How to be Creative, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

Engage the Unconscious Mind

  1. Address a problem. What is it you are trying to solve?
  2. Do a difficult crossword, word-search, sudoku – or any other task that fully occupies your conscious mind.
  3. Now, without thinking too much about it, jot down the various thoughts and possible solutions that come to you.

The Four Ps of Creativity

Classic self-help. The X-number of Y.

Priming

  1. Work feverishly on the problem.
  2. Then do something completely different: Feed your mind with new things: museum, art gallery, flick through newspapers, go on a train journey.
  3. Leave it to your brain to make the connections.

Put plants and flowers in a room. Green is good. Don’t fake it though – pictures won’t do. Avoid red. Prime people with green objects if you want them to be creative.

Perspective

  • Imagine how a child/idiot/friend/artist/accountant would solve the problem.
  • Think about analogous situations by applying the ‘is like’ rule – how is the problem solved by the analogous entity? Can this be applied to your situation?
  • Think about doing the exact opposite to what you are doing now.

Play

Have some fun. Being too serious constrains your brain. Take a 15 minute fun break.

Perceive

  • Don’t go onto automatic pilot. Become more curious.
  • Ask yourself an interesting question each week. Try to find out the answers. Not just by using Wikipedia.

Quick Creativity Tips

Richard Wiseman has some quick tips for us. How kind *pulls desk towards himself*.

Creative Brainstorming

  • Mix groups of people up to be more creative in brainstorming sessions. Put different kinds of people together, not bunches of friends.
  • Or better, allow people to be creative alone. It makes them responsible alone for coming up with good ideas. Quality and quantity of ideas improve when alone in most cases.

The Power of Art

  • Spend a few moments describing a typical musician or artist. List their behaviours, lifestyle and appearance.
  • Look at modern art to help produce original ideas.

Creative Body Language

  • When trying to be creative, pull the table towards you. Pulling things means you are comfortable with them and comfortable means creative.
  • Cross your arms to help perseverance in the face of failure.
  • Lie down to use your locus coeruleus against rigid thinking.

How to be Happy, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

Here is what he suggests to make you happy.

Write a diary

  • Don’t suppress negative thoughts – they will only come back stronger. So write about them.
  • List 3-5 things to be thankful for once a week. Appreciate things that go unnoticed.
  • Describe a wonderful experience you have had in life.
  • Describe a great future; realistic, but in which you have worked hard and achieved your goals. It won’t help you achieve it, but it will make you smile.
  • Write a short letter to a person you are thankful for. Imagine you have only one opportunity to tell them. Describe what they mean to you and the impact they have had on your life.
  • Think back over the past week and make a note of three things that went really well for you (this can be trivial, like stroking the cat and getting a purr in return).

Spending and Giving

  • Buy experiences, not goods. Experiences tend to be social and the memory of them will improve with age, whereas goods tend to look worse with time. Like my bike.
  • We grow accustomed to changes in our circumstances. So riches will become quotidian.
  • Giving will make you happier than receiving gifts.
  • For a cheaper boost, carry out five non-financial acts of kindness on a single day. Don’t dilute the effect by spreading them out over the week.

Act happy

50% of  your happiness is genetic, 10% due to general circumstances, but 40% is governed by your day-to-day behaviour.

  • Smile for 15-30 seconds. Imagine a situation that would make you smile to make it convincing.
  • Sit up in your chair – posture is important.
  • Swing your arms like a kid (a human child, not a goat).
  • Add a spring in your step.
  • Use more expressive, excitable hand gestures in conversation.
  • Nod your head when others speak.
  • Wear more colourful clothing.
  • Use a greater frequency of positive words and a lower frequency of self-references in your conversation. The film was incredible! Not average.
  • Use a larger variation in the pitch of your voice. Squeak and growl.
  • Speak slightly faster.
  • Arm yourself with a significantly firmer handshake.

Intentional change

  • Intentional change (i.e. pursuing a goal, starting a new hobby) will make you happier than circumstantial change (i.e. a change in circumstances – getting a new car, house etc..).
  • Make the effort to start a new hobby, project, sport – something new, not habitual.
  • Look at something you enjoy already and find something new that is related. For example, playing the clarinet if you enjoy the piano.

All this advice seems pretty cool to me. However, it does come with a ‘be bothered’ warning. Can you be bothered? Seems like a lot to remember for me – no, I mean, go for it!

