A view from Dino Burbidge

It's possible to become 10% more creative

A new experiment suggests that sending electro "tickles" through your brain may boost your creativity, writes Dino Burbage.

We’ve all been there. Sitting in a briefing. Colleagues around you asking impressively relevant questions. Your mind is a fug.

Maybe it was the bad night’s sleep. Or maybe you just need a coffee. That’ll sort it. And, other days, you can hardly stop the damn ideas falling out of your brain. What’s all that about?

The mind is a curious thing. It accounts for 2% of your body weight (about as much as an iPad weighs) but uses 20% of your body’s energy (about as much as a light bulb). And we only use 10% of it.

That last bit is, of course, complete cobblers. We use all of it – we just don’t always know what it’s up to.

There are, however, big chunks we do know about and, as I write this, I’m drying the damp patches in my hair caused by an experiment aimed at digging further into the mysterious creative brain. The experiment requires me to wear a funky-looking skullcap but, helpfully, there’s a friendly scientist to help explain why.

Enter Michael Banissy, head of Goldsmiths’ lab for cognitive neuroscience and experimental psychology. Banissy is part of a Europe-wide project called Creativity Enhancement through Advanced Brain Mapping and Stimulation, and is always looking for new volunteers like me (check out www.banissy.com).

The project has a simple goal: to prove that stimulating your brain can boost your creativity. By sending minute "tickles" of electricity through a special hat, your brain can be coaxed into a state of heightened creative prowess.

These tickles just need to be at the right frequency – about 10Hz – to create this effect. OK, you may also need to train your brain with some exercises, but the main headline is that the tickle treatment can make you more creative. How much more? A measurable 5%-10% increase in creative output.

Doesn’t sound like much but that’s like beating Usain Bolt by a whole second in the 100 metres. Now, imagine all those creative agencies – normally neckand-neck but one of them has a creative department belting out 10% more creative ideas… and winning 10% more business.

The tickle treatment can make you more creative. How much more? A measurable 5%-10% increase in creative output.

The 10Hz thing isn’t techno hocus-pocus – it’s how your brain naturally works. When you go into a creative mode, your brain seems to settle into a 10Hz "alpha wave" hum. All the hat does is induce the process artificially.

Incidentally, there are other things you can do to get your brain in the zone without the hat. Sleep is a big factor – or, more accurately, REM sleep. It helps form connections critical for creative thinking. Meditation, mindfulness and doing something different are also recommended by Banissy.

The key is to give your brain some downtime because it tends to make those big creative leaps in the background while you are busy on other things. So here I am in a small room with my damp hair and wired-up skullcap.

A whole bunch of us from WCRS (and the wider Engine group) are doing the same series of tasks. The tasks are fun. "Invent as many uses for a brick as you can in two minutes" – that sort of thing.

This one is divergent thinking – a process most think of as true creativity. The more bonkers, the better. Luckily for me, there are no right or wrong answers. One of my answers to another question is "a dildo for an elephant".

Tom, the assistant recording the results, doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. I suspect he has heard worse. Then we move on to convergent thinking.

A problem is shown on screen with three elements. The task is to come up with a viable solution to the problem using the listed elements: "Get more people to cycle to work using LinkedIn, a bucket and a drone."

When you go into a creative mode, your brain seems to settle into a 10Hz "alpha wave" hum. All the hat does is induce the process artificially.

All good so far, but this is only week one of two. We’ll do the next test and the results will be compared. In true blind-experiment fashion, only one of the weeks will actually deploy the electrical tickles and we’re not told which.

If the group with the electro tickles tends to do better, then we confirm a rather interesting conclusion: you can make anyone more creative.

Now, I’m not advocating secretly installing 10Hz generators under every creative team’s desk but, I’ll be honest, I would buy a hat with in-built fizzy electro tickle technology if it could make me better at my job.

I want to know that no creative stone was left unturned on any given project. I owe it to my clients. I’ve seen the movie Limitless. I wanted those super-achiever pills.

It also raises some interesting questions. Am I using my brain to its fullest potential? Will wages ever be related to your measured creativity? Should I just be content with my natural brain? Are those Cannes gold Lion winners already secretly using this? Ultimately, could I be more creative? It certainly makes you think…

Dino Burbage is director of technology and innovation at WCRS