Why creative exercises won’t make you more creative, but can

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Have you ever tried playing with creativity exercises or “brain training” games?

Typically they work like this: you’re presented with a problem and have to perform the task in a certain amount of time. Your goal is to progressively get faster at solving the problems. The idea is that: if you can solve the same type of problem quickly, you’ve expanded your knowledge and thinking capabilities.

A classic creative exercise comes in the form of three seemingly random words. Known as a Random Association test, it’s your job to come up with a fourth word that ties all of the previous words together.

So, for example, you would get the words: blue, cake, and cottage.

After a little bit of thinking you should be able to come up with a fourth word that can be added to all three to make sense. Can you figure it out?

Because creativity is a function of connecting concepts in the brain, those with seemingly more creative potential should be able to come up with that fourth, key word nearly instantly (if you’re stumped on the word, in this case it was “cheese”).

Software has been designed to run through problems like this one (and others, including: incomplete figure (where you try to make sense of a random squiggly line), riddles, and relating one subject to different formats, sudoku. All in an attempt to “expand our thinking.”

While these types of “brain training” exercises are fun (and certainly make us feel more intelligent or creative), studies have found that brain games are bogus.

It’s true. Creative exercises won’t make you any more creative, just as brain training ultimately won’t make you any more intelligent.

Researchers discovered that, while brain training games certainly help participants become better at the game itself, there was no evidence that the exercises helped in other areas of thinking. There’s no distinct impact to intelligence or creative potential, the studies have shown.

Let’s explore further.

When tasked with a certain type of problem, say, spotting a hidden pattern in a seemingly random series of numbers, study participants would be timed to see how quickly they could find a solution. Then, for a series of weeks, the participants would practice the same exercise, or similar exercises, to improve their time.

At the end of the study period scientists found a funny result: the participants had, in-fact, learned how to perform the initial problem at a much quicker pace. The training had worked! But when faced with a similar problem – like spotting the wrong number in a pattern – the participants were no better off than when they first began the study. The training didn’t work.

Their conclusion? Practicing one type of exercise can make you better at that one task, but not on similar, subsequent tasks.

So does that mean that all thinking and creativity exercises are completely a waste of time? Yes and no.

Practicing exercises that are designed to get you think creatively can help you identify new techniques for stimulating original thought. Of course that doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything, but the more you experiment and try solving new types of problems or puzzles, the more you’ll find yourself in-tune with how your brain best works under circumstances requiring original thought.

Don’t expect to be any wiser after “training your brain,” but do expect to learn about your own thinking patterns and capabilities. Of course a problem with this mentality is that there’s no singular type of exercise that will help you spot your own creative capabilities, due to each person’s brain and thinking processes being so utterly unique.

Still, paired with thought-reflecting activities like meditation or yoga and you’ve got yourself a recipe for turning into a creative genius.

That’s not all.

There’s another aspect of the exercises that’s worth mentioning: they make us feel good. And that change in mood can dramatically help open your mind, soften your focus, and build up creative potential.

It’s the ego boost you get from solving a puzzle or particularly challenging riddle that may be exactly what you need to keep thinking creatively.

Research into how your mood affects creativity has shown that happiness and a feeling of accomplishment are two essential feelings that stimulate creative thought.

The information comes from Baas M,, De Dreu CK., and Nijstad BA. of the University of Amersterdam, who showed that positive and activating moods energize the brain.

Even if the brainy exercises you’re doing won’t help you be more creative or overwhelmingly intelligent in the long run, they’re certainly likely to make you more creative in the hours following their completion.

So go ahead and do some exercises, especially if you’re feeling creatively stumped. Here are 5 exercises to get you started.

If you have a favorite, leave it in the comments.

Original illustration by Alan Klim.