How to Prevent Jet Lag

I love the logic of this trick!

The brain has two body clocks: one in the “old” and one in the “new” brain.

  • The new brain body clock works on natural light patterns. This clock can only shift about 2 hours a day. That’s why it gets thoroughly confused when we cross the planet and the sun is rising at half past midnight.
  • The old brain body clock, however, works to make sure you are awake when food is around. If we were always asleep at dinner time, we wouldn’t live very long.

Normally, the new brain is in charge, but there is a way to switch over to the old brain: by throwing our bodies into survival mode.

How do we do that? By starving ourselves.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but apparently it takes about 16 hours of fasting before the old brain body clock will take over, believing food to be scarce.

So if you’re flying from San Francisco to London, take a meal at the usual time in San Francisco, say, breakfast at 8.00am, then don’t eat anything at all until the next appropriate meal time in London, say, breakfast the next day at 8.00pm. Your body will switch onto the old brain and register the body clock time as “breakfast”: exactly what you want.

Sleep, Meditation and Dreaming

The Rise of Meditation in the West

Meditation in the West has seen a burst of popularity since the 1960s. An Australian survey in 2002 found that 11% of people in Western Australia have practised meditation at least once in their lives. A 2007 government study in the United States found that 9.4% of people there had practised meditation at some time.

The positive medical benefits for meditation have also recently been documented. The BBC (all hail!) have reported that meditation can reduce blood pressure and ease heart disease as well as actually changing the physical structure of the brain. Cool.

So why is meditation not more a part of Western life? Why is it still seen as an Eastern technique, most often associated with India? Could it be something to do with our sleeping patterns?

What?

Yes, our sleeping patterns. Specifically, our sleeping patterns since the Industrial Revolution.

Before the Light Bulb

In Britain (in the south, so the best case scenario) we spend over half our time without the sun. Roughly 51% of our hours are night. 250 years ago that meant almost total darkness.

Of course there were candles and we could light fires, but open fires were dangerous in our expanding wood-built towns and candles were expensive for most people. Gas lighting was still to be developed.

In the summer, we have about 8 hours of darkness, if we put sunset at about 9.00pm and sunrise at about 5.00am. In the winter, however, we have about 16 hours of darkness, with sunset around 4.00pm and sunrise at 8.00am.

If you can imagine this time 250 years ago, you would be in darkness from the mid-afternoon to the morning. What could you do? You couldn’t read or write, you couldn’t watch television, you couldn’t go outside for a walk to the pub. You couldn’t really do much at all (unless you were a thief) except go to bed or sit around in the dark and chat. For 16 hours a day.

Industrial Sleep

Since the industrial revolution and the explosion in light bulb usage, sleeping patterns in Britain have changed. Sleeping seven or eight hours a night all year round is the norm now – but it never used to be.

When the sun went down, it used to get dark. Now we have lights in our houses, on our streets, we like to relax in the evening with a film. And all this light has done something a little funny: we think it’s summer all year round.

Remember the 8 hours of darkness we get in summer? Isn’t that suspiciously similar to the hours most people sleep? You could call it the minimum that humans have evolved to live with; and that’s what we regulate ourselves to have by using electric lighting in the evenings.

As the chronobiologist Charles A. Czeisler says:

“Every time we turn on a light we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we will sleep.”

Pre-Industrial Sleep

Without the miracles of electric lighting, our ancestors spent 51% of their lives in darkness. They couldn’t do much, but they could at least sleep properly.

In fact, there was so much time to kill, that people would have two sleeps: first sleep and second sleep. The first sleep might be from evening until after midnight and then second sleep from the early morning until sunrise – or when the farmer came a-knocking.

But what happened between first and second sleeps? Well, that’s where the meditation comes in. There wasn’t any reason to be fully awake (except to go to the toilet or have sex) so people drifted into this twilight zone of “meditation”. I put it in quotation marks because no one deliberately induced this state: it happened naturally.

First sleep was deep, restful sleep with a burst of dreaming before waking for the first time. Then it was followed by a period of quiet “meditation” before second sleep, which was characterised by more dreaming.

And that was natural.

Can We Still Do This?

