Harnessing the benefits of isolation for innovation
From creative works to leading products
“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” Rollo May
I don’t know about you, but I feel like we have more meetings in self-isolation than we used to before. During the first week, it was about catching up with everyone to talk about the latest news, vent and get support, but then by the second week, it became apparent that people were scheduling meetings to avoid being alone.
In our modern lives with never ending social media and on demand entertainment, we had already excelled in avoiding being alone, especially when these services use psychological triggers to keep us sucked in and continue consuming. And boy do we hate being alone. According to this 2014 study, “many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts” for a mere 6–15 minutes. The forced lockdowns everywhere are now forcing everyone to come to grips with being alone. And yes, we can fall even deeper down the rabbit hole of YouTube and Netflix and Twitter, but…
What if we could harness part of that time to create?
It doesn’t have to be an artistic piece of work. How about a unique feature for our product, a layer of interaction for our service that adds that personal touch that every customer is looking for right now? Innovative creations that enhance our customer loyalty and maybe even build our customer pipeline?
What does Shakespeare and Newton have in common?
Let’s take a look at the history books for some inspiration here. London was ravaged by the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries with repeated outbreaks, which meant theatres had to be shut down to avoid mass gatherings for more than 60% of the time (78 months to be exact between 1603 and 1613). But did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and other masterpieces during this same time?
Similarly, Newton developed his theories on calculus, optics and the law of gravitation while working from home in Woolsthorpe during the Great Plague of London 1665–1667, the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England.
Forced isolation was one of the factors for these brilliant minds to focus, perform and be creative at their best, even when the plague was so near to them — the plague brushed by Shakespeare’s house when his landlady died.
But what about self-imposed isolations in times of relative health to look for some solitude, peace and a reset? Famously, Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus, spends 60 days every year in a silent retreat. While teaching him the importance of focus, Harari says it also allows him to see the bigger picture — what’s important and everything else. As he told the Guardian, without meditation “I suppose I would still be researching medieval military history, but not the neanderthals or cyborgs.” Harari is not alone. Historically, self-imposed isolations are a key part of Sufism and Buddhism to achieve a higher state of understanding.
The Science Behind Creativity
There is solid evidence that proves why solitude, if harnessed mindfully, can improve our creativity in everyday life. And it all starts with brain waves.
For instance, when we’re in deep sleep, the brain enters into the Delta wave, which is an unconscious state when repair and healing occur. If we move towards consciousness, the next wave is Theta, which activates during light sleep. One is usually in Theta just before sleeping and just after awakening. While these waves are fantastic for random creations and ideas (remember that crazy dream you had the other day?), we can’t easily enter them at will or control them.
On the opposite end, we have Gamma waves, which represent the brain processing information and learning with intense focus, and Beta waves, which is the reductive state of mind — alert and focused. We’re operating in a Beta state for most of our day, making reductive decisions and executing.
The Power of Alpha
In the middle of these two extremes, we have the Alpha wave, which is produced when the brain is in a relaxed, unfocused state usually associated with being awake but idle (i.e. not concentrating on any specific thing). Alpha waves are correlated with creativity since creativity requires expansive thinking instead of reductive. According to a 2015 study, researchers could trigger a surge in creativity if they specifically focused on enhancing alpha waves. In this study, they used electrical triggers, but it’s widely accepted that meditation and mindfulness also work in getting the brain in an Alpha state.
And herein lies the magic. We can actively try to influence our brains to produce alpha waves for creative thinking and problem solving. Think of the places where you usually get your best ideas. For most people, the answer is while taking a shower and lying in bed just before going to bed. We’re now isolated in potentially the most alpha-inducing environment we could be. But we need to see past the confinement and into the opportunity that’s right in front of us.
Get me to Alpha
If you’d like to give meditation a go, how about giving Headspace a go. They’ve made a specific bundle of meditations free on their app during the lockdown, which you can find out more about here. Alternatively, you can check out the Honest Guys channel on YouTube, where you’ll find lots of guided meditation videos.
If meditation is not your cup of tea, any activity that puts your brain into a relaxed state while still alert should work like having a cup of actual tea in quiet or doing some yoga or aerobic exercise. Physical exercise clears the mind as you let your brain focus on the activity.
The point of this article isn’t to make you feel like an underachiever — not at all! We’re all going through unprecedented times. Enjoy a moment of TikTok for some much-needed entertainment or spend some idle time playing your favourite mobile game. Just don’t forget that if you have the opportunity to be alone, which hopefully should present itself more often than not these days, take it.
Take that time for yourself. Just enjoy the silence or do some meditation. If the fancy takes it, jot some things down or paint your wall or discuss within yourself how the world might be a better place. It is in these moments that we find clarity, unexpected solutions and a childlike wonder at how we ourselves are all we need.
Let your imagination take you there. Don’t force it.