Have you ever thought about how going abroad might be the best thing you have ever done for your creativity? How engaging in an international adventure might shape your brain and help you find new creative ideas?
Many people might think of musicians, painters and writers when they talk about creativity. These are the people with a creative force, right? And yes, sometimes is can seem like some people are more creative than others. But…
When I work as a workshop facilitator it is often my job to design and lead a process that will spark the creativity and help a team use that creativity to develop new innovative solutions for their business or organisation. Sometimes I hear people say: But I am not creative. And my answer always is: For some people it might flow fast and naturally, others need a little push, but we are all creative.
So what is creativity, and how do we get creative?
Some people say that creativity is what has kept humanity alive. It’s our ability to create new solutions for problems we face in an ever changing world. And maybe that ever changing world, is what makes so many of us constantly seek ways to stimulate that creativity.
Neuroscientists have for decades tried to figure out what happens in our brain when we are creative. When we do a jazz improvisation, a freestyle rap, get a new idea or find a solution to a complex problem. There are still many unanswered questions, but what the latest neuroscience tells us is, that the ability to think creatively is not located in one distinct section of the brain. On the contrary, research indicates that creative ideas spark when we manage to make new connections between many different parts of our brain.
Going abroad can make your brain more flexible
How does all of this concern the global professional, you may think. I personally find it quite obvious that a little travel will open your mind to new ways of thinking that can also spark your creativity. I am therefore delighted that science agrees. Psychologist Adam Galinksy has studied the effects of living and working abroad, and he says that:
“..foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”
In other words, travel does not just give you lots of new impressions, it might also improve your ability to connect different parts of your brain and hence improve your creativity.
Emerge in your new culture to get the best effect
What is however also interesting is, that studies done by Galinksy and a group of researchers involving a number of creative directors over a span of 11 years indicate that more is only better to a certain degree. The research concluded that living abroad has a positive effect on creativity, but that the effect wears off after a number of assignments. Directors who had lived in more than three different countries had a better creative effect than directors who had never lived abroad, but less of an effect than directors who had lived in one, two or three countries.
But what seem to be even more important is to what degree you choose to emerge yourself in the culture of your new country. Galinksy concludes, that someone who engages in a new country’s culture is more likely to have a considerable creativity burst, whereas a person with non or very little interaction with the host country’s culture will have non or a very little effect.
The importance of engagement can help explain why more is not necessarily better, after a number of international assignments the curiosity and energy to emerge in yet a new culture might just wear of, hence a possible lack of engagement can explain the declining effect.
Embrace everything your international experience has to offer
If going abroad is going to spark your creativity, you have to get out there, embrace everything that your international experience has to offer and engage in your new host country’s culture.
Be curious, explore, enjoy and learn – and in time, see what creative ideas might start to flow. But there is one more thing to remember, you need to also take time to relax and let all your new impressions sink in. Because there is one more thing neuroscience tells us about the brain: It works well when you give it a break.
Many new creative ideas and solutions have emerged once people stop thinking about the issue they tried to solve. Did you notice, how you sometimes get a bright idea when you are cooking dinner or maybe sometimes when you are in the shower? Newton is sometimes used as an example of what can happen, when you give the brain a break. Newton was not in a lab or his study when the theory of gravity sprung to his mind. After many hours of study, he was in the garden, drinking a cup of tea, relaxing under an apple tree.
Let the brain rest, and it will do the creative work for you
It is when you stop thinking so hard and take a rest, that the brain gets the change to sort all the impressions you take in and start making the unexpected connections that are so highly rated.
So consider this: If your global posting gives you a ton of new impressions, stimuli for your flexible brain – and if your global posting at the same time is what can give you a break from your normal life and career, what might happen?
If you throw yourself into the unknown, explore the opportunities you find there and also let your global adventure be a chance to take a break, this might just be exactly what your brain needs to help it make a few new creative connections. Creative connections that will help you figure out where your professional growth should take you next.
Engage, relax and enjoy the journey.
Mette Lindgaard Seligmann is Strategic Communication Focal Point at here we are global. She is also an experienced workshop facilitator using Lego Serious Play to help teams and organisations turn on the creative brain and build new ideas and solutions. If you are interested in knowing more about what happens to your brain when you move abroad, you can also read Mette’s post: Ready for change?
Photo by Mette Lindgaard Seligmann shows a Michela Picchi mural in Ohio City, Cleveland.