How Play Kills Creativity

It’s becoming one of those taken-for-granted principles that to be creative, to free your mind, you have to adopt a playful, even childlike attitude. Brainstorming sessions and other kinds of creative workshop now routinely get people horsing around in order to throw off the shackles of normalcy and convention and come up with creative ideas.

The problem is, brain research consistently shows that high cortical arousal – in essence, increased brain activity – is damaging to creative thinking. Creative insight flows most readily when the brain is in a low arousal state. The kinds of playful activities in typical creativity sessions are very likely to cause cortical arousal, and not just because of the physical movement and jarring, silly or surprising thinking tasks. No, merely the presence of others – and the sense that one is being watched and potentially judged – increases cortical arousal.

It might feel good – fun, freeing, novel – but the ideas that emerge from such states are not likely to be of high creative quality. Yes, play of this standard horsey nature has a role in dissolving inhibitions. But when it comes to producing the ideas themselves, another kind of play can – and should – be used: imagined, “what if?”, daydream and dreamlike forms of mental play carried out in a relaxed state – which does correlate with low cortical arousal.

The point is, there’s no one form of play and playfulness. The royal road to the creative consciousness, to borrow (and maul) Freud’s phrase, runs through low arousal play which must be engineered using specially designed techniques.