I want to ask you a favor. I have a pair of pants. Tell me: How many different ways can I put a pair of pants to use?
Now imagine you’re an architect. Same question.
Now imagine you’re Cher. Bill Gates. A scuba diver. A medieval knight. You still have the pants. What alternative uses come to mind?
What you just practiced—the conscious act of “wearing” another self—is an exercise that, according to psychiatrist Srini Pillay, MD, is essential to being creative.
One great irony about our collective obsession with creativity is that we tend to frame it in uncreative ways. That is to say, most of us marry creativity to our concept of self: Either we’re “creative” or we aren’t, without much of a middle ground. “I’m just not a creative person!” a frustrated student might say in art class, while another might blame her talent at painting for her difficulties in math, deflecting with a comment such as, “I’m very right-brained.”
Dr. Pillay, a tech entrepreneur and an assistant professor at Harvard University, has spent a good chunk of his career subverting these ideas. He believes that the key to unlocking your creative potential is to defy the clichéd advice that urges you to “believe in yourself.” In fact, you should do the opposite: Believe you are someone else.
Dr. Pillay points to a 2016 study demonstrating the impact of stereotypes on one’s behavior. The authors, educational psychologists Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar, divided their college-student subjects into three groups, instructing the members of one to think of themselves as “eccentric poets” and the members of another to imagine they were “rigid librarians” (the third group was the control). The researchers then presented all the participants with ten ordinary objects, including a fork, a carrot, and a pair of pants, and asked them to come up with as many different uses as possible for each one. Those who were asked to imagine themselves as eccentric poets came up with the widest range of ideas, whereas those in the rigid-librarian group had the fewest. Meanwhile, the researchers found only small differences in students’ creativity levels across academic majors. In fact, the physics majors inhabiting the personas of eccentric poets came up with more ideas than the art majors did. Find out the 10 proven ways to boost creative thinking.
These results, write Dumas and Dunbar, suggest that creativity is not an individual trait but a “malleable product of context and perspective.” Everyone can be creative, as long as he or she feels like a creative person.
Dr. Pillay’s work takes this a step further: He argues that simply identifying yourself as creative is less powerful than taking the bold, creative step of imagining you are somebody else. This exercise, which he calls psychological Halloweenism, refers to the conscious action of inhabiting another persona. An actor may employ this technique to get into character, but anyone can use it.
According to Dr. Pillay, it works because it is an act of “conscious unfocus,” a way of stimulating the default mode network, a collection of brain regions that spring into action when you’re not focused on a specific task or thought. The default mode network may be quiet, but it’s hardly idle: It spends all day rummaging through our memories and collaging ideas together.
Unfortunately, those ideas often get drowned out because most of us spend way too much time worrying, and about two things in particular: how successful/unsuccessful we are and how little we’re focusing on the task at hand. These twin worries feed on each other—an unfocused person is an unsuccessful one, we believe—and so we don’t allow our minds to wander into its quietly fertile fields. Instead, we buy noise-canceling headphones, knuckle down, and berate ourselves for taking breaks.
What makes Dr. Pillay’s argument resonate is its healthy, forgiving realism. According to him, most people spend nearly half of their days in a state of “unfocus.” This doesn’t make us slackers; it makes us human. The quietly revolutionary idea behind psychological Halloweenism is: What if we stopped judging ourselves for our mental downtime and instead started harnessing it? Putting this new spin on daydreaming means tackling two problems at once: You’re making yourself more creative, and you’re giving yourself permission to do something you’d otherwise feel guilty about. Imagining yourself in a new situation, or an entirely new identity, never felt so productive. Next, find out the 10 things all highly creative people do.