How often did we hear the following during our career: “If you want to be successful at what you do as an MSL, you will need to think differently, you will need to think outside the box, you will need to differentiate yourselves, you will need to demonstrate critical thinking”. What is particular about these short statements is that they are the foundation of what is known as creativity. But can creativity be taught, can we improve our creative skills, and are there any simple tips that we can incorporate in our day-to-day work that would enable us to become more creative? The answer is a resounding yes!
In this short paper, we will first give the reader the opportunity to assess their own level of creativity by giving them the chance to resolve simple word puzzles. We will then talk about the brain mechanism of creativity (something that I must do, as I am a neuroscientist!) and lastly, we will provide three situations that are under our control that can help all of us become more creative.
- Assessing your level of creativity
The Remote Associates Test (RAT) is a test of creative potential. It was developed by Martha Mednick in 1962 and has since been considered a valid measure of creativity. You can find more information by clicking on the following link: https://www.remote-associates-test.com. Each RAT test of creative potential presents three cue words that are linked by a fourth word, which is the correct answer. Here is an example:
Cottage / Swiss / Cake: Cheese
In this example of RAT, considered a very easy one to solve, the correct answer is cheese as it can be linked with the previous three words: cottage cheese, swiss cheese, and cheesecake. Let’s look at four other examples ranging from very easy, to easy, medium, and hard. If you can answer these 4 RATs, there is a good chance that you are creative. If you cannot, don’t despair as we will later provide three tips that will enable us to become more creative. Here are the four examples, of which you can find the answers either at the end of the article or by simply clicking on the above link:
cream / skate / water: __________
fish / mine / rush: __________
opera / hand / dish: __________
stick / maker / point:__________
It is a well-accepted fact that people responding with related but nontypical word associations can be seen as creative. In fact, word association tasks have often been explicitly linked with creativity. The theory of creativity specifically relates word associations to cognitive representation and defines creativity in terms of the formation of new associations or combinations of cognitive elements that are in some way useful. Thus, this theory of creativity is also compatible with the process suggested that results from positive affect, a process involving making new associations and combining cognitive elements in new ways (Isen, Daubman & Nowicki, 1987). If you remember my most recent article published in the previous issue of the MSL Journal on insights, the MSLs that are very good at finding insights are often the ones that can connect things that on the surface don’t seem related at all, but after further reflection and thinking, are related.
The ability to think in a flexible manner, something often demonstrated by the best MSLs when put in front of unexpected challenging situations, through the association of observations, opinions, facts, or even data, has been proposed as a critical component of creativity and insight. And cognitive flexibility is the capacity to inhibit a dominant response when it represents a non-optimal or inappropriate solution to a problem and to enable access to more remote alternatives (Alezander, Hillier, Smith, Tivarus & Beversdorf, 2007).
- The brain mechanism of creativity
Insight and analytical problem-solving are associated with different patterns of brain activity. For one thing, the right hemisphere, generally, seems to make stronger contributions as people process insight problems and recognize their solutions. More specifically, compared with solving problems without insight, solving with insight involves stronger activity in the right temporal regions thought to be important for integrating distant semantic associations. Additional brain regions show similar but weaker “insight effects”, such as the anterior cingulate, posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), parahippocampal cortex (PHC), right superior frontal gyrus (SFG), and right inferior parietal lobe (IPL) (Subramaniam, Kounios, Parrish & Jung-Beeman, 2008).
Positive affect systematically influences performance on many cognitive tasks due to an increase in dopamine. Creative problem-solving is improved, in part, because increased dopamine release in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) improves cognitive flexibility and facilitates the selection of cognitive perspective. So positive affect is associated with increased brain dopamine. For example, creative problem-solving is improved because conditions of positive affect are associated with increased dopamine levels in frontal cortical areas (i.e., prefrontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)) (Ashby, Isen & Turken, 1999).
In addition, a positive mood facilitates the shift toward creativity and ultimately finding an insight by modulating the ACC activity, at both the preparation and the solution time periods, in a manner that enhances the detection of multiple competing associations. Therefore, someone who can eliminate incorrect association (or solution path) is better “prepared” to detect and to switch attention to the correct association; if this attention suddenly brings the correct solution into awareness, the solver experiences an “Aha!” (Subramaniam, Kounios, Parrish & Jung-Beeman, 2008). The positive mood could therefore help us quickly eliminate what “does not make any sense” while quickly shifting to what “does make sense”.
A study has shown that with acute low-intensity exercise that is minimally stressful, hippocampal activation and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) expression can be achieved lending support to the idea that mild exercise and not higher exercise intensities (more strenuous forms) could yield greater benefits in hippocampal functions, facilitating improvement in immediate cognitive processing such as creativity and executive control functions (Soya et al, 2007).
- Tips on how to become more creative A. Impact of positive effect on creativity
Word-association literature, as we have seen before, contains a body of information supportive of the suggestions that positive affect may influence word association and that such a finding, together with others converging on the concept of cognitive organization, might be indicative of an impact of the effect on a cognitive organization (Isen, Johnson, Mertz & Robinson, 1985).
