Creativity and Novelty

by Stephen Mills on February 14, 2010


Novelty is an important component in fostering creativity.

Optical illusions work because of the perceptual shortcuts your brain has developed from past perceptual experience.  This tendency of your brain to make snap judgments and statistical predictions is a very good thing.  It occurs in many different areas of your brain and it reduces by many magnitudes the amount of mental resources required to function in your every day life.

The downside of this is that your thoughts tend to fall into ruts.  Thoughts travel easily along well worn neural pathways.   You get stuck inside a path and can’t easily get out of it.

You can’t think outside the box if you  keep sitting in the same box.  Imagination uses some of the same visual circuits as perception.  In order to imagine new ideas you need  create new visual wiring in your brain.  You need new and loosely connected patterns to help trigger new ways of stringing ideas together.

Seeking out new experience does exactly that.  Children squeal with delight at novel experiences because their immature brains are desperately trying to make sense of the world.  They instinctively act in a way that produces discovery and learning.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could get some of that delightful attitude back into our adult lives?  Even more, there is evidence that novelty seeking is a key to long term well-being and brain health.  See Todd Kashdan’s book Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life.

Since we are visual creatures and since visual circuits are used in imaginative thinking, novel visual experiences are very important to creativity.  The richer the experience the better.   Here are some ideas on things you can do to increase novelty in your life.

  1. New experiences involving both vision and movement.  Your brain loves physical movement as long as that movement is attended to and is not automatic.  Combining physical movement with a visual experience is ideal, so do something that makes you keep your eyes open.  Whether it is dance, yoga, sports, martial arts, or something else, novel movement with focused visual attention is great for your body and brain.  Be sure and change it up frequently.  Play different sports, learn new dance moves, etc.
  2. People, people, people.  There have been a slew of studies showing the mental and physical benefits of social involvement.  For novelty, go further out into your social networks.  Engage more with people you know who are not your friends or regulars in your inner circle.  Going even further and meeting and socializing with brand new people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds is a fantastic way to experience novelty.  Your same old friends bring the same old things – lovely as they may be.
  3. Physical is better then virtual.  Brain scans show that you have a richer pattern of neuronal activity when viewing an actual physical object than you do when viewing it on a two-dimensional screen.  I am not opposed to computer stimulation (that sounds bad), but obviously being there and experiencing it in the real world is better than watching pixels flash on a two-dimensional plane.
  4. Change up your environment.  Doing the same thing in the same room with the same furnishings is not conducive to creativity.  Novel surroundings boost the creative juices.  So instead of sitting in a bland office, talk a walk in the woods to do some thinking.  Get out your laptop and do some work on a beach, a park, or in a different room.  Change your furniture and decorations around.  Do things 🙂 in a variety of places.
  5. Drive, walk, and exercise using different routes.  Just travelling a new route and seeing something different can trigger a new connection in your brain.
  6. Diversify your reading material.  Read fiction and non-fiction, something technical and something light and breezy, thrillers, biography, philosophy, etc.  I know you can’t read everything and I personally tend to focus on narrow categories, but I’m committed to expanding my reading horizons.
  7. Travel, travel, travel.  This one activity can introduce you to so many novel experiences visually, intellectually, and socially, that it may be hard to beat.  If you can afford it, actually live for a while in different locations.  Even if you don’t have time or means to travel far, you can travel out of your neighborhood or city almost any time you want.
  8. Natural is better than artificial.  I admit this is just a personal bias, but I have to believe our brains do better in a natural environment for which they have been sculpted than in an artificial one.  I know there have been some studies showing the benefits of natural sunlight and green spaces, but mostly this is just an intuition of mine.
  9. Vary everything.  Whatever it is you do, look for ways to vary it.  The more variation the better.  Look for the mysterious or the things you have never noticed before, even in the mundane.  Just stop and smell the roses for once.  You’ll be amazed what you see for the first time if you just stop and look.
  10. Think Laterally.  This is a great way to generate novel ideas.  Check out this Wikipedia article on lateral thinking, especially the tools section.  Lateral thinking generally involves trying to put random and unconnected or exaggerated ideas together.  It’s a way to challenge your default modes of thought.

Please add your own ideas on how to stimulate creativity through novel experiences.  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 13 trackbacks }

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Miche - Serenity Hacker February 14, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Hi Stephen, this is super. When I get in a rut with my thinking, my creativity feels like a dying ember rather than a burning fire… and if I look over the list you provide, I can totally see why… it usually happens when I’m in the same routine, not getting out enough, not seeing people enough, and not being active enough (usually all due to working too much). And the natural over the artificial is my bias, too. It’s totally true. I just wrote a post on strengthening relationships based on some of the same principles you’ve listed here… doing things, being active, getting out and seeing people… it seems novelty not only stirs creative fires but relationship fires, too. And, it promotes better memory (and memories), too.

Miche 🙂
.-= Miche – Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..7 Ways to Strengthen Relationships and Create Lasting Memories =-.


Stephen Mills February 16, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Hello Miche, thanks! That was a terrific comment. I’m going to be sure and check out your article.


Positively Present February 14, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Great ideas, Stephen! This is definitely so helpful for anyone (like me!) who has been in a creativity rut. This is an inspiring reminder of how I can find ways to cultivate more creativity in my life. Thanks!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..celebrating one year of positively present! =-.


Stephen Mills February 16, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Hi Dani, I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for dropping by.


Lloyd Vincent February 15, 2010 at 1:52 am

Great list of reminders! No matter how many of these kind of articles I read, I love them, and this one is very well done.

