Starbucks and Creativity

June 30, 2008

This afternoon, my iPhone buzzed me to reveal a Twitter message from an old friend, Michael Staires. Mike is the Director of Communications and Marketing for the Christian Camp and Conference Association in Colorado Springs. The very nature of his job requires constant creative thinking, so I always enjoy his thoughts on marketing and “thinking different.” His Twitter message:

What is it about “third places” like Starbucks that fuels creativity?

What a great question! In fact, once I started thinking about it I realized it was far too great to respond in a couple of sentences. I’ve wondered the same thing many times, but never took the time to really consider it.

Why do so many people leave their homes and offices to set up camp in a Starbucks (or other similar setting) to knock out a blog post, revise a poem, or finish a big paper or presentation? Is it something in the brew? The atmosphere? Or is it all in our minds?

I think the answer is a house blend of all the above. My experience is that creativity benefits from a change in environment, and I hypothesize that it has to do with the way our brain works and processes information from our sensory perception.

In familiar settings, such as our homes and offices, I believe our brains have a natural tendency to “tune-out” or attenuate signals from our senses, such as the things we see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste. Those senses are incredibly valuable to us for the innate purposes of survival. Medical and behavioral research has shown that when we are faced with threatening, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar situations, several things happen to our bodies without us even realizing it. Our eyelids open wider, our nostrils flare a little, and we tend to cock our heads at slightly different angles. Our bodies, of course, are making adjustments to optimize our senses of sight, smell, and hearing. (This behavior also explains the quite predictable changes in body language known by investigators and law enforcement for years.)

When removed from a familiar environment, our brains are more sensitive to external stimuli when compared to a known setting. It’s as if our brains are saying, “There’s nothing new here to be aware of or worry about, so I’m gonna take the next hour or so off” when sitting at the same old desk in the same old office.

Take that same brain somewhere else, however, and the game changes. Look at Mike’s situation as an example: He’s wearing the same clothes and using the same laptop, but his sensory system is several times more aware of EVERYTHING else. Compared to his office, that leather lounge chair feels different, the temperature of the room may be slightly warmer, the music may be something he’s never heard (with different acoustics), the lighting is more dim, and the smells of the coffees and espressos undoubtedly insist themselves on his olfactory nerve.

More subtle, yet perhaps more significant, is the brain’s inclination to “create under pressure.” We’ve all heard the expressions: “Necessity is the mother of invention,” “I work best under pressure,” and “Maybe this will light a fire under him.” They are all really saying the same thing. We have acquired an understanding that our minds and bodies can fabricate solutions to complex problems when said solutions become critical. The key ingredient is focus.

While firing up a laptop over a Grande Arabian Mocha Sanani doesn’t amount to much of a pressure cooker, I think the change of scenery does allow us to capitalize on the brain’s increased sensitivity and focus.

My guess is that these behaviors have important implications for the creative process.

The brain’s tendency toward increased situational awareness has the side effect of introducing all kinds of “new ideas.” A writer may be inspired by the intimate conversation of a couple at a nearby table or the lyrics of a song. A graphic designer might be sparked by the pattern and color of the floor tile next to the polished, curved wood and aluminum of the bar. The brain then leverages its enhanced sense of focus increase its chances of synthesizing any newfound inspiration into an idea.

That said, I think we can help spark creativity in myriad ways, Baristas not included. Often times at work, I’ll take my laptop to the board room or outside to the courtyard to work on a project when I seem to be mired in the same repetitive thoughts. At home, the patio in the backyard under the magnolia tree works just as well. Stuck in the office? Try turning off your overhead lights, use a desk lamp, and tune to an Internet radio station that plays music from eastern Europe or Latin America. Ponca City High School in northern Oklahoma installed a coffee bar in the school cafeteria a few years ago. Teachers quickly found that they have more engaging class discussions and sharper feedback when they add comfy chairs and iced lattes to the lesson plans on occasion.

What ways do YOU help along the creative process? Are there certain personality types that benefit more from environmental change than others when it comes to creative thinking?

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