When we think about “creativity,” images appear of artists, sculptors, writers, or composers laboring away at creating something unique and awe-inspiring. But what about the person who changes a few ingredients in a recipe? The thought process required for substituting basil for oregano in a sauce may be as beneficial as “brain games.”

The Research
Creativity is vital to thrive as we grow older and available to everyone from world-renowned musicians to grandmothers learning a new language. Neurological research has changed our understanding of creativity’s importance — especially as we age. It no longer should be considered as the province of luminaries, but rather a process accessible to everyone from gifted artisans to your boring uncle Ralph who watches TV for twelve hours a day.
The cook in the above example did not just grab some basil when oregano was not available. She thought about the taste profiles of each ingredient and concluded that oregano can be substituted for basil. Not quite as profound as the decisions Michelangelo made in determining the dimensions of his David statue, but both may have resulted in creating new neural connections. Michelangelo’s design of something unique in sculpture and the cook’s analysis of herb profiles may have more in common than you think.

What Creativity Does
Creative thinking involves making new connections between different regions of the brain—a process that improves memory and strengthens the ability to reason. Research shows creative acts can grow new neural connections, reduce depression and isolation, enhance cognitive skills, and increase emotional fulfillment. Quite a fantastic result for something so easy to do. The findings even apply to patients with dementia. It almost does not make much difference what activity is selected as long as it is creative. Learning a new language, crocheting or playing a musical instrument can be equally beneficial. “Creativity” appears to be the mental equivalent of pull-ups at the gym.

How Much Creativity Do You Need?
The answer is we don’t know, although the trite expression “more is better than less,” is a good maxim to follow. Sometimes a few simple modifications can introduce creativity into an event thought to be only entertaining. For example, when listening to jazz, I have two options: I can float along with the notes just enjoying the beauty of the performance or also attend to how the musicians are changing cord patterns, modifying the tune, etc. The first choice is entertaining. The second is creative.

Strategies for Triggering the Creative Process
There are many well-known creative activities one can engage in, such as learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, writing a short story, painting a picture, diagnosing a car’s engine problem, or composing a poem, among many others. All are activities that involve learning. But many of the things you commonly do can be slightly modified to trigger the creative process. Here are four strategies you can use.

Change one element in an activity. Doing the same thing repeatedly may be comfortable, but it does not involve learning, and therefore, does not trigger the creative process that establishes new neural connections. However, just changing one small feature will require you to learn something new. For example, every morning, I drive the same way to reach the park where I walk my dog. There is nothing creative about the routine. But what if I made a game of how I would get there? For example, each day, I could roll dice, and the number that came up would determine how many blocks I drove in the opposite direction before heading to the park. Although it may appear to be silly, the process of changing how I get to my arrival point involves creativity.

Add Something New to a Routine. Instead of changing a routine, it might be easier just adding a new element. For example, when watching your favorite TV drama, pause it every ten or so minutes, and predict what will happen when you resume watching. Who will Olivia on Law and Order accuse for the murder? It makes little difference how correct your predictions are, what is essential is that you are activating the creative process.

Engage in an Activity that Constantly Changes. Every day I spend between two and three hours sculpting either wood or stone. With each chipping away of material, I need to decide where I will make the next cut, how much to take off, and how the amount will affect my overall design. Most art activities involve the same type of constant changes.

Begin a New Activity. The best example is learning a new language. Everything is fresh: the meaning of words, the syntax, and pronunciation. You are constantly matching words in the new language with its English equivalents then coordinating it with the muscles required to speak it. A similar creative process occurs when you improvise a melody on an instrument, or compose a poem.

The End Products
The purpose of creative activities for brain health is not to produce a sellable or even a laudable product. My sculptures are laughable compared to ones done by Rodin. My musical compositions are only slightly better than the tunes hummed by my granddaughter. And my modifications of tried-and-true recipes often result in inedible dinners. Although it would be nice if people praised my creative efforts, that’s not why I do them. Each of these activities creates new neural connections that can preserve my cognitive ability or at least slow down its deterioration.

Don’t expect results tomorrow. Just as muscle strength takes time to develop after years of idleness, so does improved memory and better reasoning abilities. But you will immediately experience a delightful side benefit: engaging in creative activities allows you to stay in the moment temporarily blocking out the daily grind of life. Not bad for something so easy to do and beneficial for your brain and soul.

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