Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age

New York Times, June 20, 2016

Do Children in a Keyboard World Need to Learn Old-Fashioned Handwriting?

There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.

And beyond the emotional connection adults may feel to the way we learned to write, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters on the page, in printed or manuscript format as well as in cursive.

In an article this year in The Journal of Learning Disabilities, researchers looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities.

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington and the lead author on the study, told me that evidence from this and other studies suggests that “handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

Last year in an article in The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Laura Dinehart, an associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University, discussed several possible associations between good handwriting and academic achievement: Children with good handwriting may get better grades because their work is more pleasant for teachers to read; children who struggle with writing may find that too much of their attention is consumed by producing the letters, and the content suffers.

But can we actually stimulate children’s brains by helping them form letters with their hands? In a population of low-income children, Dr. Dinehart said, the ones who had good early fine-motor writing skills in prekindergarten did better later on in school. She called for more research on handwriting in the preschool years, and on ways to help young children develop the skills they need for “a complex task” that requires the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromuscular processes.

“This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger said. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.” You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page, she said. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.

Functional brain scans of adults show a characteristic brain network that is activated when they read, and it includes areas that relate to motor processes. This suggested to scientists that the cognitive process of reading may be connected to the motor process of forming letters.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did brain scans on children who did not yet know how to print. “Their brains don’t distinguish letters; they respond to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said.

After the children were taught to print, patterns of brain activation in response to letters showed increased activation of that reading network, including the fusiform gyrus, along with the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior parietal regions of the brain, which adults use for processing written language — even though the children were still at a very early level as writers.

“The letters they produce themselves are very messy and variable, and that’s actually good for how children learn things,” Dr. James said. “That seems to be one big benefit of handwriting.”

Handwriting experts have struggled with the question of whether cursive writing confers special skills and benefits, beyond the benefits that print writing might provide. Dr. Berninger cited a 2015 study that suggested that starting around fourth grade, cursive skills conferred advantages in both spelling and composing, perhaps because the connecting strokes helped children connect letters into words.

For typically developing young children, typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation. As we grow up, of course, most of us transition to keyboard writing, though like many who teach college students, I have struggled with the question of laptops in class, more because I worry about students’ attention wandering than to promote handwriting. Still, studies on note taking have suggested that “college students who are writing on a keyboard are less likely to remember and do well on the content than if writing it by hand,” Dr. Dinehart said.

Dr. Berninger said the research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing.

Using a keyboard, and especially learning the positions of the letters without looking at the keys, she said, might well take advantage of the fibers that cross-communicate in the brain, since unlike with handwriting, children will use both hands to type.

“What we’re advocating is teaching children to be hybrid writers,” said Dr. Berninger, “manuscript first for reading — it transfers to better word recognition — then cursive for spelling and for composing. Then, starting in late elementary school, touch-typing.”

As a pediatrician, I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.

“My overarching research focuses on how learning and interacting with the world with our hands has a really significant effect on our cognition,” Dr. James said, “on how writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development.”

Defining Creativity

by Shelley Berc

Let’s start with the dictionary definition, however brief and limited, it covers the basics:
Creativity: the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, or imagination.

To this definition let us add the following:
Creativity: an act of transformation by which we turn one idea or thing into something else by way of intellectual, chemical or manual alchemy.

And this:
Creativity: life as a gigantic erector set. You can put anything together in new and original ways–the most immaterial with the most concrete, the most esoteric melded to the most down to earth.

Albert Einstein referred to this thinking process as “combinatory play.”

The Courage to Fail Over and Over Again

Creativity is the experimental laboratory of civilization. It expects and needs trial and error, and the courage to fail over and over again. In the words of Samuel Becket on the secret of his creativity:

“Fail, fail again, fail better.“ Samuel Becket

The Sum of Creativity is Always
Greater than its Parts

Creativity may look like a noun but it is really a verb—and in specific an action. It could be an interior or exterior process–a thought or a manifestation, an idea or a product, but it is always an action, an energy, a putting one’s self forth into the unknown. Creativity is the world of the intrepid explorer, of the adult 2 year old, who never ceases to ask the questions:
What if?

Can you Teach Creativity?

In our workshops people are always asking us: “can you really teach creativity?” Our answer: “We can teach it, but you won’t really learn it until you remember the days when you had it.” We suggest they think back to the time when they kids. We were all creative as children. We were creativity specialists before we learned to walk or talk.You never have to learn about your creativity from scratch.
Being creative is pretty much like learning how to ride a bike—you never forget how. But you do have to re-engage the muscles. Society and, in particular, education and the workplace, tramples blithely upon our originality–so much so that most people forget they were ever creative at all.

“Creative minds have always been known to survive any kind of bad training.” Anna Freud

Creativity Makes us Infinitely Adaptable and Flexible

Creativity is one of our primary tools for survival. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors had to be adaptable to their changing environments in order to survive. The ones who thought “out of the box” were the ones who escaped getting eaten—which is why they are the ones who are our ancestors.
Other species can communicate, make tools, even plan for the future–but we humans have the unique ability to put things together in new and different ways. We are so curious that we not only want to put stuff together, we like to take it apart—just to see how it works.
Many young tinkerers joyfully pull apart watches, kitchen faucets, even car engines until formal schooling teaches them that that kind of behavior is not the way to go about learning.
Granted, we do not necessarily need to re-invent the wheel by destroying the family automobile; but there are times when unraveling the known is the only method to finding new and better ways of doing things. In fact, it is often the only way to revolutionizing how we conduct our lives.

