Unleash the power of your mind: Four women who've done just that

New research shows your brain is chock full of brilliant ideas just waiting to be let loose. Meet four women who've unlocked the mystery - and learn how to spark your own imaginative genius

Brain-shaped Lightbulb


It’s tough to be creative on cue. How often do you draw a blank at the most inopportune moment: when you’re in an important meeting with your boss, trying to express yourself to your partner or even just writing a personal birthday-card message? And yet, the newest science says, with the right tools, it’s easier than we think. To uncover the secrets of the creatively gifted, we scoured the research, spoke to the most prolific experts and sought out super-creative women just like you. It’s all here. So get your pen ready —you’ll need something to write down all those spectacular ideas.

Inspiring Mind:
The poet, Sheri-D Wilson (“Sheri-D is short for Sheri-Doyle — it started 30 years ago and just kind of stuck.”)

Her portfolio: She has written eight poetry collections, founded the Calgary Spoken Word Poetry Festival and is the director of the Spoken Word Program at the Banff Centre.

Creative advice: “Everyone has a talent for something, it’s just a matter of finding it. Creativity is about desire and curiosity, and sometimes you just have to play around and see what happens.”

When Calgary poet Sheri-D Wilson came up with the idea for her latest book, Goddess Gone Fishing for a Map of the Universe, it was more than an aha moment — it was an aha-ha moment. “It was a ‘jump up, scream, run around the house, feel like I’m going to pee, head exploding off my shoulders’ moment,” she says. Or, rather, exclaims. Her creative brainwave was to put QR codes (barcodes typically used in advertising) at the bottom of her poetry pages. “I’d been reading about the codes in a technology magazine, and it hit me: I could change the parameters of my book,” she says. “Instead of being static, it could be a framework for performance — the reader actually gets to ‘go fishing.'”

Thus, when you get to the end of a poem in Goddess Gone Fishing, you’ll discover a little black-and-white patterned square. Scan it with your smartphone and you’ll be taken to Sheri-D’s website, where a secret message awaits — one that can change at any time. “I had no idea what I’d stumbled on until I made a few calls and found out no one has ever done this before.”

You’ve got what it takes
Sheri-D penned her first poem when she was 10 and has always considered herself creative. But most people don’t ever think of themselves that way. And the older we get, the more we underestimate our creative abilities, says Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works. “When you ask little kids in second grade, ‘Are you creative?’ they answer, ‘Yes!'” he says. “But by fifth grade, only 50 percent of kids say yes, and by high school it’s only 5 percent.” We’re only just beginning to understand where inspiration and ingenuity come from, Lehrer says, but new studies show every brain is capable of coming up with novel ideas. “It’s a myth that creativity is a rare gift possessed by a lucky few. It’s a universal trait. We all have it, and that means we can all get better at it.”

A glimpse inside your brain
Shelly Carson, a psychology lecturer and researcher at Harvard, has studied creativity for 14 years, ever since she first held a rubbery human brain during a neural-anatomy class. “It would have been a lot mushier if it hadn’t been preserved,” she says.) At first she was amazed by how small it was and the way the gyri and sulci (the bumps and creases) stood out. But then she got to thinking: If you look around at everything you see, from the chair you’re sitting on to the light over your head, it was once just an idea kicking around in somebody’s brain. “I realized all the great thoughts that have made our culture what it is came from a brain just like the one in my hands — and I wanted to find out as much as possible about how that happens.”

Carson defines creative people as those who take bits of information from their stores of memories, knowledge and skills, or the environment around them, and combine those bits in novel ways. Until recently, experts thought that ability was a right brain thing. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California and an artist on the side, scans the brains of a lot of creative types in her work at the school’s Brain and Creativity Institute. For her most recent study, which was published this year in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Aziz-Zadeh scanned the brains of architecture students while they performed creative tasks. In one, the students were asked to create an image in their mind using only a circle, the letter C and the number eight. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow, Aziz-Zadeh was able to watch their brains in action.

“We know the two hemispheres process things differently,” she says. “The right brain is the intuitive, emotional side responsible for global processing — it sees the forest — while the left brain is more orderly and detail-oriented — it sees the trees.” In this case, blood flowed to the right hemisphere, which lit the scans up like a game of Lite-Brite with splotches of yellow, orange and red. But Aziz-Zadeh saw the same colours on scans of the left side of the brain, too. “It was exciting. We could see both sides were involved in the creative task.”

What’s also cool, she says, is that scientists can now pinpoint when someone has a moment of inspiration. Aziz-Zadeh studied wordsmiths’ brains while they solved anagrams and watched as some did the puzzles serially, letter by letter, and others got it instantly. “Whenever someone had an aha moment, we observed that the emotional regions of the brain were also activated because it feels so great to suddenly get the answer,” she says. Her research shows ideas don’t just come from a single spark in some far corner of the brain but are actually a much bigger bust of activity as both hemispheres work together. We’re really starting to build a picture of what creativity looks like inside the brain,” she says. “And if we can better understand the neural process involved, we could help enhance creativity in people.”

