Why Imposing Restrictions Can Actually Boost Creativity

One study supports imposing artificial restrictions in order to goose creativity. 

 

We all want to be more creative. After all, it’s disruptive technology, the next great book, song, or movie, or the ultimate scientific breakthrough that alters the course of human history. Within creation lies not only fame or fortune, but legacy. You are among the rare few who leave a lasting mark. You’d think an open, rule-free zone would help goose the juices. Experts say in actuality, imposing restrictions is more likely to encourage creativity.


In entrepreneurship, limitations are naturally imposed. For example, it’s your budget, regulations, competitors, and market forces which must be dealt with. In say aircraft design it can be things the laws of aerodynamics, available materials, budget, fuel, and weight. In the arts however, the blank page or canvas can be daunting as such rules don’t often apply. Because of this, many creatives put artificial limitations on themselves.

For example, Miles Davis wrote an entire album, Kind of Blue, without a single chord. Artist Piet Mondrian midwifed Modernism by restricting his paintings to right angles and primary colors. Even Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, restrained himself to produce his most memorable works. Dr. Geisel’s advice, “If you’re someone who writes or paints, don’t be afraid to try constraints!”

In Ikebana or the art of Japanese flower arrangement, negative space is considered crucial. It’s this aspect that allows for novel shapes and dimensions which might not otherwise ever become realized. As one Japanophile put it, “In formality there is freedom.” The tech world offers examples too. Consider Twitter’s character limit, the spare, sleek look of an iPod, and Google’s homepage.

“Composition No. 2 with Blue and Yellow” by Piet Mondrian (1930). Getty Images.

Recently, two parallel experiments published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, added credence to this phenomenon. The study was entitled, “The Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis.” Why was it named so? The book contains just 50 words, which may have played a role it its development and success. Catrinel Haught-Tromp of Rider University’s psychology department led the study. In two experiments, subjects given certain rules for a task were and continued to be more creative, even when the rules were lifted.

To conduct the first leg of the study, Haught-Tromp and colleagues recruited 64 undergraduates. Each was asked to write a series of rhymes, two lines each. They were told the rhymes were for greeting cards. Participants were split into two groups. One was given eight specific nouns. The other was able to use any nouns they wished. Three judges evaluated their work. “Participants generated more creative rhymes when they had to work with the externally imposed constraint of a given noun,” the judges wrote.

In the second experiment, containing 46 college students, participants were made to write rhymes but were asked to create their own rules and constraints. They first group was told to write down the first four nouns that popped into their head and use them to create their rhymes. Prompts were given to help them compose. Researchers noted that prompts that imposed more restrictions tended to amplify creativity, while those which were less restrictive led to less creative rhymes.

Some artists only work with certain mediums or motifs to help boost creativity. Getty Images.

According to Haught-Tromp, those students who slammed up against constraints tended to think more deeply about options. They were also more motivated. Why do constraints tend to make us more creative? According to Haught-Tromp, they help cut down the number of choices to subsets that we find manageable. This allows us to “explore less familiar paths, to diverge in previously unknown directions.”

So how can you use this to conjure your own creative brainstorm at will? No matter the pursuit, change your perspective. Many of us fall into a daily routine. Though comforting, there’s no stimulation or novel thinking involved. Changing things up can give you different experiences.

Get up earlier, take a different bus to work, eat at a different place for lunch. Go to a town or state or country you’ve never been to, or approach someone you never talk to and strike up a conversation. The more novel experiences you have, the more creative you may be when restrictions are thrust upon you.

Next, get out of your comfort zone. Put more restrictions on yourself. If you’re a photographer, try only shooting in black and white or use an SLR camera. Resign yourself to a particular setting or do only portraits. If you’re an artist, consider working only in one medium. How about bringing to life just one motif from a variety of different perspectives, or working with only a basic palate.

If you’re a writer, break down your work into a small cast of characters, work only in third person, or place all your stories within a certain backdrop or historical era. Also, learn how to experiment with different restrictions and see what results you get. Being creative is not only about practicing what you do but how you do it. Constant refinement can surely only garner better results over time.

To learn more about how creativity and limitations are intertwined, click here: 

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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