“There is no cure for curiosity”. Dorothy Parker

More than a Pinch of Chance

Civilizations come into being or advance when people do things in ways they have never done before. Nomads give up wandering and decide to stay put in one place.That decision leads us to sedentary societies and all the social, cultural, and scientific advances they manifest.
Conversely, sedentary societies breed explorers and discoverers, who expand the reach of their people, mentally and physically, far beyond their national borders and cultures.
Humans invent and reinvent the configuration of the world over and over again; and each time it changes, all of us are changed. These transformations are propelled by the driving force of creativity, the ingredients of which are: curiosity, imagination, flexibility of thought and action, trial and error, tenacity, and more than a pinch of chance.

A Wonderful Tool called “Creativity”

We humans have a precious tool called ‘creativity’. We are practically born with it and with it we can do what any reasonable person would believe was impossible.
So why do so many of us give up using this priceless asset as adults? Intensely creative people do not give it up. It’s not as if they have more creativity, but they certainly use it more. Creativity is like any muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it becomes.
Einstein once said:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” Martha Graham

We may not all be Geniuses,
but who said Creativity is just for Geniuses?

We all have many original and fantastic thoughts that could be extremely valuable to the world we live in. But how many times do we give these ideas a chance to see the light of day? Every ounce of human creativity is needed on this planet in order for it to survive and flourish. The creativity of each human being is as unique as her DNA and is necessary to the creative fabric of life on earth. Are you giving your creativity the chance it deserves to contribute to the creative impulse of life?

“The key question isn’t “What fosters creativity?” But it is why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything.”

Abraham Maslow

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Maya Angelou

Think Less, Think Better

by Moshe Bar
The New York Times

A Friend of Mine has a Bad Habit of Narrating his Experiences

as they are taking place.

I tease him for being a bystander in his own life. To be fair, we all fail to experience life to the fullest. Typically, our minds are too occupied with thoughts to allow complete immersion even in what is right in front of us.

Sometimes, this is O.K. I am happy not to remember passing a long stretch of my daily commute because my mind has wandered and my morning drive can be done on autopilot. But I do not want to disappear from too much of life. Too often we eat meals without tasting them, look at something beautiful without seeing it. An entire exchange with my daughter (please forgive me) can take place without my being there at all.

Recently, I discovered how much we overlook, not just about the world, but also about the full potential of our inner life, when our mind is cluttered. In a study published in this month’s Psychological Science, the graduate student Shira Baror and I demonstrate that the capacity for original and creative thinking is markedly stymied by stray thoughts, obsessive ruminations and other forms of “mental load.” Many psychologists assume that the mind, left to its own devices, is inclined to follow a well-worn path of familiar associations. But our findings suggest that innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default cognitive mode when our minds are clear.

In a series of experiments, we gave participants a free-association task while simultaneously taxing their mental capacity to different degrees. In one experiment, for example, we asked half the participants to keep in mind a string of seven digits, and the other half to remember just two digits. While the participants maintained these strings in working memory, they were given a word (e.g., shoe) and asked to respond as quickly as possible with the first word that came to mind (e.g., sock).

We found that a high mental load consistently diminished the originality and creativity of the response: Participants with seven digits to recall resorted to the most statistically common responses (e.g., white/black), whereas participants with two digits gave less typical, more varied pairings (e.g., white/cloud).

In another experiment, we found that longer response times were correlated with less diverse responses, ruling out the possibility that participants with low mental loads simply took more time to generate an interesting response. Rather, it seems that with a high mental load, you need more time to generate even a conventional thought. These experiments suggest that the mind’s natural tendency is to explore and to favor novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution.

In general, there is a tension in our brains between exploration and exploitation. When we are exploratory, we attend to things with a wide scope, curious and desiring to learn. Other times, we rely on, or “exploit,” what we already know, leaning on our expectations, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment. We tend to be more exploratory when traveling to a new country, whereas we are more inclined toward exploitation when returning home after a hard day at work.

Much of our lives are spent somewhere between those extremes. There are functional benefits to both modes: If we were not exploratory, we would never have ventured out of the caves; if we did not exploit the certainty of the familiar, we would have taken too many risks and gone extinct. But there needs to be a healthy balance. Our study suggests that your internal exploration is too often diminished by an overly occupied mind, much as is the case with your experience of your external environment.

In everyday life, you may find yourself “loading” your mind in various ways: memorizing a list of groceries to buy later at the supermarket, rehearsing the name of someone you just met so you don’t forget it, practicing your pitch before entering an important meeting. There are also, of course, the ever-present wanderings of a normal mind. And there are more pathological, or at least more chronic, sources of mental load, such as the ruminative thought patterns characteristic of stress, anxiety and depression. All these loads can consume mental capacity, leading to dull thought and anhedonia — a flattened ability to experience pleasure.

My birthday gift to myself for the last couple of years has been a week of silence at a vipassana meditation retreat. Being silent for a week, and trying to empty your mind of thought, is not for the faint of heart, but I do wish that everyone could try it at least once. During my first retreat, I wondered how a simple tomato could taste so good, why I did not mind physical discomfort as much, how looking at a single flower for 45 minutes was even possible, let alone so gratifying. My thoughts — when I returned to the act of thinking about something rather than nothing — were fresher and more surprising.

It is clear to me that this ancient meditative practice helps free the mind to have richer experiences of the present. Except when you are flying an F-16 aircraft or experiencing extreme fear or having an orgasm, your life leaves too much room for your mind to wander. As a result, only a small fraction of your mental capacity remains engaged in what is before it, and mind-wandering and ruminations become a tax on the quality of your life. Honing an ability to unburden the load on your mind, be it through meditation or some other practice, can bring with it a wonderfully magnified experience of the world — and, as our study suggests, of your own mind.