Inspiring mind: The architect, Marianne McKenna

Her portfolio: Designing awe-inspiring building’s like Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music and Jackson-Triggs Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. She’s now working on the Globe and Mail‘s new headquarters. “I want to create a fluid, intuitive, collaborative environment that will stimulate ideas.”

Sources of inspiration: Writer, actor and director Robert Lepage, creator of the nine-hour play Lipsynch, and Meryl Streep for the energy she brings to every role. “Engaging audiences in production after production is no joke — and to make it happen every time is incredible.”

Tune up your creative side
While it’s true that some people are genetically predisposed to having good ideas (studies show there are those whose brains are wired in a way that draws them to novelty and originality), Carson says we all have that potential and often it’s just a matter of staying mentally fit. “We need to recognize our creative abilities and exercise them, like you would in a muscle-building program,” she says. “All the things we need to be creative are achievable through practice and learning.”

Learning new things is one of the best ways to rewire your brain, she says. “The more stuff floating around in your cognitive workspace, the bigger repertoire of things your brain has to combine in original ways.” Gathering information for inspiration is the approach Marianne McKenna, founding partner of KPMB Architects, took when designing Toronto’s award-winning Royal Conservatory of Music. “For me, there is an aha moment, but I have to sweat it out — it doesn’t come from nowhere,” she says. She takes a “considered approach” to the creative process and builds ideas from past experiences and her exploration of other buildings around the world.

Then, she creates a narrative. As a child, her bedroom had two closets: one for clothes and one for building things. “I would build dollhouses, even though I didn’t have any dolls, and make up a story as I went along,” she says. “For the Royal Conservatory, I made up a story about how the building would work with both performances and learning happening in the same space.” She pictured how performers like Yo-Yo Ma would enter the building and how students would be part of the tableau. “I didn’t want to segregate them — they’re the musicians of the future. I imagined them sitting in the café and watching all the great performers come through. I wanted them to be inspired and think, ‘That could be me.'”

Relax already
Once you’ve stocked your brain with all the information you need to spark a eureka moment, the next step is letting go. “To access that store of information, you need to relax and defocus your mind,” Carson says. That’s why taking a shower, meditating or going for a walk is your best chance at inspiration. “We see it happen on the alpha waves of an EEG — people in relaxed states are more likely to have creative insight,” says Lehrer. In a recent study at the University of British Columbia, researchers found people working on a soothing blue computer screen came up with twice as many solutions to problems as people trying to churn out ideas on a red screen.

The only downside is that when your mind is defocused, moments of inspiration come and go more quickly because the working-memory part of your brain also takes a break. “I came up with a great idea for a novel in the shower and thought, ‘I’ve never read anything like this — it’s simple, it’s elegant, it’s perfect!'” Carson says. “But when I came out and got busy doing something else, that was it. I’m still trying to remember what the idea was.” Now, Carson takes a pad of paper with her everywhere she goes. “It also helps to jot ideas down because you understand them better when you see them on paper.”

Inspiring mind: The painter, Melanie Authier

Her portfolio: Painting abstracts that keep gallery-goers guessing. “A brush stroke can be reminiscent of the edge of a leaf or the ripple of a wave, but because of how it’s contextualized in the painting, it can withhold specific meaning. I like to explore that in my work.”

Creative advice: “Seek opportunities that involve pushing boundaries. Putting yourself out into the world in that way requires being a bit fearless. Be determined and cultivate an unwavering belief in the importance of what you do.”

Pick a process
Coming up with a good idea is only the beginning. “The new idea — that 30-millisecond burst of gamma waves — still has to be refined,” Lehrer says. “A good poem is never easy. It must be pulled out of us, like a splinter.” It took Sheri-D three years to write Goddess Gone Fishing. “Creativity comes out of curiosity and hard work,” she says. “I sit on the edge of an uncomfortable wooden chair and I write and I sweat — it’s like a workout. There’s nothing easy about it.” Her favourite time to work is early morning, when she’s still “half in dream.” When you wake up and right before you go to sleep are often your most fertile creative times. “Your brain is just naturally in that relaxed, defocused state,” Carson says. “It’s why you’ll often see creative people work at strange hours. Charles Dickens would wake at 5 a.m. to walk the streets of London.”

Melanie Authier, a painter and visual arts instructor at the University of Ottawa, is often in her studio late into the night. Her award-winning abstracts layer colour, texture, line and shape, but despite their complexity, she doesn’t map her paintings out beforehand. “I begin with an idea of the space I want to create, like an underwater terrain. Then I translate it into an abstraction, but I never work from a preliminary sketch.”

Melanie focuses on one painting at a time to avoid getting distracted. It usually takes her a month to finish. “I usually start my paintings with a colour I haven’t used before, or one that I dislike,” she says. “It challenges me and demands that I take an inventive approach.”

Inspiring mind: The Business Whiz, Jenny Munford

Her portfolio: First, she travelled to Germany and, at 22, opened a women’s fitness studio (eight years later it had grown to 14 clubs). Now, she dreams up award-winning ad campaigns for her television-ad agency, Creative Bube Tube.

