Creative Inspiration: Working towards Cheese

In 2001, researchers at the University of Maryland, asked students to help a mouse work its way through a maze. To one group, this was framed as helping the mouse find a way to its reward (cheese) but to the other, this was about escaping a predatory and rather scary-looking owl. Following this, both groups’ creativity skills were tested. And guess what? The group who had been striving towards reward, rather than avoiding fear, were shown to be twice as creative. Twice!

Having lived for more than a decade in a state of constant fear and avoidance, I know that my creativity was there – but it was limited. When I think back to who I was back then, and the ideas I had, I remember many times when it felt like a real effort to pull ideas out of myself.

And it just seems to make sense. Because surely, if you’re in or near a state of fight, flight or freeze, like a cave person about to throw down with a wild boar, then OF COURSE your ideas won’t be the same quality as if you were just safe and happy cave person, working out how you might best cook that aforementioned boar to give your cave family the best meal of their lives.

But… I’m not a cave-person. So what?!

I think if we can take anything from this, it’s the idea that someone looking to inspire creativity or motivate themselves in some way, might find it useful to focus on the reward; the pleasure, rather than the pain. Let’s look at an example:

Want to lose weight? How about saying, ‘I really want to feel and be more energetic, so that I can live life more fully,’ rather than, ‘I’m sick of being a fat, ugly cow who can only shop online!’ Whenever I’m watching my weight, I find that a focus towards the rewards of a healthy lifestyle, brings about much better results than the opposite. Indeed, when I’m blatantly upset with myself and trying to evade misery, rather than seek happiness, I’m much more prone to self-sabotaging behaviour.

Big presentation to do at work? If your focus is on doing enough to not be ‘found out’/embarrassed/humiliated beyond belief, then your creativity is bound to be stifled in some way. However, if you focus is on giving to your audience, of truly connecting with them and leaving them with skills/knowledge that improve their lives, you’re at least working from a position of creative freedom – and likely to be much more creative.

These are simply examples. But I hope that they demonstrate how we might apply this knowledge to many areas of life, whether we’re looking to be creative or to motivate ourselves towards achieving a goal.

Whatever it is, just ask yourself: what’ the cheese – and how can I get it?


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