There I was watching some creative guru on stage spewing out a wealth of knowledge on creativity, when I heard him repeat a statement I had heard twice before. With squinted eyes and a lean forward, as if to share a secret he said, “Studies show the simple smell of crayon increases creativity in the human brain.” With out much more explanation he moved on with his brilliant talk, however he just invited my mind to a cerebral dinner with no address or e-vite Google map. So what happens when you smell of box of Crayolas?
I mean, should I be grounding this stuff up and snorting my favorite color green? For most people when you smell crayons, as an adult, there will be a cerebral flash back to child hood. Most can relate to this as many of us have used crayons through out childhood. I started to tinker, in my apparently crayon needy brain, how does this smell supposedly make us more creative as adults? Through out my life and design career I have studied thought process, creative problem solving, and our brain.
“There is no doubt that smell is a powerful sense. The olfactory system, the apparatus responsible for our sense of smell, has a pathway in the brain closely associated with the limbic system. The limbic system contains the amygdala and the hippocampus parts of the brain, which are closely associated with emotion and memory respectively.” (bbc/science)
Think of smells that might remind you of the holidays, or a favorite meal, and it takes you there. The smell of fresh cut grass is my flux capacitor and 1.21 gigawatts later I have been transported to my childhood summers in Chicago. These summers are filled with lazy evenings, no school, baseball, cooking out, and fireflies. As nostalgic memories wash over me in warm waves, my very mind set changed. I came to realize crayons might bring us back by way of nostalgia to a childlike thought process. So I went and bought a box, opened it for a smell. Without many specific memories, it did still take me back and made me smile. I felt free, I felt happy, and I felt a change in my mind set. Now how does this mind set apply to my creative process?
If you give a child a problem to solve they tend to find interesting and unique solutions to the problem because they have no statue of limitations. A friend of mine told me that her daughter said she wanted to create a sculpture. She supported it and let her daughter use any supplies from the family art bin. When her daughter was done, she took her by the hand and had her mother close her eyes. As the mother got ready and opened her eyes, she expected some kind of Play-Doh or popsicle stick man. She opened her eyes to find an open closet with clear scotch tape hanging from the clothing rack, in balled up interesting shapes.
Here was a little girl that had no clear definition or limitations of what a sculpture is and she defined it in a unique and brilliant way. Picasso said it best, “It took be 4 years to paint as Raphael, but it took me a life time to paint as a child.” When I have brainstorms I bring in people from outside the category so there is less expertise. These non-experts tend to have fresh and new ways of approaching the same problems we are trying to solve, or innovate, because they do not know about the statute of limitations.
Part of the creative process is dreaming up a solution to a problem, with hurdles such as cost, lawyers, limitations, or rules. Recently scientists have talked about how Star Trek sci-fi gadgets have influenced them in the experimentation and creation of everything from the invention of digital thermometers to cell phones. The TV show creatives came up with the gadgets on the show with no limitations and the real scientist of the world used those dreams of fiction as a creative spark for innovation. Creatives, dreamers, and artists inspire the technology, engineering, legislation, business, and builders of tomorrow. This process is no different than allowing a child like mind set with no limitations, to come up with creative solutions then guiding that idea with a unwavering optimism.
When I lead brainstorm, I have boxes of crayons everywhere. I have everyone pick up a box and take a smell. Watching the light bulbs and nostalgia set in is amazing. Along with the nostalgia smells, one process I actually use is a kid-storm. In a kid-storm I have everyone in the group approach the problem like a 1st grader. I assign the problem like a teacher would. The group can only use crayons and paper, and doodle with their non-dominant hand, a drawing of an idea from the depths of their inner child bases on what we are brainstorming. The ideas have a budget of 10 bazillion dollars to work with, zero limits, and can even use magic. We then review the ideas and find a way to make them a reality. The ideas end up being unique, amazing, fresh, and innovative.
So next time you find your self in the aisles of Target or Walgreens, be sure to buy a 79 cent pack of crayons and have a smell. Hold on tight and tell me where you end up. Just be sure if do, to remember to bring some high grade plutonium to get you back to the future. I forgot the plutonium and I am stuck with my child like brain waves of 1982 and to be honest, I am OK with that.