Why Theater Majors Are Vital in the Digital Age

by Tracey Moore
The Chronicle of Higher Education


The study of theater has always been a slightly odd fit with higher education

Theater’s departmental needs are so different from the norm: Where other programs require smart classrooms, desks, and Wi-Fi, we seek vast, empty spaces with sprung wood floors and natural light. The inner life of a chemistry major should not affect the outcome of an assignment; for theater majors, the inner life is the assignment.

The craft of acting involves human behavior. Constantin Stanislavsky, the father of American acting style, was a Russian actor who became frustrated with the inconsistencies of his own work. He sought to define a “system” for creating believable behavior on stage, which involved an in-depth study of a character’s motivations and circumstances.

Some of the precepts of Stanislavsky’s technique for embodying life on stage include fierce concentration and the ability to focus one’s attention at will, significant mind/body reciprocity, a developed and practiced imagination, and the exploration and study of the outside world (other people, other art forms, literature, and one’s own life experiences). Acquiring those skills could be an antidote for college students who are said to be lacking empathy, isolated and narcissistic, distracted and jaded.

Theater (slow, communal, physical) may be the cure for what ails us in the digital world. Social psychologists, neurologists, and doctors tell us that cellphone use (in the way our students do it, more than eight hours a day) is altering modes of attention, reducing eye contact, hurting necks and hands, and changing our brains and sleep cycles. Apparently nothing feels as good as the dopamine rush that floods our brains every time the phone “pings.” We are all of us, to a degree, nomophobic (the term coined to describe the anxiety that results from being without one’s phone).

A colleague tells a story about assigning a scene from a 1970s play in which one character waits on a park bench for some time. The actor was unable to conceive of any kind of “waiting” that did not involve having a cellphone to mitigate the boredom. She simply did not know what to do.

Our students (and this will very likely increase in the next couple of years, as the first cohort of 21st-century children goes to college) are unfamiliar with the experience of being alone with their thoughts or of following their thoughts, unimpeded, wherever they might travel. Solving a STEM equation is important, but discoveries in the sciences will occur only when people know how to be alone with their thoughts. Who is teaching that?

In acting classes, students grapple with the effects of technology on their brains, bodies, and social selves. Cellphones must be turned off and put away. The goal is to disconnect with technology and to connect with one another and themselves. Students struggle to maintain eye contact; they work to develop a psycho/physical connection for what they think, feel and do; they concentrate for longer and longer periods of time. They read plays; they memorize text; they learn to follow their impulses to create movement, gesture, intimacy, community. If this scene were unfolding in a movie in which computers were threatening to destroy humanity, you’d be cheering for the theater majors to save us.

A colleague recently despaired because her students no longer understood the action “to flirt.” Accustomed to soliciting one another via text, and more used to hookups than dates, this verb was no longer a touchstone for college students, and “flirting” did not elicit any specific physical or emotional behaviors (sustained eye contact, light touch, smiling, playfulness) from the actors. When asked to flirt, they went straight to simulated sex. There was no in-between. Bottom line: Even though technology has become what we do all day, it isn’t human behavior.

From 2011 to 2014, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation worked with theater artists in Chicago through an online survey and a battery of aptitude tests to determine whether there are innate skills shared among theater workers. The aptitude called “foresight,” which is the talent to envision many possible outcomes or possibilities, was present in all theater workers (playwrights, directors, designers, actors). When actors try out various line readings or interpretations of a scene, when they improvise or create backstory, they are using foresight.

But foresight would be impossible without empathy. The actor’s ability to envision multiple outcomes or motivations in a play must be based on the character’s circumstances, not the actor’s. That requires a kind of stepping into another person’s shoes that social scientists say is dwindling among college-age students.

When he played the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Philip Seymour Hoffman explained that his preparation each night included sitting for at least a half-hour at the cramped kitchen table onstage, experiencing his shabby surroundings, sipping coffee, and allowing his imagination to wander as Willy’s would have. Our student on the park bench would have had trouble with that.

Algorithms recommend music based on what we’re already listening to, books similar to others we’ve read, and “friends” from among people we already know. As a result, we are less frequently confronted by the other, the unknown, the different. Stanislavsky’s technique requires a thorough study of a character’s situation — whether geographic location or state of physical health — and asks that actors explore the effects of those circumstances on their own selves. In a semester, a college actor will play multiple characters, stretching to inhabit another psyche, another intellect, another body. It’s a veritable empathy boot camp.

Businesses have long recognized that elements of actor training can be used to develop creativity, improve communication, and resolve conflicts. Many corporate consultants have bachelor’s degrees in acting and make a good living teaching improvisation, role play, and collaborative problem-solving to M.B.A.s. Yet universities with theater departments have failed to recognize that they have this resource in their own backyards.

Whatever your feelings about the legitimacy of theater as a college major, or its eventual earnings potential, there are important struggles and discoveries happening in the acting classroom. As technology and machines consume more and more of life, perhaps theater can help us remember what it means to act like a human.

Postcard from Paris

by Deborah Murphy
The National Post, Canadian newspaper

I am sitting in a locals’ café in the Marais, an old now very chic quartier on the right bank in Paris. I have been writing as per my teachers’ instructions about the people in this place. There is a romantic young couple, a dignified grandmother with her grandchildren eating ice cream, a middle aged woman with her poodle in a straw basket and a disheveled man drinking a beer. I am watching them like they are actors in a play–my play–and I am making up stories. Writing in cafes all over the city of lights that is Paris. Each café has its own clientele, its own rhythm, its own colors. Some are like charming old ladies wearing way too much make up, others are sleek and shiny like fitness fanatics, others are run down and seedy– like old bums who can’t wait to tell you their life story?Here I am drinking my café crème and eavesdropping on people three thousand miles away from home?I am in Paris, I am writing, I am living my dream.

