Want to be more creative? You're better off living like a health nut than a beat poet. The latest research shows how health and creativity work together.
Thanks to a long tradition of whisky-swilling, garrett-living, chain-smoking poets and artists, in our culture at least, creativity and healthy living aren’t usually thought of as going hand in hand.
But according to the latest research, for those of us not born with the temperament of an artistic genius, the same things that make you less likely to need to see your doctor make you more likely to come up with innovative ideas.
That’s one message of fascinating lectures on the topic of what neuroscience has to teach us about optimal creative performance given by Stanford professor Baba Shiv and written up recently in Stanford Business Re:Think. Among other insights on how to coax the best out of your brain, Shiv outlines the role of physical health in creativity.
Humans are generally at their most creative, he explains, when they are physically calm (with less of the stress hormone cortisol and more serotonin present) but psychologically aroused (with plenty of dopamine kicking around).
Physical stress causes us to be risk averse, he notes, which makes us less creative, while the ideal "calm but energized" mood pushes us to be playful and stimulation seeking -- just the state we want for maximum innovation.
So how do you get to this creativity sweet spot? Forget late nights and buckets of coffee and try this approach instead:
The path begins with proper rest. A minimum of 30 minutes -- but ideally up to 2 hours -- of deep sleep reduces cortisol levels and boosts serotonin.
That means arriving in bed relaxed by taking a hot shower or bath beforehand, avoiding alcohol in the two hours before bedtime, and turning off all lights, including those illuminating electronic devices, which affect the pineal gland and make people think they should be awake and alert. It also means eating lightly in the evening, and not less than three or four hours before retiring. Digesting a big meal can hamper sleep.
Diet matters, too. A high-protein breakfast is easily converted into serotonin and dopamine, while caffeine is a physiological arouser, meaning it will amplify whatever emotions one is already feeling. If a person is motivated, it will help him or her; if stressed, it will agitate -- the last thing an innovator needs.
Cardiovascular exercise is also critical. When the heart muscles pump faster, they release a peptide believed to help produce serotonin. That means considering a brisk walk before an afternoon meeting -- or better yet, walk and talk.
A healthy breakfast? Adequate sleep? Plenty of exercise? If this advice sounds like it’s more likely to come from your yoga teacher than your friendly neighborhood poet, so be it.
The truth, according to Baba Shiv, is that, for most of us, healthy living is the basis for creativity, not its enemy.
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel