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Can you will yourself to be more creative?

David Rosen and his team from Drexel University suspect that the need for conscious control may be more acute when creative people are still novices.

01 June 2017

By Alex Fradera

Surely creativity is about freedom. Dropping your inhibitions – maybe with the help of a few substances – and letting ideas writhe free from the unconscious unfiltered. What to make then of the research showing that creativity is associated with higher levels of executive functioning – the mind's suite of control processes – which seem to help by inhibiting irrelevant information and combining the rest in novel ways? Does it mean you can use this mental control to make yourself perform more creatively? According to a new study in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts involving jazz pianists the answer may depend in part on your creative experience.

David Rosen and his team from Drexel University suspected that the need for conscious control may be more acute when creative people are still novices, referencing saxophonist Charlie Parker's observation that "you've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."

To test this, the researchers recruited 22 mostly male jazz pianists using their number of completed professional gigs – as few as three and as many as 400 – as a measure of their creative expertise.

After warming up at the keyboard, the musicians attempted to improvise a pre-recorded track "as you normally would in a jazz setting." After the first take, they were given three more tries. Crucially, before one of these efforts they were told that from now on they should "improvise even more creatively than your past performance(s)."

Could the participants deliberately boost their creativity?

After the experiment, the musicians said they'd taken the instruction to heart: "I tried other things that I wouldn't normally try"; "I felt totally freed. I felt like I'd been given license to go wherever my mind took me"; "I considered new elements of my performance while improvising with explicit instructions".

And for performers with fewer gigs behind them, this seemed to help: independent judges rated their improvisations as more proficient, aesthetically appealing, and creative, as compared to equivalent takes with no instructions. But more experienced musicians saw smaller benefits, with the effect for the most experienced players tipping (non-significantly in statistical terms) in the other direction.

These findings add to past research showing that while mental control may be important for creativity, there is also a part to play for automatic, uncontrolled mental processes. For example, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and even brain damage to the frontal regions involved in executive function are both associated with heightened creativity. Mind-wandering and dreaming also seem to produce creative leaps. One explanation is that creativity is an interplay between automatic associative processes and deliberate effortful ones, or Type One and Type Two processes (as per Daniel Kahneman's terminology). Freedom and control.

Seen in these terms, expert players may, over time, find their own balance of Type One and Two processes when improvising, such that conscious attention can't easily lead to further improvements. In contrast, those with lower levels of mastery can find it productive to call on creative techniques intentionally or test out variants – "I wonder if I can try dropping different notes from an arpeggio run." So for those of us not yet at the top of our creative game, making the conscious effort to focus on novel, creative outcomes might be the tactic to take us to new heights.