In late October 2018, the Journal of Psychopharmacology published a study from The Netherlands (where else?) demonstrating that low doses of psychedelic truffles increased a person’s creativity. Notably, the study showed improvements in both divergent thinking skills (finding many possible solutions to problem) and convergent thinking skills (using insight to find the most appropriate solution to a problem). In a test designed to score idea originality, the mean score for the group taking the magic truffles went up nearly 27%. While interesting, taking psychedelics is not a readily available alternative for professionals looking to avoid side effects such as time dilation where minutes seem like hours (ie. typical staff meetings), panic attacks, arrest, or the loss of a security clearance.
Fortunately, there are options to increase creativity without the risks of recreational self-medication.
1. Watch a funny video. In a 2013 study published in the Creativity Research Journal Spanish psychologists induced a good mood in their test subjects by having them watch a two and a half minute clip of When Harry Met Sally. The test subjects who heard Billy Crystal explain his attraction to Sally was not limited to her good personality, performed 23% better on a test of divergent thinking. Researchers believe a positive affect, researcher-speak for a good mood, changes not only what we think, but also how we think. When we are in a positive mood, we see more context and possibility in ideas. In turn, this enriched thinking allows us to make more, and more novel, connections than we would otherwise. Additionally, a good mood may allow us to be more risk accepting as we are better equipped to take the psychological impact associated with “bad ideas.”
Putting it into action: You now have scientific justification for starting a creativity session with a funny cat video. The judicious use of humor can be a great enabler for sharing ideas and demonstrating that it is safe to be vulnerable.
2. Grin and bear it: The same researchers also found forcing people’s mouths into the shape of a smile improved their creativity. In a good example of why to keep hand sanitizer around the office, researchers had test subjects complete tests of creativity while holding a pencil in their mouths. Half of the subjects held the pencil between their teeth forcing a snarl as if they were angry. The other half held the pencil between their lips forcing them to use the same muscles they would activate if they were smiling. While the scores for those angrily biting on a pencil did not change, the mean score for those who faked a Ticonderoga-smile was more than 25% higher.
Putting it into action: While you could ask your team to hold a forced smile, the more natural solution is to put your own grin on. People are hardwired to return a smile, so turning your own frown upside down can put your team into a good mood.
3. Build supervisor-supervised trust: A 2009 study of Paul Mitchell hairstylists conducted by researchers from the University of Connecticut for the journal Human Performance showed a positive relationship between the level of trust an employee has in a supervisor and the level of creativity the employee demonstrates. Psychologists believe a trusting relationship with a supervisor creates the psychological safety required for employees to try new techniques and explore new ideas. As an added bonus, the employees who had the greatest trust in their supervisors also were among the most productive.
Putting it into action: No quick fixes here...there is no alternative to putting in the daily effort of earning trust by keeping your word and rewarding behaviors you want to encourage while constructively offering a pathway to improvement.
4. Put on some happy music: In a combined effort, researchers from The Netherlands and Australia studied the effects of happy music on creative thinking. They played "Spring" from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons while the subjects completed tests of divergent thinking. Those who listened to the happy, upbeat music scored 23% higher than those who worked in silence. The researchers believe the happy music created a positive mood, and this positive mood was responsible for the higher scores. Importantly, there was no impact on the subjects’ scores on tests of convergent thinking.
Putting it into action: It is easy enough to put on some upbeat background music. If your office does not normally have a soundtrack, the act of adding musical accompaniment is enough to signal that you are breaking away from the day-to-day grind and doing something different.
5. Train for it: Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin wanted to know whether training students in the use of brainstorming techniques would improve the number and originality of ideas generated. They provided the experimental portion of the group 10 minutes of basic brainstorming training while they left the control group on their own to generate ideas for solutions to a problem. Those who had the training generated 33% more ideas than the untrained. More impressively, the ideas they generated were scored to be 96% higher in originality than the untrained group. This research is in line with dozens of other studies that reveal, unsurprisingly, that people perform better when they know what they are doing.
Putting it into action: The virtuous circle of creativity ensures we become more creative as we practice creativity. All the training in the world will not improve creativity if your team does not have the required level of expertise, but when you provide a little training to a group of experts, you open a host of creative opportunities.
So while magic mushrooms may be one way to improve creativity in your team, you don’t have to risk good health or an arrest record to get better ideas. In fact, given the amount of research connecting a good mood to better creative performance, the mushroom’s effect on mood may explain much of the increased creativity. There is no need to try to justify pharmaceuticals on your next expense report—you can achieve the same, or better, results with just a little effort.
Dutch researchers wanted an excuse to use magic mushrooms...turns out low doses improve creativity scores. But so does being in a good mood, listening to upbeat music, trusting your supervisor, getting some creativity training, and holding a pencil between your lips.
What is your most effective, non-psychedelic, method for improving your team’s creativity?