There's a reason you may feel creatively stunted when you need it most, like at work before a big presentation or when tending to kids. According to a study published in Psychological Science, people are more disposed to creative thinking when they have low mental "loads," or few things to keep track of in their working memory. Scenarios high in familiarity and low in demands—like in the shower or on a run—are where you're more likely to let your mind wander and ponder life's many questions.
Researchers Shira Baror and Moshe Bar from Bar-Ilan University in Israel tested participants' creativity through simple word-association tasks. Participants were given a word and instructed to respond with the first word that came to mind (e.g., "sock" for the word "shoe"). Meanwhile, they were also asked to complete a cognitive task, such as keeping a six-digit string of numbers in mind or naming the color relating to letters in a word. Baror and Bar consistently found that those with the less complicated cognitive tasks were more likely to give more creative or off-the-wall word-association responses while those with more on their minds resorted to banal, unoriginal answers.
"These experiments suggest that the mind's natural tendency is to explore and to favor novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution," wrote Bar in a column for The New York Times. "In everyday life, you may find yourself 'loading' your mind in various ways: memorizing a list of groceries to buy later at the supermarket, rehearsing the name of someone you just met so you don't forget it. All these loads can consume mental capacity, leading to dull thought and anhedonia—a flattened ability to experience pleasure."
This study speaks to the fickle nature of creativity, most notably the fact that it isn't entirely innate; you have some degree of control over it. Bar himself goes on a weeklong meditation retreat once a year in order to empty his mind of thought and thus have more provocative revelations in the future. If you're in a creative slump, try taking up running, picking up a yoga class, or even enjoying a long, relaxing bath.
Want to test the theory? Pick up a Yeti yoga mat, practice your oms, and then share your insights with us!