Suddenly, creativity is big. While your chances of making millions as the next Andy Warhol or Taylor Swift are probably slim, you could well earn more these days by tapping into your creative powers—and, experts say, you'll be happier, too. Numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Sears, have hired creativity consultants to help boost innovation. The number of business schools offering creativity classes has doubled in the past five years. "It's not enough to just be good at analytical evaluation," argues Yoram Wind, a professor of marketing who teaches a creativity course at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. And creative activity can relieve stress and enhance your mood, according to Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson, author of Your Creative Brain. Brain researchers theorize that coming up with something novel that's also useful—their definition of creativity—so fully engages attention that the brain doesn't have any resources left to devote to stress.
What does it take to produce something truly original? The notion that creativity is the province of right-brain, left-handed artsy types is outdated, says Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence. "The creative brain state accesses a whole range of connections throughout the brain," he says. In fact, the latest research suggests that less than a second before the proverbial light bulb switches on, a spike in gamma brain waves appears to bind cells in several regions of the brain into a new neural network.
But fresh insights don't usually just spring forth. Whether you're mulling the next iPad or a solution to world hunger or just an artful way to rearrange your living room furniture, the creative process "is less about talent and more of a broad-based style of thinking that we all can learn," says Carson. The key is to approach it as a step-by-step process similar to proving a mathematical theorem. Leave out a step, and that stroke of genius may be elusive.
Step 1: Absorb. Before you can come up with a brilliant idea, you need to openly receive information from the world around you, Carson says, and examine what's happening in your field of interest without judging it. Consider that the best novelists are the most avid readers, and that IBM invited computer hackers to speak to company executives about software innovations. "A fresh perspective can be very powerful," says Wind; it can enable you to examine all sides of a problem. And listening in a receptive and nonjudgmental way generates low-frequency alpha waves in the brain, allowing information stored in areas that perceive and freely associate to rise into conscious awareness and inspire a creative insight. You can train yourself to be more open to new ideas, Carson contends, by paying attention to what's happening in the moment, a practice called mindfulness. Set aside five minutes to simply experience the world around you: the colors, the sounds, the temperature, the sun's reflection, the approaching darkness.
Step 2: Envision. Tapping into rich mental imagery, a practice that kids and daydreamers excel at, also inspired Einstein, who determined that the speed of light was constant by visualizing a light beam racing down a railway track and passing, at the same speed, a woman on a moving train and a man standing still on the platform. Carson recommends giving your visualization skills a workout for five minutes a day. Close your eyes and imagine you're taking a video tour of your bedroom. Enter the room and turn to the left, seeing the wall adjacent to your doorway in your mind's eye. Examine any furniture, windows, or drapes against this wall. Do the same for the three other walls. Next, look at the bed. Is it made? Are there clothes strewn on the floor? Then take a tour of your closet.
Japanese imaging researchers have found that when the "envision brainset" is properly activated, a network connecting the reasoning center in the brain's right hemisphere to the center in the left hemisphere dedicated to processing information from the senses has a burst of heightened activity. Visualizing often works best after an intense bout of physical activity, a time when your brain is ready for a snooze and when daydreams normally occur, Carson says.
Step 3: Connect. After fully researching all the possibilities, encourage connections to happen by thinking about something else. "Distract yourself by taking a walk or reading a book," advises Goleman. "Trying to force an insight can stifle it." Mozart claimed he came up with his ideas for symphonies while taking carriage rides after a long repast. Getting outdoors into nature is a great way to distract the mind, suggests Carson. "Defocusing" lowers activity in the prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made and dangerous risks avoided, while heightening activity in the right temporal lobe. "This area of the brain understands the language of the unconscious, the logic of dreams, myths, art," says Goleman. "It helps put your ideas together in a novel organization."