Physical activity, especially intense exercise, can boost creativity, at least in people who already exercise regularly, suggested a Dutch study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2013. It compared young adults who customarily exercised with non-exercisers. Both groups did stationary cycling moderately or intensely. During and after the workouts they underwent creativity testing, and the results were compared to testing done without exercise. For the customary exercisers (but not the sedentary group), the workouts modestly stimulated creative thinking.
Getting off the couch and moving doesn’t just do your body good—it can apparently get your creative juices flowing as well. A 2014 study found that after people walked they did significantly better on tests of creative thinking than when they had been sedentary. This held true whether they were walking on a treadmill or outside. “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity,” the Stanford University researchers wrote.
A study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2012 found that the arm and hand movements associated with drawing curvy lines and shapes was associated with a boost in creativity in undergraduate students.
In a series of experiments in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2012, participants who briefly looked at a colored rectangle on a computer screen or piece of paper before taking creativity tests performed more imaginatively when the rectangle was green vs. red, blue, or white. It may sound farfetched, but the German researchers hypothesized that because humans have long perceived the color green as a sign of growth (at least in the plant world), it might have a psychologically stimulating effect on creativity.
In a Chinese study in the journal Behavior and Brain Functions in 2014, undergraduates who meditated (a form of meditation called integrative mind-body training) 30 minutes a day for one week performed better on standardized creativity testing than a control group that did muscle relaxation.
In a study in the Journal of Creative Behavior in 2016, undergraduates who wrote about their dreams in a daily log had greater improvement on creativity tests than students who recorded vivid events from the previous day. Increased awareness of dreams may increase creativity by “loosening stereotyped and predictable associative patterns of thinking,” the researchers suggested.
Set time aside—maybe even ten minutes a day—to let your mind wander, with no set destination. This was shown to boost creativity in a study in Psychological Science in 2012. Researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara found that doing an undemanding task that encourages mind wandering helped people find creative solutions to problems that had been stumping them.
Working in dimmer light can instill a sense of freedom and disinhibition that breeds creativity, compared to standard office lighting, suggested a series of experiments in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013.
In a study in the journal Psychological Science in 2016, English children (ages 9 to 11) came up with more creative ideas when they were encouraged to gesture while talking, compared to those who did not gesture. “Asking children to move their hands while they think can help them tap into novel ideas,” the researchers concluded. “Children should be encouraged to think with their hands.” It’s not known whether this would help adults as well.
Creativity is a complicated, elusive, and variable process and is thus hard to study. What helps foster it in some people might hinder it in others. Most of these studies were relatively small and short, and the beneficial effects detected may not persist. But taken together, this research supports the idea that creativity isn’t just something that stays in the on or off position. The trick is to find the activities and environment that help you tap into the creativity that lies within you.