Lucy Hone: Immersion therapy for unleashing creativity

Total immersion allows our creative brains sufficient time to conjure up our most creative thinking, writes Dr Lucy Hone.

Total immersion allows our creative brains sufficient time to conjure up our most creative thinking, writes Dr Lucy Hone.

A few weeks ago, I flew to Montreal for an academic conference. Lured by the prospect of a new city to explore, and warm weather to get rid of New Zealand's hideous winter cough-flu-thing, I couldn't get away fast enough. Sadly, the cough-flu-thing came with me, meaning I spent the first three days in bed on polyester sheets in an Airbnb that promised air conditioning but didn't deliver.

By day four and the start of the conference I was no better and seriously regretting leaving home. (Excuse the sob story – I don't expect you to feel sorry for me – but keep reading, there is a point).

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Anyone who regularly attends conferences as part of their job will tell you they are something of an endurance test: long, airless days, death by PowerPoint, angst-inducing decision-making over which of the numerous concurrent sessions is the best to attend. Come the end of day one I'd truly had it – average speakers, too many flunkies fawning over the field's superstars, and I'd been forced out of the two best sessions by horribly antisocial coughing fits. Why was I here? What was the point? I seriously wondered.

Wind the clock forward three more days and I'm (happily) sitting on an Air Canada flight bound for LA and then home. I believe the flight time was about five hours, but honestly, I wouldn't have a clue, because something happened on that flight which made the whole painful trip worthwhile.

I'd arrived on a Monday and been sick in bed for three days, not leaving my room. I'd attended the conference on Thursday through to Saturday night, hardly able to talk, forced to conserve energy for the two presentations I had to give.

However, on the plane home I'd opened my laptop planning to just jot down a couple of notes and, before I knew it, the plane touched down at LAX. Plans, ideas, new approaches to old issues, opportunities for international collaborations and some of the best, truly original thinking I've had in months, cascaded out of me. Sunday-to-Sunday I'd been immersed – day in, day out.

Despite my cough, conversations had been heard, speakers had shared thought-provoking research findings; writers had triggered hitherto under-appreciated insights. Seven days of what could only be described as an endurance event finally delivered the goods. On reflection, it had all been worth it.

This should come as no surprise. I, of all people, am supposed to know that I don't travel all that way just to sit in airless rooms; that the true power of attending such events is the opportunity for total immersion, allowing our creative brains sufficient time to conjure up our most creative thinking.

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When I was starting out on my PhD, my academic supervisor Grant Schofield (now chief advisor for the Ministry of Education on health and nutrition), gave me an early nugget of advice, telling me to watch John Cleese's YouTube video on creativity. Doing so taught me to think of our creative brain as a tortoise, which only dares to pop its timid little head out of its protective shell when it can be sure no threats exist in the immediate environment.

According to Cleese, thinking creatively requires us to create a tranquil oasis amid the madness of our everyday lives, where our tortoise mind can venture out to play. This needs two conditions: "boundaries of space and boundaries of time".

So for us to explore our maximum creativity, we have to set aside time and spaces for uninterrupted thinking. Racing around all day, ticking things off on lists, constantly looking at our phones, attending meetings and generally keeping all the balls in the air, is not conducive to creative thinking.

Taking my cough-flu-thing on a polyester-sheet holiday in Montreal turned out well in the end. Not on the first day, not even while I was actually on the ground in Montreal itself, but suddenly, in a rush of productivity on the plane heading home.

Seven full days of total immersion paid off and now I'm glad I went. I am not fool enough to think we can all engineer such total unfettered immersion in our work on a frequent basis, but I am optimistic enough to hope to persuade you of the benefits.

Scheduling in some thinking time – carving out barriers of time and space – whether it be monthly, quarterly, or even an annual retreat, is sure to proffer up some valuable, elusive insights, that you'd never encounter when stuck in the day-to-day grind.

 - Sunday Magazine


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