An Experiment in Creativity

Jun 02, 2017


At Elicit, our rallying cry is: Rebellious Thinking Creates Customer Brilliance. We strive to bring novel perspectives and solutions to new and old problems to create value for our clients. Given the importance of creativity in carrying out this mission statement, we developed a session at our last Mind Meld—Elicit’s annual company conference/retreat—devoted entirely to creativity.

We started our presentation with a little experiment to test some of the scientific findings we’d gathered about creativity in our research. We divided the room into two randomly assigned groups. One group was given a blue handout with a picture of a beach scene, and told to close their eyes and relax. The other group was given a red handout containing algebra problems and told to complete as many of the math problems as they could. After a couple of minutes, we re-grouped and asked everyone to participate in the following idea generation exercise:

Pretend that you have an apple that you need to move from Point A to Point B. Your job is to think of as many modes of transportation as possible (you could walk it from A to B, you could throw it, you could bike it, etc.).

After a minute of idea generation, everyone counted up their ideas and we determined which group performed better—the beach scene group, or the algebra problem group. Which group do you think outperformed the other? You’ll soon find out!

When considering how our brains influence creativity, the simplest place to start is with the commonly known left brain/right brain distinction. In contrast to the left brain, the right brain is not concerned with details or exactness; instead, it illuminates the big picture, and helps us discover connections between seemingly unrelated things. Solving algebra problems is more of a left brain activity, whereas coming up with creative modes of transportation is more of a right brain activity, so the algebra group had to switch gears for the idea generation exercise.

You’re probably beginning to see that we purposely stacked the cards against the algebra group. Their algebra problems were on red paper because that color activates a state of vigilance (just think of stop signs and fire trucks!) and helps us perform tasks where careful attention is required. Blue is the color most effective for boosting our ability to think creatively. Most people associate blue with thoughts of openness, peacefulness, and tranquility (blue sky, blue ocean)—and that mindset encourages us to think outside the box and makes us feel safe to be creative.

The beach scene group not only received their handout out on blue paper, but was also told to relax. When we’re relaxed, right brain activity is especially high and our brains release dopamine—an important ingredient for creativity. By now you’ve surely guessed it: our beach scene group performed better on the idea generation exercise.


Believe it or not, enjoying some R&R next to the beach is not enough to cultivate a creative mind. We continued the Mind Meld session by highlighting a few strategies to do just that.

  • First of all, you can’t create something out of nothing. Speech provides a useful analogy here: it takes years of learning words before you can freely express clear thoughts in a new language. In the same way that you must learn a vocabulary to create a sentence, you need to build expertise in something through dedication and practice before you can improvise.
  • Research experiments have highlighted the importance of the prefrontal cortex in creativity. The prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with impulse control, undergoes a prolonged period of maturation that lasts until adulthood. This slow development may contribute to some poor decisions when we’re young, but it also creates a really magical time in our lives, when we truly are more naturally creative. Studies show we can call upon our child-like creativity by exercising a child-like mindset. How did you spend your free time as a child? How did you respond to challenges? Coach yourself to spend some time each day or each week thinking about a younger you.
  • You can also cultivate a creative mind by proactively exposing yourself to new people, places, and things. When you interact and create relationships with new people, you will typically introduce new ideas and perspectives in your life, especially when those people challenge your assumptions or beliefs. Similarly, getting out of your day-to-day routine can enhance creativity. This could be as simple as waking up at a different time or taking a different route to work, or jump in with both feet and try a new sport or take a new job.

Lastly, we provided some specific tactics that can be used to fuel creativity when dealing with a specific problem or goal.

  • When you need creative ideas for a service or a product, start by experiencing it for yourself. Go through the same process as your customer, or build a prototype.
  • SCAMPER is an acronym for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put it to some other use, Eliminate, and Rearrange. It’s meant to serve as a checklist for all the different ways you can manipulate a problem to find a creative solution.
  • Try asking metaphoric questions to stimulate the imagination. For example: what animal is like this problem, and why? When we compare a problem to something unusual, our brains tend to want to make sense of the comparison, and this can lead to the discovery of links between unrelated ideas.
  • Go for quantity. Don’t be worried about only coming up with “good” ideas. Thomas Edison performed over 9,000 experiments before inventing the light bulb!
  • Remember the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that deals with inhibition? It turns off when we’re sleeping, leaving the brain free to discover surprising connections and new ideas. There’s merit to the old advice to “sleep on it” when you’re faced with a difficult problem or decision.

Everyone has the ability to be creative, but it takes practice. We’ve shared some ways to get started—have fun trying them out!

Resources leveraged in the development of our Mind Meld session and this blog post include: Imagine (Jonah Lehrer), Tinkertoys (Michael Michalko), and The Creative Habit (Twyla Tharp).