It’s too easy to forget that we need to keep our brains soft, and how enjoyable it can be to do so.

One of the best things I’ve done for my brain is to take up a musical rhythm game at the local game center (arcade) here in Japan.
.-= Lloyd Vincent´s last blog ..4 Major Japanese pizza chains compared =-.


Stephen Mills February 16, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Hello Lloyd and thanks for commenting. The game sounds interesting. I’ve seen them before, but haven’t tried it yet.


sue tupling February 15, 2010 at 7:24 am

I love this post – a very good reminder of novelty and creativity. I wonder do you have any tips for those of us who are so creative it gets us into trouble? like taking on too many projects or being too successful with our creative pursuits? perhaps i need to learn to creatively say no (to myself and others!!). Here are a few tips from me too:
– learn how to relax properly (ie not watching soaps or drinking!!): white space or ‘margin’ in your life feeds creativity!
– learn, learn, learn: the brain’s ‘plasiticity’ is well researched and learning new things creates new neural pathways all the time
– stay open: have the mind of a child and stay open to new experiences rather than pre-judging and closing down
– teach: or coach, its amazing how teaching or coaching helps creativity, you often learn far more from your students than you ever expected (as long as you stay open to being challenged!!)
– remember you have 3 brains: don’t let the cognitive brain take over at the expense of the wisdom and creativty of the heart brain and the enteric brain
.-= sue tupling´s last blog ..Thinking is the stuff of experience =-.


Stephen Mills February 17, 2010 at 11:14 am

Hi there Sue. That’s a great comment with a lot of helpful ideas I think teaching others is a great thing especially when you get push back and challenge. Schools should teach children to do exactly that instead of teaching them to conform.


Suzanne February 15, 2010 at 10:44 am

A thoroughly fun read! Maybe it’s just because I’m in the mood to hear it. It seems that making this year a metamorphosis year for me has reawakened parts of me in of itself.

This part still has me smiling on the inside…Do things 🙂 in a variety of places.. I can’t say for sure how you meant it but I know how I took it. 😉
.-= Suzanne´s last blog ..TCOY Spotlight ~ Serenity Hacker =-.


Stephen Mills February 16, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Hi there Suzanne. You picked up on the double entendre that I pointed to with my smiley. Thanks 🙂

Reply February 15, 2010 at 6:24 pm

That’s an an extremely valuable post for everyone, Stephen. I especially agree with people, people, peeople point. I get so many ideas when I go to a seminar or big networking event and meet new people. I get inspired, motivated and my mind just starts thinking of new ways of making things happen.
.-=´s last blog won’t love THERE if you don’t love HERE first =-.


Stephen Mills February 16, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Hello Lana. That is great. People and relationships are an area that I placed little emphasis on in the past. I find the research on the physical and mental benefits of our social connections very interesting.


Hulbert February 16, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Nice post Steven. I agree that in order to be more creative we need to explore different areas of life, areas of life in which we may be uncomfortable with. Through seeking new environments, we will be able to gain new senses, and help us become more creative or come up with new ideas.
.-= Hulbert´s last blog ..Do Your Blogging Struggles Still Bother You? =-.


Stephen Mills February 16, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Hello Hulbert. Thanks so much. When we are comfortable we aren’t challenged and we are on autopilot. Sometimes that’s great and sometimes that’s a rut.


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills February 16, 2010 at 10:18 pm

This was so you Stephen, I absolutely loved it. These are such practical ways to to increase creativity in our lives. Think I’ll print this list so it always handy. Thank you my friend.
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..7 Minutes on the Garden Isle of Kauai =-.


Stephen Mills February 16, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Hi Jonathan, thanks for that. I love it that you recognize a “so you” style in my articles.


Lucky February 17, 2010 at 10:43 am

Any eye-opening post. Back in college my head was bursting with new ideas for everything. Now I feel like my brain is trapped in cement a lot of the time. Probably because I sit in the same cube doing the same thing for 8 hours a day…

I’m working towards getting out of the cube. I definitely plan on digging through the rest of your blog.


Brian Meeks February 17, 2010 at 10:50 am

There were two distinct points in my life, where I felt the most creative, before now. The first was a period, of about 6 months, in college, when I was playing speed chess about 10 hours a day. The rest of the time I was studying chess. I was new to the game and I could tell that my brain was sharp as a knife. I looked at the world differently and solved problems with ease.

The second time was the three years I built spaces in the virtual world of second life. I had to learn so many different skills, just to help my clients that I was again feeling that I was stretching my brain.

And now I am experiencing the same feeling, for the third time in my life. I have discovered the joy of woodworking and each day I blog about it. I am not a writer, but I manage to post 800-1100 words per day. I am learning how to do something I have zero experience with and then I am learning how to write about my journey.

I love exercising my brain. Great article.


Jack Bennett February 17, 2010 at 12:40 pm

That’s a great list of strategies to shake things up in our creative lives, and a welcome reminder that for all our great technology, we still benefit so much from ongoing connections with people and with the physical world.

#1 definitely resonates with me – after a session of hot yoga or a strenuous CrossFit style workout, my brain feels like it’s operating much more smoothly… thoughts just flow…


Nea | Self Improvement Saga February 21, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Great article Stephen. I know this is a bit corny, but I like coloring. And trust me… I am by no means an artist.

I simply find that toying around with a desk full of crayons or coloring pencils lifts my spirits and gives me time to use my imagination. It allows my mind to soar in a different direction. Care bear coloring books are awesome!
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..How to Be Selfish…In a Good Way =-.


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