced to eat them.
Following the tracing session (but presumably before snacks and nap time), each group was given a creative-thinking task. For instance, they were given a set of "exemplars," which are words that exemplify certain categories -- "triceratops" would be a strong exemplar of the category "dinosaurs," but not so much of the category "college football coaches." The researchers then asked the groups to assign each exemplar to a category, and found that the group that had engaged in fluid movement prior to the task (drawing the looping line) was linking weak exemplars to completely unrelated categories, such as insisting that "camels" are an acceptable example of "vehicles."
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"The only way over that ridge is to ramp it. Where's your nitrous switch?"
The point is, the group that was coming up with the most abstract and inventive answers was the one that had done the drawing with the most fluid, uninterrupted movements. The other group did the bare minimum, providing only boring and obvious answers until they were presumably asked to leave before further sabotaging everyone else's creativity.
The theory is that it's more about the hand motion than the drawings -- the brain likes fluid, continuous movements rather than abrupt, rapidly shifting ones full of right angles and sharp corners. Whether it's just more relaxing, or it somehow makes the brain more "fluid" in its thinking, it just seems to open up your creativity.
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"I just solved the energy crisis with fish!"
#3. Raise Your Eyebrows
Despite what you may think, raising your eyebrows isn't just the universal signal for "I didn't know Ted Danson was in this movie" and/or bracing for an impending face punch. According to a study published in the Creativity Research Journal, the simple act of widening your eyeholes can actually serve as an adrenaline boost for your creative thinking.
You see, there are two different types of attention -- perceptual attention, which is given to your physical experiences, and conceptual attention, which is allotted to your mental processes. The two are inextricably linked, like conjoined twins jumping rope with their umbilical cord. If one speeds up or slows down, so does the other. Likewise, if you increase your spectrum of perceptual attention (by opening your eyes really wide, for example, or going to see one of those panoramic documentaries at Epcot Center), it should kick-start your brain into broadening its scope as well, allowing you to make all kinds of creative connections that you wouldn't have been able to otherwise.
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"And that's why my eyebrows insist upon destroying the sun. Hey, wait, where are you going?"
The study tested this theory using two groups, one of which was asked to raise their eyebrows, while the other was told to keep their brows furrowed like a bunch of bitter old railroad tycoons in perpetual disapproval of their daughters' commonfolk husbands. The groups were then asked to come up with a caption for an image of a dog lying on a bed with a bagel in its mouth, because the really good science is only made by crazy people.
Anyway, the group with the raised eyebrows suggested things like "Betty the Beagle Beds a Bagel," which, as you may have noticed, is a blazingly hilarious piece of sexual innuendo. The narrowed-eyed group, however, offered baffling captions, such as "Dog Who Breaks Rules," which isn't even a complete sentence. It also mysteriously refers to some prohibitive legislation governing dogs and the eating of breakfast food that, to our knowledge, has never existed at any point in the history of civilization. The point is, the first answer is clever and unobvious, while the second is lazy to the point of being meaningless.
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"Woman be flower head."
The idea is that the group whose members had their eyebrows raised were receiving a greater amount of perceptual attention that they were subsequently able to translate into a greater amount of conceptual attention, thereby enhancing their nonlinear thinking. The other group was more or less squinting at the picture, which diminished their perceptual attention, and the best they could manage creatively was scribbling down some B.S. that sounded like the second half of a knock-knock joke.
Hey, give it a shot -- who knows? If anyone sees you staring wide-eyed at your computer screen like it's a doorway into a magic kingdom, they'll just assume you're really into your work, or that you're having a stroke.
Or at the very least, they'll think you're psychotic and just leave you alone.