Through the power of imagination we allow ourselves to suspend disbelief and give ourselves the power to dream that almost anything is possible. This was so wonderfully illustrated in Finding Neverland: the story of J.M Barrie, author of Peter Pan. If we’re to believe the movie, Barrie’s success of Peter and Wendy on opening night depended upon planting children in the audience in order show adults in the audience the play through fresh young eyes.
Jonah Lehrer recently commented on an interesting study by psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson on the power of a phrase “You are seven years old” to completely shift the way subjects answered questions and the ability to create unique solutions to problems.
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 present collegiate brains.
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”.
As the brain develops, the prefrontal cortex grows and results in better restraint and more focused attention. But that restraint also means we allow ourselves to have fewer ideas. What’s more of those fewer ideas we stick to the safer ones, the ones that are well inside the envelope.
He concludes that this study suggests the way to expand the scope of our imagination is through the process of thinking of ourselves as a child, so that we end up thinking in more child-like ways. “The end result is that we regain the creativity lost with time.”
So here’s what I think this means as a creative professional, one who’s called to find new solutions everyday. We have to believe. We want to believe. Whether we are to believe in fairies or in our ability to create, stepping outside of our point of view and allowing ourselves to walk in a different pair of shoes (the smaller the better), might be the secret to success.
And this is especially important if we are to beat the ticking crocodile of a deadline while winning the sword fight.