Even if you aren’t aware, right now you are priming your brain to either think creatively or not.
Priming is the process of preparing something for a particular use, and the brain inside your head is susceptible to priming just as anything else.
That is to say: we can use implicit memory to “teach” ourselves how to think more creatively, even when we’re not paying attention.
Research conducted by John Bargh of Yale University showed that we can prime ourselves to judge others as being warm and kind simply by associating them with warm drinks. While Michael L. Slepian and Max Weisbuch of Tufts University conducted a study which indicated simply being exposed to a glowing lightbulb caused study participants to want to engage more creatively in a test.
These types of mental priming often go without us even realizing it.
In his book, Incognito David Eagleman shares the surprising researched learned from patients with anterograde amnesia: a mental disease in which they can no longer create new memories.
Spend a day playing the game Tetris with someone who suffers from anterograde amnesia and the next day they’ll likely have no recollection of the experience (or who you even are). “However,”Eagleman writes, “if you watch them perform playing the game the following day, you’ll notice that they have improved exactly as non-amnesiacs would.”
Subtleties in our daily life, it seems, go consciously unnoticed, while our brains are rapidly performing memory associations, computations on objects and experiences, and much, much more.
Research has already shown that our eyes are capturing more information than what we think we see, and additional research has shown that much of our subconscious brain is working without our ever having known it.
In Incognito, Eagleman elegantly explains our brains by writing: “Your brain is encased in absolute blackness in the vault of your skull. It doesn’t see anything. All it knows are these little signals, and nothing else. And yet you perceive the world in all shades of brightness and colors. Your brain is in the dark but your mind constructs light.”
He continues by explaining:
“We are influenced by drives to which we have little access, and which we never would have believed had not the statistics laid them bare.”
If you have ever visited the home of an artist, writer, architect, or musician, you’ve likely encountered your own anecdotal evidence of the value subconsciousness and implicit memory can play, disguised as inspiration or drafts.
Artists tend to have framed work hanging on every wall, scraps of paper, pencils or brushed scattered around a room (or their entire home). Writers have a very clear area designated for writing, with their laptop or other writing tools in the immediate vicinity and crumpled paper notes lying around the place. While musicians have one or more instruments out and ready to strum, tap, tune, or toot.
These creative individuals are not merely producing an environment as a result of their work, they are creating an environment for priming the creativity!
Simply surrounding yourself with the right tools or inspiration can go a long way, particularly if you propel yourself to interact or otherwise focus your attention on those things on a regular basis.
In another study, conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland–College Park, the University of Chicago, International University Bremen, and the University of Wurzburg, it was discovered that simply having a broad focus of attention helped study participants to think creatively. Whereas a more narrow and closed perspective of attention led to less creative results on three separate tests.
What all of these studies (and ample anecdotal evidence) goes to show is that we can prime ourselves to think creatively by simply surrounding ourselves with things that remind us of creativity: inspirational works of art or posters, pencils or pens and notepads, quotes from creative inspirations, and anything else we personally associate with creative thinking.
More than that: we can use a broad swath of varying inspirational objects in order to amplify their effects. If you’re a writer who finds him or herself surrounded by many tidbits of writing inspiration (whether in the form of writing tools, or books), you’re likely to feel even more creatively empowered if you have a few blank canvases and paint brushes lying around. If you’re an artist, consider surrounding yourself with photographic inspiration or architectural blueprints.
Perhaps the reason so many creative greats in history – like Picasso and da Vinci – often found themselves inspired was because they surrounded themselves with things that inspired great curiosity and the drive to explore ideas outside of their heads.
Look around you now, what about the environment might be providing subtle cues to your subconscious about how you get inspired? What can you add or take away to make wherever you are now more inspirational, even if only subconsciously so?
Illustration by Kaeli Justus.