Does smelling crayons lead to better creativity?
There I was watching a creative guru on stage shedding a wealth of knowledge on creativity, when I heard him repeat a statement that I had heard twice before. With narrowed eyes and a lean forward, as if to share a secret, he said: “Studies show that the simple smell of pencil increases creativity in the human brain.” Without much further explanation, he went ahead with his brilliant talk, yet he simply invited my mind to a brain dinner with no address or Google e-map. So what happens when you smell like a box of Crayolas?
I mean, should I ground all of this and sniff my favorite color, green? For most people, when you smell crayons, as an adult, there will be a brain flash back to childhood. Most can relate to this, as many of us have used crayons during our childhood. I started to fiddle, in my seemingly pencil-hungry brain, how does this smell supposedly make us more creative as adults? Throughout my life and design career, I have studied processes, 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 parts of the amygdala and the hippocampus of the brain, which are closely associated with emotion and memory, respectively. ” (bbc / science)
Think of scents that can remind you of holidays or your favorite food, and it will get you there. The smell of fresh cut grass is my flux capacitor and 1.21 gigawatts later have transported me back to the summers of my childhood in Chicago. These summers are filled with lazy afternoons, no school, baseball, cooking, and fireflies. As nostalgic memories wash over me in warm waves, my thinking changed. I realized that crayons could return us through nostalgia to a childish thought process. So I went and bought a box, opened it to smell. Without many specific memories, it still set me back and made me smile. I felt free, I felt happy, and I felt a change in my thinking. Now, how does this mindset apply to my creative process?
If you give a child a problem to solve, they tend to come up with interesting and unique solutions to the problem because they don’t have a statue of limitations. A friend told me that her daughter said she wanted to create a sculpture. She was supportive and let her daughter use the supplies from the family art container. When her daughter finished, she took her hand and made 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. He opened his eyes to find an open closet with clear duct tape hanging from the coat rack, in the shape of interesting balls.
Here was a girl who 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 me 4 years to paint like Rafael, but it took me a lifetime to paint as a child.” When I brainstorm, I bring in people from outside the category so there is less experience. These non-experts tend to have fresh and new ways of tackling the very problems that we are trying to solve, or innovate, because they don’t know the statute of limitations.
Part of the creative process is to come up with a solution to a problem, with obstacles such as costs, lawyers, limitations or rules. Scientists have recently talked about how Star Trek science fiction devices have influenced them to experiment and create everything from the invention of digital thermometers to mobile phones. The creatives of the television show came up with the show’s devices without limitations and the true scientist of the world used those fictional dreams as a creative spark for innovation. Creatives, dreamers and artists inspire the technology, engineering, law, business and builders of tomorrow. This process is no different than allowing a childlike mindset without limitations to come up with creative solutions and then guide that idea with unwavering optimism.
When I brainstorm, I have boxes of crayons everywhere. I ask everyone to take a box and smell it. Seeing the bulbs and the nostalgia is amazing. Along with the smells of nostalgia, one process that I actually use is a storm of children. In a storm of children, everyone in the group approaches the problem like a first grader. I assign the problem as a teacher would. The group can only use crayons and paper, and scribble with their non-dominant hand, a drawing of an idea from the depths of their inner child based on what we are brainstorming. Ideas have a $ 10 trillion budget to work with, zero limits, and can even use magic. Then we review the ideas and find a way to make them come true. The ideas end up being unique, amazing, fresh, and innovative.
So next time you find yourself in the aisles at Target or Walgreens, be sure to buy a 79-cent pack of crayons and smell. Hold on tight and tell me where you end up If you do, be sure to remember to bring high-quality plutonium to go back to the future. I forgot the plutonium and I am stuck with my son like the brain waves of 1982 and to be honest I agree with that.