Sources of inspiration: Her three-year-old when he’s playing (“He has no mental blocks, it all just flows,”) and Christopher Nolan, director of Inception. “There were so many layers to that movie — I loved it!”

Topple your creative blocks
Fear of failure is the thing most likely to stifle your inner muse, Lehrer says. Of all the people he hung out with while researching Imagine, he was most inspired by cellist superstar Yo-Yo Ma, who welcomes mistakes on stage instead of worrying about them. “He told me that after you make that first mistake, you’re free — you can shut off the part of your mind that worries about failing and just let yourself go.”

Failure is a key part of the creative process, but people are often too quick to judge and discard their ideas, Carson says. “Yet as soon as your brain is in the mindset of not being evaluated, the ideas really start to flow.” And the more ideas you come up with, the more good ones you’re likely to have. “I tell my students it’s like trying to get a date for the prom: You may ask 100 people, but only one person has to say yes. It doesn’t matter how many turned you down.”

Before she reached her current Don Draper-esque status, Jenn Munford struggled with fear of failure. Back in 2006, she was staring at the walls of her tiny home office and wondering how she was going to pay the two employees of her fledgling television-ad agency, Creative Bube Tube. Now, six years, 34 employees and more than 350 ad campaigns later, she has three offices across Canada, soon to be joined by two in the United States. “To be creative, you have to listen to your heart and go for it,” she says. “Follow your passion: Even if it doesn’t work out, you learn and grow from it.”

That’s also her approach to coming up with creative ideas when she’s faced with a difficult client. In a pinch, she’ll draw from past experiences. “You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel,” she says. Jenny won awards for her CarProof Vehicle History campaign, which was based on her experience buying a used car in Germany (she met the owner’s son at a gas station after the fact and learned his mother had always driven the car in first gear at 100 mph). She turned the moment into a funny opening scene for the ad.

If Jenny gets hit with a creative block, she doesn’t let it worry her. “Even with a deadline, I try to take the pressure off myself,” she says. “I’ll just go do something else and let my subconscious work on it.” Her brain is at its best when she goes for a run. “It’s like I go to a different planet. I’ll start out with a client’s topic in my head and, 40 minutes later, I’ll come back with some amazing ideas.”

Before he write Imagine, Lehrer thought he could solve his creative blocks with caffeine. “Writing the book changed my creative process. Before, when I got stuck, I’d stay up late and power through, but in the morning I just saw that my fixes hadn’t really fixed anything.” His new motto is “Take time to waste time,” meaning he’ll take a break, usually to indulge in some daydreaming. “Often the answer comes when you stop looking for it.”

Most of all, creativity takes courage. People who let go of their inhibitions to put new ideas out there are heroes, Carson says. “It’s much easier to go through life following convention, but once you’re truly able to tap into your creative ability, it’s then that you can help shape the world of the future.”

Spark starters
1. Make friends: Highly social people may be up to three times more innovative than those who don’t socialize often, says Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works. “To be creative, you must hurl yourself out into the world and connect with as many people as possible.”

2. Unplug yourself:
Creativity requires time to digest and synthesize, something you can’t do when you’re Tweeting, blogging or fooling around with the latest apps. “Often you may have an idea or a solution to a problem in the back of your mind but haven’t taken the time to listen to that quiet voice trying to give you the answer,” Lehrer says. “I worry that we’re so plugged in, so connected all the time, that we can’t hear that inner voice anymore.”

3. Break a sweat: Studies show that aerobic exercise can lead to inspiration. How long the creative period lasts depends on the person, but it can be anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours after a workout, Carson says.

4. Stop and smell the roses: Studies suggest that positive events, like receiving an unexpected gift, boost mood and increase creative performance. “An unexpected gift can be as simple as seeing a flower poking through a sidewalk,” Carson says. “Any moment of positive surprise elevates your mood and puts your mind in that expansive, idea-generating state.”

It pays to innovate
In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer says creativity is our most important mental ability. “We take this talent for granted, but your lives are defined by it,” he writes. There are many practical reasons to increase our capacity for creativity. First of all, it can be beneficial on the job front. “All prestigious business schools now offer courses in creativity, which wasn’t true even 10 or 12 years ago,” says Harvard psychology lecturer and researcher Shelley Carson. “And studies show major corporations value creativity more than any other trait in their CEOs.” IBM recently surveyed 1,500 CEOs from around the world and found that creativity is valued above vision and integrity as the skill most needed to navigate our increasingly complex world.

Then there are the health benefits. Studies show people can strengthen their immune systems just by engaging with mental imagery and visualizations. “It’s all about exploring imaginative talk,” Carson says. “For instance, this is one I think about a lot: What if spiders or cockroaches had really large brains and could outsmart people? That’s the kind of imaginative thinking that can actually help you stay healthy.”

A study from the American Society on Aging found older people who participated in art programs spent less time in their doctors’ offices, were on fewer medications and reported a higher sense of well-being overall. “Creativity is vital to so many areas of life,” Carson says. “If you can populate your inner world with rich ideas, it just makes life that much richer and more enjoyable.”

For more read How to boost your creativity: 10 tips from best-selling author Jonah Lehrer