It has been a hot summer in New York City, even with air conditioning, you could feel it sizzling in the streets and I dreaded going out. All I wanted to do was escape. But where and what to I kept asking myself? My husband was busy with a major court case, my youngest (finally going off to college this fall) was in the Berkshires being a life guard at his old camp, my friends were at their summer homes in the Hamptons or visiting beaches in the Mediterranean. That just wasn’t for me–I wanted to maybe take a workshop, learn something new, rediscover something, maybe even reinvent myself. I was surfing the net for some workshops or educational travel when I saw a site for The Creativity Workshop writing, drawing, storytelling and personal memoir. It turned out to be just the right thing. Before marriage and kids, I’d always loved writing stories. And somehow, along the way, I forgot how much I enjoyed making imaginary worlds. I guess I just didn’t have the time with the children and my husband and so for twenty years creativity got put away in some drawer with my scrapbooks and college memories. I decided this hot exhausting New York summer to try to get back to my writing, and to recapture my creative life, to go to Paris to The Creativity Workshop.

The Creativity Workshop is a unique I think because the teachers are more interested in helping participants learn about their own unique creative process than getting them to make an artistic product that follows the teachers’ personal sensibilities. The teachers, writer Shelley Berc and multimedia artist Alejandro Fogel have been teaching the workshop for many years and Shelley is a professor at the renowned International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. They teach their workshops in Greece, Paris, Florence, and Barcelona (as well as in their school in New York City) because they like to work with people outside of their everyday environments–they say it helps them rediscover aspects of creativity and play that are buried in their day-to-day lives. I couldn’t agree more–my time in Paris away from my country, husband, and kids made me remember my dreams of being a writer.

During the six-day workshop, I spent three hours a day working with Shelley and Alejandro on various writing and creativity inducing exercises. Then they would send the group out into the streets of Paris to see the city and do some little projects that would help us look at Paris from different and exciting perspectives. They sent us to Cluny and had us searching like detectives for a missing piece in the fantastic Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Then we had to write about this ‘missing piece’ and create a story as to what happened to it. Everyone shared their stories over lunch in a near by brasserie (wonderful omelettes and salads!) which ranged from romantic medieval quest tales to funny stories ala Inspector Clouseau! Shelley told us after we did the assignment (she never tells us anything much before because she says surprise is a key element in creativity) that the most important thing about the missing piece exercise isn’t what we find but what we see. When we think something isn’t there, she continues, we look at a painting or an environment with greater scrutiny and so we see the little details that might pass us by. Meantime, I really got to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. I sat in the beautiful oval room that houses them and looked and wrote about them for the required hour. Normally I would have just gone in, glanced at them for a few reverential minutes and then felt compelled to do the rest of the museum. But The Creativity Workshop and its exercises gave me the permission (and the assignments) that made me concentrate on a few things in Paris and really get to know them rather than trying to stuff in a thousand wonders and not see any of them.

The next day Shelley and Alejandro held class in the Jardin des Plantes and we did fantastic exercises using our senses of smell and touch among trees and plants gathered from around the world. Then we created diorama boxes out of the natural objects (rocks, leaves, tree bark, bird feathers) for which we made up stories and shared with our fellow workshoppers. All it took was a shoe box, some stuff off the ground, and our imaginations in which we gaining more and more confidence. We had a great group of people–teachers, writers, a computer expert, a dancer, and businessmen from the US, Paraguay, Hong Kong, Italy and Ireland–all eager to learn and experience their creative process through writing, drawing, and story telling of personal memoirs. In the Jardin des Plantes, there is a superb 19th century natural history museum which has been recently restored. Architecturally it looks like it is straight of out Charles Darwin’s time but when you get inside, the antique cabinets and old stuffed elephants are interspersed with hi tech displays, videos, and computers. I spent the rest of the afternoon there going through the vast four storied metal grilled and glass roofed building learning about evolution from the sea to man going into outer space. And of course, the museum like most museums in Paris had a wonderful café and of course I sat down in it and did the required daily writing that Shelley and Alejandro insist is the needed exercise for the muscles of creativity.

The exercises for the Creativity workshop were stimulating tools that I will be able to use throughout my life. As a group, we went to see the collection of illuminated manuscripts at the Louvre and then proceeded to make our own illuminated book of days–a chronicle of our week in Paris that combined language and art. I’m personally a terrible artist but the point of the creativity workshop isn’t to be a great artist but to let yourself explore making images and playing with colors along with writing. We investigated old maps and globes at the Musee Carnavalet and then we made our own life journey maps–twelve foot scrolls of writing, drawing, and storytelling on the floor of the workshop studio. Also in this fantastically eclectic museum, we explored sense memory munching on madelines (to the chagrin of the guard) in Proust’s corklined bedroom where he wrote Remembrances of Things past which was brought to the museum piece by piece after the famous author’s death. We did a lot of collaborative exercises and really got to know the other participants very well. I am sure many will remain friends to share writing and ideas with–thanks to the Internet. It was a wonderful week reconnecting to my writing, my sources of inspiration, and learning about things that stimulate me to create. There were these wonderful daily classes and then all the museums, boulevards, and restaurants of Paris to keep me wandering and wondering the rest of each magical day. The last day of class, our teachers had us write a letter to ourselves to be opened in a month. In it we wrote what we had experienced that week in and out of class that helped us in our creative expression–the things we learned that we would not want to lose or forget.

I will open this letter next month and I am sure I will smile and all the memories and wonders of a writing week in Paris will return to me and I will go to my own café and my New York museums and try to sustain what I learned in The Creativity Workshop in Paris which is so alive and vibrant in me now.



