Bulking up the Brain – The Links Between Exercise and Creativity

The mind-body-spirit connection is a fundamental, highly interconnected process

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Exercise can elevate one’s creativity, with the link between exercise and creativity constituting what I call the mind-body- spirit system. Although our bodies and minds seem to be separate systems functioning independently, they are really an interdependent system. The mind and body are linked in many ways. Our feelings, beliefs, stressors, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our body. Additionally, our active physical states affect our mind in ways that science is only now beginning to scrape the surface of. 

The mind-body-spirit connection is a fundamental, highly interconnected process, with the body and mind mutually influencing one another in a bi-directional fashion. In other words, biological processes affect thoughts and feelings, and cognition affects bodily states. 

Scientific Backing: Mind and Body Connection 

Studies show that physical exercise can affect a range of cognitive functions. In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise enlarges the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning (Lisanne et al. 2015, “Aerobic Exercise Increases”). Of course, this is linked to creativity and problem-solving processes. In this sense, physical activity is gasoline in the engine of creative thinking. 

A number of studies have demonstrated that cardio-intensive exercise, such as jogging, can increase levels of essential neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, that are closely associated with mental acuity. Sustained exercise sessions that boost these key chemicals can also help new neural connections develop in the brain (Heijnen et al. 2016, “Neuromodulation Aerobic”). 

As I have stated in other chapters, the hippocampus is a center point of creativity. During exercise, this part of your brain experiences significant changes. During exercise, the hippocampus’ neurons become activated, the flow of blood speeds up, and blood pressure and oxygen increase. 

Amazingly, when you age, the hippocampus can shrink, and memory worsens. However, with aerobic exercise, the hippocampus expands, and you experience a boost in memory. Furthermore, it has been documented that students who exercise perform better on tests when they exercise than those who are more lethargic. 

Another area of the brain—the prefrontal lobe, which is located right behind your forehead—is demonstrated to experience increased activity after an intense aerobic workout. The prefrontal lobe is responsible for clear thinking, which is enhanced during exercise. 

Also, a new field called neurogenesis validates the idea that a run can invigorate your thought process and cognitive ability. Studies have shown that during your lifetime, neurons continually reproduce in the brain. The only activity that can create new neurons is intense exercise, such as running. Additionally, exercise preserves your mental capabilities as you get older. 

Our ancestral genetics created a basis for fleeing from a predator in a heightened mental state. Emergencies such as this activated the brain to think more efficiently when confronted with danger. As such, it is obvious that al- though we have evolved, we can still get a mental boost from exercise. 

Creativity Running 

One of my personal favorite methods for dealing with mental hurdles you can’t seem to overcome is to go for a run. I have run my whole life, starting with track in high school, and running was instrumental for me in college. I have continued to run ever since. 

When I started the ID program at CSULB, I was severely challenged and pushed to the limits of my creativity. This was just the beginning of decades of my process to push the boundaries of what I could create. 

Whenever I had a design problem or a hard time moving forward with creativity, I would go for a run to clear my mind. When I finished the run and started to focus on the problem I was solving, I had a better sense of how to approach it. I didn’t know why this worked, but it did. After a time, I began thinking my creative problems through when I ran, reviewing issues and possibilities using many techniques in this book. 

There is a physiological reason for my success with what I call creativity running while problem-solving. Alpha waves are present in your brain when you’re meditating, and studies have shown that alpha waves can also be created through aerobic exercise. In a way, meditating and running have a similar effect on the alpha wave state of your brain. 

As an approach similar to my meditation process, while running, I use a positive mantra, such as “I will create solutions to all challenges.” You can invent your own mantras for use during exercise meditation that help you focus on whatever problems you have in invention or life in general. Another process is to simply focus on an uplifted and positive feeling that is generated by athletic activity. 

Creative Exercise Guidelines 

Before attempting any exercise as a problem-solving mechanism, I recommend reviewing the processes in the Analytical Creativity sections. Another process is to simply browse through all chapter sections and read text that resonates with you. The goal is to intensely study the problem/solution statement to the point of confusion or what might seem an intuitive stopping point. This point is a great time to go for a run. 

Studies have shown that one benefits most from about thirty minutes of intense exercise or activity. However, I have found that even just ten minutes is enough time for you to be able to return to the problem/solution process with some new thinking processes. Sometimes I will take a ten-minute run every hour or so when problem-solving; this really helps me during an eight-hour period of intense concentration. 

Walking can help as well, as, like I have mentioned, in- creased blood flow is what activates the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, producing improved thought processes. Swimming and biking are other good options for achieving this increased blood flow. It is important to realize that no matter what your activity of choice is, if you make it a habit, the repetitive cycle will train your methodical intuition to solve problems rather automatically. 

Exercise elevates the spirit, enabling it to break out of mental and emotional stasis. As I have described, there is a unique link between exercise and the body, and there is also a connection between exercise and the spiritual imagination process. 

The old adage “why don’t you do something to lift your spirits?” is very applicable in the case of exercise. Creative problem-solving can be a heavy weight on the soul and elevating your spiritual state can be as simple and natural as elevating your heart rate. 

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