Positive affect increases a person’s ability to organize ideas in multiple ways and access alternative cognitive perspectives. In fact, positive affect has been shown to improve performance on several tasks that typically are used as indicators of creativity or innovative problem-solving. There is a huge literature on the neurobiology of reward, and in humans, reward often induces positive affect. Thus, it is possible that many of the behavioral influences of positive affect are mediated by the same neural mechanisms that medicate reward (Ashby, Isen & Turken, 1999).
|So, you want to become a more creative MSL? Embrace positive affect. Find ways to experience joy, do things that you really enjoy, stay focused, and be active and alert. And if you want people around you to become more creative, give them compliments, give them rewards.|
B. Impact of mood on creativity
Endorphins, are a class of opiate peptides that modulate emotions within our pain-pleasure continuum, reduce intense pain and increase euphoria. Endorphin levels can be elevated by exercise and by positive social contacts (music, hugging), thereby making us feel good about ourselves and our social environment. A more joyful environment makes us more apt to solve problems in potentially stressful situations, or simply be more creative (Sylwester, 1994). In fact, a group that had received relaxation training had significantly lower mathematics anxiety and significantly higher mathematics performance at the end of the course (Sharp, Coltharp, Hurford & Cole, 2000).
Participants in good mood solved more problems, and specifically more with insight, compared with participants lower in a positive mood as mood alters preparatory activity in ACC, biasing participants to subconsciously engage in processing conducive to insight solving (Subramaniam, Kounios, Parrish & Jung-Beeman, 2008).
|So, you want to become a more creative MSL? Embrace having a good mood. Listen to music, watch a feel-good movie, hug someone, project happiness, and express positive and pleasant emotions. This is contagious; as you do this, you create an environment where suddenly, everybody becomes more creative.|
C. Impact of exercise on creativity
Prior research has documented several ways that physical activity can influence cognition. These include studies that have shown the global protective effects of exercise against cognitive decline and the competition of physical and mental activity for shared attentional resources (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). But when we think about the value of exercise, we tend to focus on the physical benefits such as lower blood pressure, a healthier heart, or even a more attractive physique. But over the past decade, social scientists have quietly amassed compelling evidence suggesting that there is another, more immediate benefit of regular exercise: its impact on the way we think and resolve problems (Friedman, 2014).
In one study (Lambourne & Tomporowski, 2010), cognitive task performance improved by a mean of 0.20 following exercise. Positive effects were observed following exercise regardless of whether the study protocol was designed to measure the effects of steady-state exercise, fatiguing exercise, or other. In the same study, individuals described changes in their ability to perform mental tasks during and after exercise. For some, exercise leads to reports of increased mental acuity and clarity of thought. Others report feeling mental disorientation and difficulty making decisions following exercise.
|So, you want to become a more creative MSL? Do some exercises: go for a walk, go on a treadmill. Overall, the positive effect of exercise on plasticity and protection in the nervous system has been demonstrated in a wide range of studies (more than 150 over the past 50 years). This is something that is fully under our control. No excuses!|
So, is it possible to become a more creative MSL? Absolutely! Is it possible to think outside the box, to think differently, and to demonstrate critical thinking? Yes! But to do so, we will need to incorporate in our day-to-day work three things that we can easily control: 1. Having a positive mindset; 2. Being in a good mood; 3. Taking the time to exercise. As mentioned before, multiple studies have shown that if we adopt these three simple things, we will improve our creativity. So, what are we all waiting for?
Answer to RAT test of creative potential in the introduction:
cream / skate / water: ice
fish / mine / rush: gold
opera / hand / dish: soap
stick / maker / point: match
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Alain Cérat, PhD
Dr. Alain Cérat is a bilingual, visionary Learning & Development Executive with consistent success in delivering exceptional organizational changes in the pharmaceutical industry. Dr. Cérat has led the development of new standards encouraging innovative ways of thinking, drawing on a unique background in Commercial, Medical, and Neuroscience.
Dr. Cérat capitalizes on more than 25 years of cross-functional expertise gained from work done with local, regional, and global stakeholders at Novartis and Merck. He excitedly takes on new challenges and drives continuous improvements to organizations. He is known for solutions that push the learner to think and see differently, try new things, and explore behaviors that lead to long-term change.
In his last role at Novartis, Dr. Cérat ensured the effectiveness and overall performance of the Medical Affairs 3000+ workforce through the high-quality delivery of innovative training programs. He set consistent global learning standards and established a hub capability-building expertise by adopting a growth mindset philosophy. Prior to that, Dr. Cérat worked in the Latin America-Canada Region where he was accountable for building and implementing high-quality standards for Field Medical. He worked closely with 9 countries representing a workforce of 250+, by leading the enhancement of local Field Medical capabilities as well as the development and facilitation of innovative training programs.
Dr. Cérat recently started his own consulting firm, SYNAPSE: Pharma. Training. Solutions. In this new chapter, he will combine his expertise in the field of neuroscience with his 25 years of working in pharmaceuticals, delivering personalized innovative solutions enabling people in Medical and Commercial to learn the fundamental truths about our brain and how we can leverage it to get better at what we do. Dr. Cérat will focus his work on improving general leadership skills, communication skills, presentation skills, coaching, creativity, and general training deliverables. Dr. Cérat can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Cérat has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Montreal as well as a M.Sc. in Neurobiology. He also completed an Executive Masters Certificate from the NeuroLeadership Institute.