Use Your Imagination…

By Shelley Berc

When Life is Uncertain Our Imagination Can Make the Unknown the Great Adventure of Our Lives

Supposing you go for your yearly physical and the doctor says: “if you don’t exercise on a regular basis, your chances of having coronary problems are high.” You would probably head straight to the gym” (at least for a week or two).

What if someone, (maybe even yourself) told you: “if you don’t exercise your creativity and imagination, your spirit will get sick.” Would you start working those ‘muscles’ on a regular basis? Most of us would put it on the backburner for ‘when we have more time.’ Which never happens.

Just think about racing through life without ever registering the beauty of flowers in bloom or the sharp smells of autumn? What if you couldn’t taste food anymore or even imagine the taste of food? What if you never fantasized what it would be like to have a completely different life?

For many of us, the life described above would be dull, frustrating, and accompanied by the sense that something vital was missing.

When we exercise what I like to call: ‘the magic what if” of our imagination, all our senses come alive. We feel focused, optimistic and motivated. We feel that we have the resources to make things happen. That belief can set us on the beginning of wonderful lifetime journey that is the essence of the creative life.

In the world we live in we don’t get much encouragement to express our creativity, unless of course it makes us a lot of money. We are supposed to be consumers of creativity rather than creators ourselves. This is the mandate of an economic model that prefers you to consume rather than produce. After all, how are companies supposed to make money, if you are too busy creating yourself to buy their stuff? The underlying and terribly destructive message is that if we are not stamped with the seal of approval by corporations, critics, or Likes on Face Book we have no business creating at all.

To make our spirits thrive, we have to throw out the received notion that creativity is for the chosen few. We must establish the belief and the practice that we all have the ability and the right to be creative. For many of us it is not only a right, but a necessity of survival. We don’t have to leave the creative experience to innovative scientists, famous writers, dazzling movie stars. Each one of us is capable of gems of imagination and creative activity. These attributes are part of our evolutionary success: being creative means we can meet the challenge of the unknown and unexpected. This gives us a better chance to survive in an uncertain world.

Our creative manifestations don’t have to be grandiose; they can be simple and playful and still fulfill our ravenous appetite for curiosity and exploration. I bring up the issues of simplicity and play because we often undervalue things that are easy and fun for us to do. Our usual logic is: Only hard things are valuable. If it is easy and fun then it isn’t worth anything. Not true at all—sometimes things being easy for us just means that we have a natural connection, a gift for it that most people do not.

Doing creative work that comes naturally to you is an efficient means of getting your imagination up and running. It helps us gain confidence in our creativity and feeds our desire to engage it more seriously because we are working in a territory that ‘sings’ to us.

If gardening excites you, garden. If you are a lover of words, write. If it is singing, then by all means, sing your heart out.

When you are comfortable with the medium and the materials, you will put up with the heartache and frustration inherent in the process of any creative act. You will also be preparing yourself to do inspiring work that pushes you out of your comfort zone into the wild blue horizons of undiscovered imaginative possibilities lurking inside you.

If creative work is work at all, then it is playful work. Play is one of the most powerful tools for us humans to learn to think differently. It is one of the most valuable resources we have for making any new discoveries, in fields as diverse as psychology, technology, and art.

Our creativity brings us a message from within that insists we tend to our vision. Like a good detective, we must tenaciously follow the clues of our imagination and we can bring that vision, that Magic What If, to life.


Creativity in Everyday Life

by Shelley Berc

Why is creativity important in everyday life? Simply put, it is because it makes life infinitely interesting and fulfilling. Creativity is a way of living life that embraces originality and makes unique connections between seemingly disparate ideas. Creativity is about living life as a journey into seeing and communicating the extra-ordinariness of the simplest, most every day acts.

We often think about creativity as making something, but in fact the root meaning of the word means ‘to grow’. When we are creative we feel as if the world and all that is in it is vibrantly alive. Creativity’s by-products are some of the major achievements of civilization–from the invention of the wheel to Mozart’s sonatas.

Human beings are essentially born creative–from infancy on we find innovative ways to negotiate life. The most creative people find ways around obstacles because they see them not just as roadblocks but also as opportunities. Creativity expands our perceptions and along with expanded perceptions come new ways of problem solving–from making an exquisite meal when you don’t know how to cook to painting an extraordinary landscape when you are living in a freezing attic and can’t afford a full box of paints.

15 ideas for expressin creativity in everyday life:

1. Make your immediate surroundings as beautiful or eccentric as you can. Experiment with your sense of color, texture, and line. Add an element of surprise or quirkiness to your home decor. The unexpected can jolt you out of complacency and into inspiration.

2. Go somewhere new–as close as a restaurant you’ve never tried or as far as China. New places excite the mind and senses and when we are excited our creative abilities soar.

3. Spend 10 minutes a day dreaming out the window.

4. Don’t censor yourself.

5. Do something new or something old in a brand new way. As Picasso said “I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

6. Slow down your perceptions so you savor them–that means eat slowly and taste your food, look closely at the flowers in the garden, spend time writing down and drawing your perceptions.

7. Believe in and follow your ‘What ifs’–what if I was an amazing writer? What if I could make a revolutionary spaceship? What if when I walk across a room it feels like floating?

When we ‘what if’ ourselves, we start to believe we can achieve our dreams. That is the first step to making them come true.

8. Spend 15 minutes looking around with the eyes of a child. Remember that sense of wonderment, love of color, surprise, curiosity and hunger to explore. It can get your creativity going because you are remembering how you were once very imaginative.

9. Take a notebook and pen everywhere you go and jot down your observations. We often have innovative ideas but we forget them if we don’t record them.

