There have been dramatic shifts over the last several hundred years that have profoundly changed our economic engine. We’ve moved from economies that are agriculturally based (centered on farming) to economies that are industrially based (centered on factory production) to economies focused on information (centered on knowledge work). Many believe the next shift (post-knowledge work) will be built around an economy of creativity and new ideas.

But what does “being creative” really entail?

Researchers in psychology and neuroscience have been trying to get to the bottom of creativity – to define the triggers that spark insights and innovation and how our brain responds to them. Here are a few that may surprise you.

  1. Relaxation. Joydeep Bhattacharya, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, through his research on “predictive brain signals” finds that the brain is most likely to gain insight with a steady rhythm of alpha waves emanating from the right hemisphere. These alpha waves are closely associated with relaxing activities such as walking, taking a warm shower, even drinking alcohol! When we are intensely focused on a task, we are must less likely to have an insight. This may seem counter-intuitive, because most of us tend “hunker down” and increase our focus when we are trying to work through a difficult problem. In reality, a “clenched state of mind” inhibits the connections in the brain that lead to creative break-throughs.
  2. Movement.  Creative thinking improves during walking and shortly thereafter, according to a study co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education. Their study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting. Walking has also been shown to help with improved attention and short-term recall.
  3. Conceptual blending. Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Worksafter studying practices at 3M and Google, writes about the benefits of horizontal interactions – people sharing knowledge across fields. He has seen first-hand the benefits of “conceptual blending,” and its role in the insight process. From a biological perspective, our brain has the tendency to file away ideas into categories based on how these ideas are typically used. In order to create break-throughs, we need to try apply old solutions to new situations. Psychologists from the University of Michigan, claim a key element in conceptual blending is the use of analogy. In one study, they gave their participants a “radiation problem” which was very difficult and required a great deal of creativity to solve. Only 10% of participants could figure out the solution. Then they gave each participant a “military problem” that was analogous along with its solution. After seeing the military solution, 75% of participants solved the radiation problem. The researchers claim that instead of concentrating on the details of a problem, we have to free our minds to search for distantly related analogies that can then be mapped onto the puzzles we are trying to solve.

But how can we leverage this intelligence and use space to help charge our creative juices?

Here are five strategies backed by science:

  • Design for mental relaxation. Many workplaces today have spaces that, at first glance, appear trendy or even frivolous. But if we look at them as environments intended to pull us away from our daily grind and force our brains to relax and innovate, they take on a deeper meaning. Ping pong tables, libraries, soft seating areas, views to nature and zen gardens, if designed well, will allow employees to take a break and relax their brain, which in turn creates a mental platform for insight and innovation.
  • Create space with volume. I was recently asked (by a neuroscientist no less) why important buildings, such as places of worship, public facilities, etc., have such high ceilings. Other than “inspiring awe” in the people who occupy them, I really didn’t have an answer. After doing some research on the subject, it seems that spaces with volume, particularly height, inspire more than awe. Across several experiments, researchers have found evidence that high ceilings put people in a mindset of freedom, creativity, and abstraction, whereas the lower ceilings prompting more confined thinking.

PLH Arkitekter, Copenhagen, Denmark

  • Encourage movement inside and out. Designers can use several strategies to facilitate “people movement.” They create wider hallways to encourage walking meetings, design more attractive and efficient staircases, and install treadmill desks in the work environment. These strategies are good for health, but also good for getting our creative juices flowing. Also, building location and good urban planning can impact movement. For example, research shows that proximity to parks and other recreational facilities is consistently associated with higher levels of physical activity and healthier weight status among youth and adults. The same goes for proximity to public transit — research shows a link between access to public transportation and physical activity, since transit use typically involves walking to a bus or subway stop. In one study, train commuters walked an average of 30 percent more steps per day and were four times more likely to walk 10,000 steps per day than were car commuters.

36th G8 Summit, Ontario

  • Create spaces for standing up.  Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis used biometric devices and other measurements to understand how creativity and engagement might increase or decrease based on changes in the physical environment. The researchers did an experiment with student subjects that were split into two groups. Each group was put in a conference room and asked to come up with a short promotional video for their school in 30 minutes. The first group did this exercise sitting around a conference table and the second group had no chairs, and did the exercise standing up. The researchers found differences in the creativity and execution of the videos between the two groups, but also the social dynamics in the room. Individuals in the standing group were more engaged, more likely to toss out their own ideas and pick up on a better one from someone else and there was less hierarchy in the room. As a result, the quality of the videos was much higher.
  • Create places for cross pollination. Many organizations centralize shared spaces (bathrooms or kitchen areas for example) in order to encourage cross-talk and the flow of ideas across teams. Though it may seem a little “forced” as a strategy, creating circulation patterns in the building where brief conversations happen between employees that don’t work normally work together can create value. Steve Jobs subscribed to this method, and so does GSK – one of their spaces is shown below.

GSK building atrium, Navy Yard, Philadelphia