“I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others weird that are weird.” —Paul McCartney
There’s a mall not far from Sydney, Australia, that was having a problem with loitering teenagers. Nothing the mall did seemed capable of driving them away. Until one day, someone raised their hand and said, “I have an idea.” Not long after that, the mall started playing the Bing Crosby song “My Heart Is Taking Lessons” in a continuous loop.
“My heart is taking lessons, learning how to sing,
Every morning la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la, poor thing,
My heart is taking lessons, conscientiously,
Every moment la-la-la-la-la-la-la, it amazes me”
Unsurprisingly, the teenagers hated it. Hated it so much, in fact, that community leaders considered playing Bing in public squares and railway stations.
“And oh, how hard it labors to try and make the grade,
It must annoy the neighbors, practicing upon a serenade,
My heart’s taking lessons, and I notice too,
It began to la-la-la-la-la-la-la when I looked at you”
If psychologists are right, despite how loathsome Bing might have been to the teenagers, the sappy music just might have grown them a few creative brain cells. As it turns out, when we expose our brains to things that we perceive to be profoundly weird, even grating, the parts of our brains that control creativity actually become more powerful.
Think about it. You spend your days riding the same train, grabbing the same vanilla latte at the same Starbucks, and those neurons of yours are going to fall asleep faster than a 21-year-old at a Michael Bublé concert. On the other hand, throw a new experience or two in there, and it’s like pruning a tree. Old synapses bite the dust. New ones pop up and flourish. The eggheads call this neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to adapt to changes in its routine and in the process become smarter, quicker, more creative.
Of course, it’s one thing when you ditch the vanilla latte for a mango tea, but what happens when you go full-tilt Nickelback? Or watch a documentary on the life of cod? Or watch your grandfather ride a hoverboard? In short, what happens when you don’t just change your routine, but blow it sky-high?
To find out, some researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the Behavioural Science Institute at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, put virtual reality headsets on some test subjects and had them take a virtual three-minute stroll through a cafeteria. As they walked, they experienced weird events that violated the laws of physics. Like objects that got smaller the closer they got to them, and bigger as they got further away.
If you’ve ever spent any time in the Netherlands, you know that butter and chocolate chip sandwiches are anything but weird. But when the researchers asked test subjects to make the sandwich by putting chocolate chips on a plate, then buttering the bread, then placing the bread, buttered side down, on the plate of chocolate chips, their cognitive flexibility, and by extension their creativity, was higher. And that’s just from making a sandwich, which, as weird things go, isn’t all that weird.
If I were starting an agency, I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t load it up with pool tables and neon signs and special rooms with Legos and Hot Wheels. All that stuff that’s supposed to nurture creatives. Instead, I’d pipe in tunes that would have you tearing your ears off. Bing Crosby? Hell, yes. And Nickelback for sure. Not all the time. Once a week maybe. Trust me. You’d thank me eventually. Like when the Cannes short list comes out.
Of course, I’m not starting an agency. So do this tomorrow morning. Instead of the usual clothes, try borrowing one of those unfortunate outfits from that friend of yours who works at the bank. On your way into work, instead of Charlie Puth, try listening to Barry Manilow’s greatest hits. You know Barry Manilow, right? No? Even better. And while you’re waiting for season two of The Mandalorian, why not check out one of those arcane documentaries on Netflix tonight. Dancing with the Birds maybe. Or Don’t F—k With Cats. Read something out of your comfort zone. Go to the opera. Eat something alien. Not really alien. I don’t know. Watermelon-seed butter. Plant-based chicken wings. Bud Light seltzer.
Will it make you uncomfortable, exposing yourself to all these irritating things? Oh, I know it will. Will it make you more creative than you’ve ever been before? Hey, weirder things have happened. ca