10. Don’t over-criticize yourself. At worst it will kill and at best cripple your creative hopes and dreams.

11. Make up a visualization in which you observe yourself imagining and creating effortlessly. Picture yourself loving the process.

12. Just Do It! Creativity is a muscle: use it or lose it. Dance, draw, brainstorm, change your life. The more you use your creativity, the easier it becomes and the better you get at it.

13. Collaborate creatively with like-minded friends–write a journal together, make a quilt, design a new play space, choreograph a dance piece, start a new business.

14. Dress wildly–revel in color and texture. Buy or make a fabulous hat. Don’t be age appropriate.

15. Remember the words of Samuel Becket, on the secret to life-long creativity: “fail, fail again, fail better”!



Creativity Articles

A selection of articles about The Creativity Workshop that recently appeared in newspapers and magazines.

100 Best Worldwide Vacations to Enrich your Life

by Pam Grout
National Geographic

Read Article

Use your Imagination!

by Shelley Berc

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Creativity in Everyday Life

by Shelley Berc

Read Article

Play, Play, Play

by Susie Ellis
The Weekender

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Can You Get More Creative?

by A. J. Jacobs
Real Simple Magazine

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Travel and Creativity

by AllPsychologyCareers.com

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How Fear Chokes Creativity and What to Do About It

by Shelley Berc

Read Article

The Dubai Connection

by David Berliner

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Tap Into Your Inner Artist in a Creativity Workshop

Natural Awakenings Magazine

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Theatre of the Mind

by Shelley Berc

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Time to Nourish our Creativity

by Shelley Berc
Boomer Girl Magazine

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The Gift of the Amateur

by Shelley Berc
Prologue Magazine

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Book of Moments

by Shelley Berc
The Paumanuk Review

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Take Another Look

by Alejandro Fogel
Sketchbook Magazine

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How to Cultivate Eureka Moments

by Michiko Kakutani

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Seeing Through the Blur

by Alejandro Fogel
Sketchbook Magazine

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The Creativity Workshop

by Francesca Salidu
Babel, Italian Magazine

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Tapping Creativity

by Gary Kuhlmann
In Class, University of Iowa Alumni Magazine

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Postcard from Paris

by Deborah Murphy
The National Post, Canadian newspaper

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La creatività? Si impara a scuola con il relax e senza tecnologia

by Robert Calabro
La Repubblica, Italian newspaper

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Doodling for Dollars

by Rachel Emma Silverman

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Why Theater Majors Are Vital in the Digital Age

by Tracey Moore
The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Think Less, Think Better

by Moshe Bar
The New York Times

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Defining Creativity

By Shelley Berc

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What Is Creativity

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Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age

New York Times, June 20, 2016

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Travel and Creativity

by AllPsychologyCareers.com

Learn how travel can boost our ability to become more creative

Hemingway wrote while in Cuba, and Gauguin painted in Tahiti; Mark Twain wrote his only best selling book during his lifetime “Innocents Abroad” on board a ship. And in the 1940s, on a Greyhound bus in the middle of the night in Kansas, Princeton physics researcher Freeman Dyson cracked the problem of quantum electrodynamics – the theory of radiation and atoms – that others had been trying to solve for years.

Creative geniuses from all fields seemed to know something about travel that made it indispensable to their work, something that boosted their creativity by changing their thinking. For many creative giants, traveling resulted in discoveries that defined their lives – and careers.

Now psychologists have started studying the benefits of travel, tackling the question of how it appears to increase creative thinking. By studying psychological distance, which takes place geographically, temporally (over time) and also perceptually – or through one’s mind – they seek answers on how distance aids not only the eminent and famous for their creative contributions, but everyone’s creativity.

Lile Jia, a PhD graduate student in psychology at Indiana University (IU) at Bloomington, investigated how the concept of distance affected the creative cognition and insights of students on the IU campus. Other researchers have studied how psychological distance in reference to “time away” from a problem increases the likelihood of solving problems, but Jia sought to show that simply placing oneself in a traveling “mindset” might also affect creative problem solving.

Two Creativity Studies:

Study #1

In one study, he formulated a creative generation task asking participants to list as many types or modes of transportation as possible. But he divided the participants into two groups:

The Benefits of Taking a Trip

  • Three out of four executives believe that vacations prevent burnout (78%) or that vacations improve their job performance (75%).
  • Two out of three executives believe that vacations improve their creativity (68%).
  • Travelers have a 25% increase in performance on vigilance tests after returning from vacation. Travelers aged 45 or older show a 50% increase in performance.
  • Annual vacations reduce an individual’s heart attack risk by 50%.
  • More than half of employed Americans (53%) state that they feel more connected with their families after returning from vacation.
  • Simply thinking about or anticipating vacation travel increases positive feelings about one’s family, economic situation, and health.
  • While on vacation, travelers rate their overall health one point higher (on a scale of 1 to 5) while on vacation.
    They also get three times more deep sleep after their vacation and sleep almost 20 minutes longer after their vacation.
  • Group One – The Distant Condition. Participants were told that Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece developed the task of generating different modes of transportation.
  • Group Two – The Near Condition. Participants were told that students living on campus at Indiana University developed the task of generating different modes of transportation.

In the journal article “Lessons from a Faraway Land: The Effect of Spatial Distance on Creative Cognition”, Jia reported a striking difference between these two groups. Those participants who thought that individuals in Greece developed the task came up with many more transportation options – and many more creative options – than those who thought the task was developed in Indiana.

Those in group one – those generating more creative responses not only listed the usual ways of getting around, such as buses, trains and planes. But as they imagined the source of the problem coming from Greece, a distant country far from Indiana, they listed horses, scooters, bicycles, and spaceships. In other words, they not only considered the local environment of Bloomington, Indiana when deriving their answers, they used Greece, other parts of the world, and even outer space.

