When Is a Brick Not a Brick?

When it's a key to boosting creativity.

What can a brick be used for? Well, there's building a house, breaking a window, holding down a pile of papers on a windy day, squashing a bug, paving a driveway, building a wall, as the legs of a small table … Now take a break and shift your eyes from left to right and back again for 30 seconds. If psychologist Elizabeth Shobe of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and her colleagues are right, that ocular exercise spurred creative thinking, enabling you to come up with yet more uses for a brick (perhaps putting in the toilet tank to reduce water usage? how about as a mock coffin at a Barbie funeral?).

There is no shortage of self-appointed experts on creativity (a quick search for ways to increase it turns up "clear your workspace" and "act on your instincts"). The snake-oil approaches are unfortunate, because there is pretty decent neuroscientific research on the brain basis for creativity, as I wrote about a few years back. Above all, the studies show that creativity is not just a personality trait (and thus hard to change) but also a trainable skill.

Some of the most interesting work, for instance, has shown that an approach called psychological distancing can boost creativity. In psychological distancing, you construe a problem as not occurring to you in the here-and-now, as this Scientific Americanstory explains. Also helpful to creativity is anything that increases cross talk between the brain's left and right hemispheres. That's where shifty eyes come in.

In a paper to be published next month in Brain and Cognition, Shobe and her team note that earlier studies had suggested that cross talk between the brain's hemispheres is important, and maybe even necessary, for creativity. Patients who have undergone surgery to sever the bundle of neurons (called the corpus callosum) that connects the two hemispheres (sometimes done to stop epileptic seizures) come up short on standard tests of creativity, such as the brick puzzle. It was also known that people with strong handedness—that is, they do absolutely everything with the left or right hand, and are all thumbs when they try to use the other hand—have less cross talk between their brain hemispheres than do people who are ambidextrous or "mixed handed," in which they are able to use the nonfavored hand for some tasks. But it wasn't clear whether increasing hemispheric cross talk could increase creativity.

The scientists therefore had 62 volunteers take the "alternative uses test," in which the goal is to think of unusual uses for common objects, such as bricks and newspapers. "Mixed-handers," who have more hemispheric cross talk than strong left- or right-handers, came up with more unique uses for the objects than did strong left- or right-handers, supporting the idea that hemispheric cross talk boosts creativity.

Half of the volunteers then spent 30 seconds doing the shifty-eye exercise, moving their eyes back and forth horizontally, which is believed to increase communication between the brain's hemispheres. The other half stared straight ahead for 30 seconds. Then everyone took the test again.

Obviously there should be some effect of experience. That is, on a second try, people should think of more unusual uses for bricks and the like, even when they are given different objects to think about. Most people did. But the volunteers who had performed the eye-shifting exercise and who were strongly left- or right-handed showed a significant improvement in creativity as measured by how many uses they came up with, which no one else did; their performance now matched that of the mixed-handers. Staring straight ahead, in contrast, had no effect on creativity. And performing the eye-shifting exercise did not boost the already-higher creativity of the mixed-handers, suggesting that they already had an optimal level of hemispheric cross talk.

"The results suggest that greater inter-hemispheric interaction can facilitate creativity of strong-handers," the scientists conclude, "but that the characteristically higher inter-hemispheric interaction of mixed-handers was unaffected by the" eye exercise.

Dreaming up uses for bricks and newspapers is not exactly on a par with, say, inventing cubism or atonal music. But it's the kind of exercise that life coaches and business-creativity consultants employ to get clients' creative juices flowing. Can shifting your eyes back and forth for 30 seconds boost creativity in a meaningful way—that is, not on a psych test, but in the real world? I'm dubious that it can inspire someone to write the Great American Novel, but—who knows?—it might just get employees to come up with that killer brand extension.

To me, though, the more interesting implication of the research is less in providing a how-to-boost-creativity exercise than in shedding light on where creativity comes from in the first place. The shifting-eyes study is yet more evidence that people dream up unique and unusual ideas by fitting together disparate bits of information, some of it handled by the right brain and some of it handled by the left. That suggests that when you are trying to solve a problem—and by "problem" I mean anything from a new ad campaign to an effective compromise in a political battle to a new product design—it might help to go offline, mentally. That is, rather than fixating on the question (typically, a left-brain activity), let your thoughts wander, which might engage the right brain. Indeed, there is intriguing research that having a "leaky" mental filter, so that thoughts that are seemingly irrelevant to the problem at hand penetrate your consciousness, boosts creativity. But if all else fails, the shifty-eye thing might not be a bad start.