Relax to Innovate and Create: Theta Brainwave States
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve discussed strategies for entering into alpha brainwave states. By taking a step back out of beta hustle mode, you open yourself up to reflection, strategizing, and learning. This week we’re going to slow it down even more and learn how to enter into theta brainwave states for creativity and innovation.
Theta brainwaves are one of the slowest brainwave states, measuring at 4–7 cycles per second (Hz). In this state our creativity is flowing. During theta wave activity, several regions of our brain activate at the same time and connect to each other. This is how we have leaps of insight, come up with new solutions to old problems, and discover links we didn’t see before. A classic example is being on autopilot in the shower, going through the motions without thought, and having a new, seemingly random, idea pop into your mind.
Creativity is an essential skill in all areas of life. It is the reason why people create new things and improve existing things. In such a rapidly changing global landscape, creativity is key for being able to perform at our best in the situations that matter most — job interviews, writing exams, or meeting new people. Deliberately moving into a creative state where we can ideate — characterized by theta brainwaves — is essential for unlocking our ability to reach our potential.
The catch is that to be creative, we cannot be tense. Tension hinders creativity, uses up our energy stores, and can cause aches and pains. When we relax, we are freed from these obstacles and are able to enter into a creative state — a state where our brain can make new connections and we can come up with new solutions to old problems.
In order to reach your potential, you need to create an environment that fosters creativity and allows you to have these ‘Eureka!’ moments. Here are a few ideas to help you enter into this state:
Change of scenery. When possible, try to get away from your desk. Hold walking meetings to energize your mind and get some fresh air. This simple change of scenery can help get your blood flowing and help generate ideas in a way that sitting around in the usual place can’t.
Be absolutely alone. Sometimes to gain some insight we just need to be by ourselves with no distractions. Go for a walk in the park and leave your phone behind. Enjoy some time with yourself. Leave the technology at home and actually give yourself the space and time to enter this state and get those creative ideas flowing.
Moving Meditation. One way to enter into theta brainwaves is to do exercise — but a specific type of exercise. To get into this state, the exercise needs to be fairly easy and you need to move your body in a rhythmic movement, like walking, biking, or running. This puts your mind into a meditative state. We’ll discuss this in more depth next week!
Practice tension to relaxation. Releasing tension from the body frees the mind from strain and pressure and leads to a state of relaxation and improved ideation. Take five minutes to sit and then ask yourself the following questions:
Can I drop my shoulders?
Can I relax my hands? Stomach? Legs? Forehead?
Can I sit in a more comfortable position?
Can I relax my core and deepen my breathing?
In order to problem solve, ideate, and create, we need to get into a relaxed mental state. It is only by doing less that we can accomplish more.
If you want to dive deeper into the science of brainwave states, check out my book Rest Refocus Recharge: A Guide for Optimizing your Life.
What are we finding in the research?
Sleep can significantly improve creativity and problem solving by taking new information and comparing it with stored memories — making new connections and associations. In 2018, Craig and colleagues were interested in determining if a period of rest while awake could also bring about ‘Eureka!’ moments.
The researchers had 60 young adults take part in a number-based problem solving task. They then split the participants into two groups — 30 of them had 10 minutes of awake ‘quiescence’ (quiet rest with minimal sensory input), and 30 of them had 10 minutes of an unrelated perceptual task (a spot-the-difference game). Following the 10 minutes, the participants performed the problem solving task again. The participants who were part of the quiescence group were more than twice as likely to gain insight into the hidden rule of the task than those who participated in the perceptual task.
Craig and colleagues suggest that while sleep is beneficial for creativity and problem solving, a short rest period while awake can also facilitate new ideas and thinking about problems in a novel way. However, the key is making sure that it’s a proper rest period. Participating in another cognitive task makes it significantly less likely for this insight to occur.