Study #2

In a second study, also appearing in the Journal of Social Psychology article, Jia administered puzzles or brain teasers to three different groups of students:

  • Group One. The first group of students were told that the series of brainteasers came from a California research institute.
  • Group Two. The researchers told a second group of students that the puzzles came from down the hall in a building on campus.
  • Group Three. The third group of students didn’t receive any information on the origin of the brain teasers.

As in the first study, participants in group one, or those that were told that the brain teasers came from California did the best at solving the brainteasers. They solved more of the problems than those in either the Indiana group or the control group.

In summary, Jia concluded from both studies that increasing psychological distance, even by simply stating that the source of the problem came from a distance away, increased creative thoughts and insights. And that distance can be artificially produced simply by changing the way individuals think about a problem – or their perceptions of the problem.

For decades, psychologists have been interested in how geographical and temporal (time) distance affects creativity. In fact, a large amount of research exists on construal level theory (CLT), a theory that states the closer individuals are to things, problems, and ideas, such as being in the “here and now” and “up close” with problems, the more concretely, literally, and unimaginatively they think about these problems. The theory states that by getting far away from problems or issues, even if it’s just a perceptual distance, the more abstractly individuals think.

Jia’s research definitely builds on and adds to the body of research on CLT. And it helps explain why travel is important not only for physical and mental health but for creativity as well.

The benefits of breaking the routine

Vacation signifies time away from work and stress, a needed break for rest and relaxation. Most individuals consider it a break in the routine, a time for not thinking of anything closely related to the problems and concerns of their everyday environment.

Yet it’s exactly this “break in routine” that proves so beneficial for creativity. In other words, while individuals stare out the car window as they travel the winding roads of mountains, or sit sipping cocktails beachside, they often have those “aha” moments or creative breakthroughs to problems they’ve been trying to solve for days, months, or even years.

Everyday habits and routines constrain mental thinking, according to psychologists like Jia who study creativity. But spending time in different environments and cultures actually broadens and opens up thinking as unused neural networks within the brain fire and respond – in ways they wouldn’t respond if sitting back in the office or driving the same road home each evening.

In a television interview with Charlie Rose, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik likened this type of brain activity to a baby’s brain.

By adulthood, individuals have learned how to “dampen down” most areas of their brains in order to use one area to specifically focus on one thing. But babies and young children haven’t yet developed the ability to pay attention intently on one thing, becoming captivated and enthralled by multiple stimuli, spreading their attention “all over the place.”

When adults step into a foreign, unknown culture, the firing of neural networks occurs over the entire brain. The areas of the brain that adults have for so long dampened down again become saturated with neurochemicals, and processing takes place similar to processing that occurs in a baby’s brain.

Obviously, adults must be able to pay attention, Gropnik said, but all “adults have the potential to continue to experience the world as children do.” Curiosity is central to human experience, and one way to increase curiosity is through foreign travel.

Living abroad

The studies of two other psychology researchers have taken a slightly different stance on foreign travel and creativity, focusing instead on living abroad.

William W. Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in France, and Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, stated that a study they conducted showed that students who had lived abroad performed better on puzzles and problems than those who hadn’t lived in a foreign country.

Their study also appearing in the Journal of Social Psychology in the article “Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity” showed that those who had lived abroad performed better on the following tasks:

  • a puzzle that gave the students some items and required them to affix a candle to a wall without spilling the wax;
  • a problem that required creative negotiation skills;
  • a problem that required identifying a missing word with three clue words.

Open-minded thinking was a main reason these students performed better on puzzles and problems, Maddux and Galinsky hypothesized. This type of thinking takes form in foreign countries as individuals realize that there are many different – and valid – ways of living in the world. There isn’t one right way or viewpoint, and a single issue or problem often has multiple viewpoints or solutions.

Living abroad also presents multiple challenges, such as figuring out transportation schedules for buses and trains, finding reasonable ways to shop and cook given a country’s markets or lack of grocery stores, and understanding cultural customs. Many of these challenges don’t affect those who simply travel to other countries through planned tours, or are only in a foreign country for a short time period.

More research needed

As with many new research areas involving creativity, Maddux and Galinsky caution that more research needs to take place on creativity and living abroad, and creativity and travel, before scientists can make any definitive conclusions.

Yet researchers today are getting closer to uncovering why “distance” in terms of geography, time, or perception, or actually living abroad, leads to better creative thinking and outcomes.

Those desiring to study the psychology of creativity have many fields available to pursue this passion, including: Human Growth and Development, Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, Educational Psychology, and Media Psychology.

To become a researcher in psychology, usually a PhD is required. However, some schools offer certificates in creativity studies. Contact schools who offer psychology programs for more information.

Creativity leads to self-fulfillment

Psychologists want to know what types of thinking leads to creativity, for all types of people, in order to help people live better, more satisfying, and mentally healthy lives.

Those studying the psychology of creativity believe that this key component of cognition is significant for understanding how entire societies advance and move into the future. Creativity solves problems such as how to help those in developing nations start businesses so that they can support and feed themselves. Creativity offers solutions to problems such as global warming. It provides options for solving economic recessions, and even war and national conflict.

Creativity, in other words, resides not only in the imagination of a few gifted individuals, but within groups, in entire cultures and countries. Despite the fact that creativity is relatively new to psychological study, only gaining momentum during the second half of the 20th century, psychologists in all areas understand its significance – and romance.

At the start of his book, “Creativity Flow And The Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that creativity is the central source of meaning for the entire human race.

Creativity is essential, he states, because it is uniquely human. Humans share 98% of their genetics with chimpanzees. The 2% that separates humans from apes stems from human abilities to think creatively, and to learn from these creative pursuits resulting in language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology. All of these endeavors make human life interesting, separating humans from apes.

