Pablo Picasso once declared that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
The solution to Picasso’s problem is startlingly simple, at least according to the psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University: We just need to think like a little kid. In their recent paper, “Child’s play: Facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation,” the scientists took a large group of undergraduates and randomly assigned them to two different groups. The first group was given the following instructions:
“You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?”
The second group was given the exact same instructions, except the first sentence was deleted. As a result, these students didn’t imagine themselves as 7 year olds. They were stuck in their adolescent present.
After writing for ten minutes, the subjects were then given various tests of creativity, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tire, or completing incomplete sketches. (These are sample tasks from the Torrance test of creativity.) Interestingly, the students who imagined themselves as little kids scored far higher on the creative tasks, coming up with more ideas that were also more original. The effect was especially pronounced among “introverts,” who exert more mental energy suppressing their “spontaneous associations”.
Why does age make us less mature? Why accounts for the infamous 4th grade slump in creativity? One possibility is that we trade away the ingenuity of our youth for executive function. As the brain develops, the prefrontal cortex expands in density and volume. As a result, we’re able to exhibit impulse control and focused attention. The unfortunate side-effect of this cortical growth is an increased ability to repress errant thoughts. While many of these thoughts deserve to be suppressed, it turns out that we also censor the imagination. We’re so scared of saying the wrong thing that we end up saying nothing at all. One interesting line of evidence in support of this speculative theory is that jazz musicians engaged in improvisation selectively “de-activate” their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In other words, they inhibit their inhibitory brain areas, which allows them to create without worrying about what they’re creating.
While this clever study won’t transform us into John Coltrane or Pablo Picasso – silencing our inner censor only works if we have something worthwhile to express – it does suggest a simple way to expand the circumference of the imagination. By thinking of ourselves as a child, we end up thinking in more child-like ways. The end result is that we regain the creativity lost with time.