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


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.

A creative exercise to push your thinking


Let’s try something. It’s a creative exercise I sometimes do that invokes original thinking and – if you follow it all the way through – will make you feel pretty damn good about your creative potential.

But first, what do I mean when I say “creativity?” Creativity is more or less a process for developing original thought. Simple as that.

Often the pursuit of creativity is the result of some need, typically from encountering a new problem or situation that requires a solution. It’s driven by desire, pain, or – more commonly – boredom.

The process is surprisingly simple when it comes to a general scope, though the neurological processes behind creativity are immensely complicated and we’re only just now beginning to figure all that out.

What modern research is beginning to show is that the brain functions in a way that makes creative thinking appear entirely innate: constantly making connections between ideas day and night. We see in toddlers this natural inclination to explore, to poke and prod and mess with things, even when those “things” don’t seem to make much of any sense at all.

This drive to explore and find creative solutions is a natural part of our very desire to live, to resolve boredom, stress, etc.

Unfortunately, as we grow older there is a large amount of pressure to avoid asking questions, to taking risks, and to do what once came so natural to us in our creative prime.

Suddenly, in adulthood, we’re faced with the overwhelming pressure that we have to appear intelligent and overwhelmingly confident. We either can’t afford to be wrong, weak, or curios.

The result? Creativity looks hard.

It doesn’t have to be, as it is a natural way for us to think, but we place so many limitations around the process that the mere act of being creative becomes something almost mystical or magical.

So that’s where this exercise comes into play. It’s about getting back to that childhood curiosity and discovering new concepts.

Here’s how it works.

We’re going to think of a problem with a major constraint to it. For this example our problem is this: you have to travel from one island to another far away, and you can’t use an airplane to get there.

What do you do?

A good response is to take a motorboat, if you’re bold you may even think of swimming, but this island is extremely far so swimming is out. To spur our creativity we need to get rid of our initial answers.

In-fact, that’s the real aim of this creative exercise: keep finding answers and omitting them as you go in order to force yourself to keep seeking new solutions until you find what that seems really creative to you.

So the initial problem has changed: now you can’t take an airplane to fly there, and you can’t use a motorized boat. Your solution needs to be fairly realistic, so no atom-bending or anything like that.

What about a kayak or canoe? A helicopter? Maybe you could find a really, really high cliff and use a hang-glider? Rent a submarine? Jetski? Hitch a ride with a dolphin or sea turtle?

Those all seem fairly obvious at this point too, so let’s get rid of them as possibilities too.

Take a minute to think about how you could get to the island now. Take your time, there are no right or wrong answers and nobody is judging you.

If you’re having trouble: that’s alright, that’s expected, but keep thinking. What are your options?

You know you can’t fly and you can’t use a boat, but you still likely have to stay close to the water. What about a really, really long bridge? That would take some time, but it could absolutely work.

So let’s get rid of that possibility too. No bridges or tightrope walking.

When you start limiting the possibilities new, creative solutions will start to reveal themselves. If you’re feeling trumped, relax and let your mind wander. The solutions you’re looking for are right there waiting for you to discover them, guaranteed.

If you really start to struggle, ask a friend to participate in the experiment with you. Their answers are undoubtedly going to surprise you.

The point of the exercise isn’t to get stumped, or frustrated, it’s to invoke a feeling of discovery. To understand that there’s always more possibilities, certainly more than what you think of on the first, second, third, or even tenth try. But the only way you’re going to discover creative solutions is to keep exploring, to keep pressing yourself, to not accept an answer as final.

Try changing the problem: in what ways could you make $100 tomorrow? Omit the answers as they come. How could you resolve world hunger? Again: deny every solution as it makes itself evident. Change the problem and keep exploring until you feel accomplished. There is ultimately no final, right or wrong, answer.

My solution to the initial problem? A giant, plastic, inflatable ball that you can use to run across the water. It’s going to be a long run, but if you move quick enough you should make it.

Original photo via NASA Goddard.