The second important reason to study creativity, according to Csikszentmihalyi, the former chair of the psychology department at the University of Chicago, and considered an expert on the psychology of creativity, focuses on the quality of life itself.

When involved with creativity, he states, individuals feel as if they are living more fully than during any other part of their lives.

“Perhaps only sex, sports, music, and religious ecstasy – even when these experiences remain fleeting and leave no trace – provide as profound a sense of being part of an entity greater than ourselves.”

For psychologists like Csikszentmihalyi , it’s not paradoxical that creativity appears so easy to define and yet so difficult at the same time. For these researchers, that paradox fits perfectly with the nature of creativity.


Time to Nourish our Creativity

by Shelley Berc
Boomer Girl Magazine

We are all born creative, it is a fact of human nature. Anyone who has watched a child absorbed in her make-believe world can see that. But the curiosity and imagination so evident in our child selves often fades with the passage of time.

Society doesn’t give adults much support for being creative, unless you make a lot of money at it. Why not? Think of how different our world would be if people were encouraged to think innovatively, take risks, absorb and express beauty, pain, and wonder. Children do all those things naturally through play. When a society loses its creativity, destruction sets in all too easily.

How do we get our creativity ‘instinct’ back or if we haven’t lost it, how do we keep it vital and alive? These are the questions and some of the answers we will explore in this blog. We will frequently refer to the arts in this foray into our creative selves, but only because they provide us with some of the more obvious examples of creative process and expression. We can apply the tools of inspiration that artists invoke to any creative endeavor, be it gardening or transforming our lives. Art is a by-product of creative expression, not it’s be all and end all. The beginnings of any painting or new scientific discovery lie in the process of the creative journey, which is exactly what we are going to consider here.

Over the next weeks we will look at creativity in terms of inspiration, beauty, playfulness, focus, space, and time. We will challenge the things that block our creativity – inner and outer critics, concepts about ‘not wasting time’, the mantra that we are not creative so we shouldn’t even bother to express that part of ourselves. I hope there will be a lot of discussion from our readers as to what creativity means in their lives and how they access it in their everyday endeavors or how it has been thwarted. Creativity thrives when it is encouraged and valued. I hope this blog can provide a bit of that nurture and that the discussions that ensue will help readers find other like-minded souls to share their ideas and imagination.

It is extremely hard to unleash our creativity when we are busy all the time. Today we are going to look at time and find ways to free up enough of it to get and stay creative in our busy, multi-taskful lives.

We may not be able to free up much actual clock time, but with playful attentiveness we can stretch the time we have to seem fuller and deeper. This is what I call creative time. We can use our imaginations to trick time into slowing down so we can see, touch, and taste the every day world in ways that bring back its magical essence.

Not many people have the luxury to spend hours painting a landscape or sitting in a café, finding characters to populate their next novel. We live in a world where the majority of our time is not our own. It belongs to our jobs, our families, and our fears that we are wasting our time by not being clearly and immediately productive. What if we took just 20 minutes a day to exercise our creativity? Let’s start by relaxing and doing absolutely nothing.

To be creative, one has to be a little bit lazy! The Creative Muse loves staring into space over a cup of coffee or walking aimlessly in a fragrant garden. It loves taking long showers and playing pointless games. It loves to lounge – that’s how it gets its work done! But contrary to popular belief, to be creative doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be your focus all day long. With that attitude, even the most productive artist would give up. Taking time for 20 minutes of creative exploration each day can bring our imaginations alive and keep them inspired while we go about the rest of our lives. That’s right, creativity is a hardy plant, but it does need its daily watering.

Twenty minutes a day – surely we can find time for that – especially when it means feeding the unspoken longings of our soul. For it is the soul that suffers most when we don’t let ourselves create. Our soul needs to have play-time in the world of pretend, which is a deeply focused and meditative place. Creativity and play clear our beings and give us energy to live. Twenty minutes a day of writing whatever comes to your mind, or drawing the vase of flowers that sits forgotten on the window sill, or turning up the music and dancing your heart out. When creative expression is accessed every day even for the shortest periods of time, it becomes stronger and more resilient, just like any muscle. The creativity muscle nurtures the most sensitive qualities of our human nature. It stimulates our ability to see with body, mind and soul the gorgeous nuances of life–whether it be the many subtle shades of water in the sea, or what our neighbor is really feeling when she says ‘have a nice day.’ Creativity is our internal piano tuner, adjusting us key by key for optimal perception. It reminds us what an amazing world we live in, by putting sight, sound, touch, and even taste at the forefront of consciousness.

Take a stroll around your neighborhood and have a good look around you. Slow time down with your gaze and watch an animal move, or zoom in on the front doors of the houses you pass. Or sit in a window at work or home and actively see what is there for five minutes? Write down every bit of it – every sound and sight and each reaction you have to what you are perceiving. The very act of recording what your senses ‘see’ makes you more open to what is around you.

I am sitting cross-legged in an easy chair with a snoring cat curled in my lap. I feel the soft warmth of a mohair sweater against my skin and the silky ripple of his fur as he stretches against my body. My sweater is green, so are his eyes. He is looking out the window and I wonder what he is seeing. I imagine him chasing a blue jay in the yard and surveying the landscape for more birds to run after. Suddenly I discover myself seeing through the eyes of my cat. Haven’t we all had that experience of imagining ourselves in another’s shoes? In a split second of reverie, we catapult ourselves into the world of imagination, where we can become a cat or re-invent our lives. It is a practice that only takes a few minutes a day. And over time those minutes add up to a different and exciting way of seeing, expressing, and transforming our lives.