Yes we can. Even today, if we are deprived of light for fourteen hours a day, we start to sleep in two shifts. Dr Thomas Wehr did an experiment to test this. After four weeks of acclimatisation to the regime, this is the sleep pattern his subjects showed:

  1. Lie awake in bed for two hours.
  2. Sleep for four.
  3. Awake again for two to three hours of quiet rest and reflection.
  4. Fall back asleep for four more hours.
  5. Wake for good.

The question now is: why would we want to do this? Who’s got fourteen hours to waste on sleep?

The Power of Dreams and Meditation

That middle segment of wakefulness is not just sitting around in bed. It is characterised by an altered state of consciousness, neither awake nor asleep, where confused thoughts wander at will, like dreams, and people feel content. This brain-state is very similar to the state reported by people who meditate regularly.

That period of “meditation” allows the sleeper to examine their dreams without the pressures of the day to worry about. How many people these days lounge around in bed, pondering their dreams – if they can remember them at all? No, most people have to get up and go to work, which breaks the spell.

But dreams and quiet meditation are powerful tools. Half-controlled, half-random, dreams offer easy access to suppressed emotions and unexpected thoughts. We can visit old friends, talk to dead relatives, travel in foreign lands, have new experiences and remember old ones.

This period of quiet meditation allows new thoughts to come to the surface, it allows our minds to shuffle through the events of the previous day and to put everything into perspective. “I’ll sleep on it,” is a common saying that reflects this.

The night-time also has a reputation as the “mother of thoughts”. Many artists and creative thinkers report that dreams or sleep in general is the best time for generating new ideas. With a double shift sleep pattern, dreaming, waking and meditation is built in to the system. Twice over.

A Experiment in Double Shift Sleep Patterns

So I tried it (of course). I know that Dr Wehr’s subjects needed four weeks to get into this pattern, but that didn’t stop me trying. The idea that our sleep is supposed to be broken also takes the pressure off. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s no bad thing. It’s natural.

So last night I tried it. I went to bed at about half eight in the evening and didn’t get out of bed until about nine in the morning. A good solid twelve hours of rest.

And I did sleep in two shifts. The first was until about three in the morning. Then I simply lay in bed (after checking the cricket score…) pondering the dreams I’d just had. Then I fell asleep again after a while and woke at about half past eight. I then stayed in bed just thinking about the night’s dreaming and got out of bed at nine.

I won’t bore you with my dreams, but suffice to say that I remember them still, twelve hours later. They were dramatic and exciting and perhaps even revealing. I’m going to try again tonight.

Conclusion

On average, we spend 10% of our lives dreaming between 100,000 and 200,000 dreams. That’s an awful lot. I can’t remember too many. One reason for that is that I sleep through too many of them. If I start sleeping in two shifts, like my ancestors used to, then I’ll remember way more. I really appreciate my dreams and the alternate reality that they allow me. Maybe I’ll understand them better, maybe I’ll understand myself better. Maybe I’ll just get a few more stories out of it.

“Let the Night teach us what we are, and the Day what we should be.”

Thomas Tryon, Wisdom’s Dictates (London, 1691)

References

Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles by A. Roger Ekirch:
http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.2/ah000343.html

Modern Life Suppresses An Ancient Body Rhythm By Natalie Angier, March 14, 1995:
http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/14/science/modern-life-suppresses-an-ancient-body-rhythm.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm

Various BBC reports on meditation:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1847442.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/410003.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7319043.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8363302.stm

How to beat Hormonal Changes with Exercise

The Theory

Exercise is particularly important for women to tone down negative consequences of hormonal changes. Exercise balances the system. Boosted levels of serotonin in the body regulates mood and aggression, which can be affected by hormonal changes such as the pregnancy, PMS and the menopause.

Physical activity increases levels of tryptophan in the bloodstream and therefore the concentration of serotonin in the brain. It balances dopamine, norepinephrine and BDNF. And keeps glutamate and GABA (too high in PMS sufferers) balanced as well.

The Workout

  • You can exercise while pregnant, but keep it fairly light. 30 minutes at 65-75% of your maximum heart rate per day.
  • For PMS, try 1 hour of aerobic exercise 4 times a week before your period.
  • In general, women benefit from moderate intensity workouts, but go with how you feel.
  • Remember that we evolved for long distance walking, not for sitting around in front of computers! Exercise is nature’s way of regulating chemicals in the body.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.