Increase Your Creativity with a Mental Disguise

Why do some people consider themselves not creative? We tell ourselves that we’re too right-brained or that the muse hasn’t inspired us. But creativity isn’t a commodity you can earn or be born with. It’s more an aspect of context.

Psychiatrist Srini Pillay extols the virtues of “psychological halloweenism”, the process of pretending you are someone else to spur your creativity.

In a New York article, Susie Neilson gives a perfect example of this sort of mental dressing up:

I want to ask you a favor. Yes, you, reader. I have a pair of pants. Tell me: how many different ways can I put a pair of pants to use?

Now, imagine you’re an architect. Same question.

Her reasoning is that once you assume the mental state of someone else, someone who might be more creative, then you are able to come up with more ideas. The boring version of you might have no idea what to do with pants other than wear them. But an architect might use them as a textile accent or a way to design a whole building. 

This reminds me of the frustration my sixth grade students experience when faced with writing. Ask them to write on any topic they like, and they’re stymied. Yet, give them a prompt and away they go. Once they have some sort of context to work within, it allows their creativity to blossom. 

Some of my favorite shows all employ different “prompts” or tasks to increase the creativity of contestants: Face Off with their make up challenges; Project Runway with the “rules” for each design; Halloween Wars with the concept to translate into candy and pumpkin. 

In a 2016 study, the authors demonstrated the “stereotype effect” with college students. They split the subjects into three groups. The first should think of themselves as “eccentric poets”, the second to imagine themselves as “rigid librarians” and the third with no instructions (as a control). They they presented each group with a series of common objects (a fork, a carrot, a brick, a pair of pants) and asked them to come up with  as many different uses as possible for each one. The “eccentric poet” group came up with the most ideas while the “rigid librarian” group had the fewest. 

The take away from this is that you can be creative if you “feel” like you’re a creative person. Psychological halloweenism works because it taps into the default mode of your brain. Pillay calls this an act of “conscious unfocus” — a collection of brain regions that spring into action when you’re not focused on a specific task or thought. 

Even someone as gifted as Paul McCartney delves into mental dressing up. In his book Lyrics, he talks about how he recorded “Long and Winding Road”:

Often when I write a song, I do a bit of a disappearing trick myself. For example, I imagine it having been recorded by someone else — in this case Ray Charles. As usual, the last thing I’d want to be writing is a Paul McCartney song.

Once you have a person in mind, you can “put on” their persona. Just like a costume. You might even channel that person’s voice or work habits. Feel their confidence flow through you. 

There is always someone you can slip into mentally. You put on the mask and pretend you are that person creating, not yourself. It sucks away the anxiety because it’s not you doing the imagining, it’s John Lennon or Pablo Picasso. It frees you up. 

Put on that mask and get creating. 

Tim Kane

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