Who Killed Creativity? How Can We Get Creativity Back?

The Pressure Pack (keynote)

Andrew Grant Keynote talk at Worktech / Unwired (Singapore). Who Killed Creativity? The Pressure Pack. See how stress, multitasking and pressure can block creative thinking. (English speaking audience)


The Who Killed Creativity? and how can we get it back” book workshop and keynote look at what blocks creativity thinking from a neuroscience and psychological point of view.

Murder Profile 3: The Pressure Pack

Those fitting this profile are driven by unrealistic expectations. With the faster pace of life and greatly increased communication speeds, the ‘pressure’ profile is apparent in every part of society. This seductive assassin dispatches its victims by exercising a stranglehold on real or perceived expectations. The first sign that the killer is at work is stress, as revealed by a broad range of potentially deadly physical and psychological symptoms. The vicelike grip on its victims often panics and paralyses them, sapping their energy and denying them the time to save themselves through creative strategies, so that they eventually asphyxiate. Associated personality disorders are histrionic, borderline personality and addictive. The preferred weapon is strangling stress.


Prolonged stress can also lead to structural changes in the brain. The ongoing release of corticosteroids can change neurons and their synapses in the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex. These produce impairments in working and spatial memory, and can lead to increased aggression. They can also lead to deficits in the striatum, which can bias decision-making strategies and decrease flexibility — a critical quality for creative thinking.

Under stress the brain will return to more conservative patterns of thinking and rigid habitual memory functioning at the expense of more flexible ‘cognitive’ memory.

According to neuroscientists, continuous or intense stress can damage brain cells, brain structure and brain function, causing side effects such as memory problems and depression. Stress also inhibits brain cell replacement in the hippocampus, which is one of the few areas of the brain that can create new cells throughout one’s life. Both phenomena can affect brain cell communication and memory.
Did you know that the brain should have a maximum of 3% of its neurons firing at any one time, otherwise the energy required to reset each neuron after it goes inactive becomes simply too much for your brain to handle.

Under pressure, (or danger) the body’s instinctive response is ‘fight, flight or freeze’.

  • FIGHT: The constant adrenaline produced can lead to irritation and anger management issues — the fight reaction.
  • FLIGHT: The flight response offers only a short-term solution, as eventually pressure will catch up to you and confront you when you least expect it.
  • FREEZE: Engages a part of our brain ‘dorsal branch’ (known as the “dorsal dive” slows the heart down respiration and blood pressure. (to look dead to avoid a predator as Carnivores prefer to eat live prey. We become frozen stuck in a state of terror and shut down our sense of possibility as we isolate ourselves from all involvement with others.

The brain appears to be capable of temporarily shutting down connections where there is significant stress and this can shut down an individual’s receptiveness and openness to learning.

When the brain is under stress, the primal emotional ‘shutdown’ response is triggered as a coping mechanism, moving you rapidly into what has been called ‘the red zone”. People in this state are less likely to be aware of the implications of negative emotions and less likely to be able to manage them, and there is often associated anxiety, fear, anger, distress and/or guilt.

When ‘red zone’ emotions are expressed, they often have a negative impact on personal and working relationships, shutting off the relaxed and open state required for creative thinking. We need to learn how to control these brain responses more effectively so we can access the prefrontal cortex more easily and ensure we remain in the freethinking open ‘blue zone’.

This can be especially significant for creative thinking, which requires a relaxed state, the ability to think through options at a slow pace and the openness to explore different alternatives without fear.

If our work place has always been one of stress then it may not be that easy to move away from pressure into a more relaxed creative zone, as Neuroceptive evaluation is shaped by ongoing appraisal of the significance of an event and the reference to historical events in the past. Further more there appears to be a specific gene that enables us to be more relaxed under stress and more able to cope with the potential impact of stress through creating more cells in the hippocampus.

This gene can be ‘switched off’ early in life when there are stifling environmental factors. It has been shown that where stress has reduced a specific protein — the brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) – neurons in some parts of the hippocampus shrink and the hippocampus as a whole decreases in volume. Because the hippocampus plays a key role in mood, cognition and memory, stress is obviously detrimental to the development of creative thinking. Interestingly, one study showed that baby rats are born with this gene already switched off, perhaps as a protective mechanism, and the gene is triggered only when the baby is nurtured by its mother through grooming and feeding

It is important to be able to access deeper and broader levels of the brain, from the hippocampus through to the prefrontal cortex. The more relaxed the individual, and the more ‘open’ the mind, the more easily these broader connections can be made. In effect, it enables conscious awareness to be freed from pressing and direct tasks to more open and divergent thinking.

Being open, creates a state of wonder, exploration and tolerates uncertainty and vulnerability. – which is what is needed for creative thinking. When we detect a Fight-Flight-Freeze response in our body we need to do the internal work necessary to bring ourselves back to a state of presence where we can be creative.

Many ideas or projects will become shut down when there is a fear or stress, when the fear of the unknown translates into a lack of acceptance or a lack of willingness to accept ideas that do not seem to fit our standard expectations. And yet an open acceptance and trust needs to be developed in order for Creativity to grow.

Individuals report that in ideal school and workplace environments three key qualities stand out :

1. Teachers/leaders respect me
2. Teacher/leaders are friendly, approachable and willing to listen
3. Teachers/leaders encourage and help me to succeed.

The results of this environment engaged the BLUE neo cortex part of the brain and resulted in students having

1. Confidence
2. Want to learn
3. Greater respect
4. Go the extra mile

The DC (demand control) model predicts that the most adverse health effects of psychological strain occur when job demands are high but the ability to make decisions is low. A high level of job control is associated with increased job satisfaction and decreased depression. High demands without adequate control may lead to increased anxiety.65 The effort–reward imbalance (ERI) model is based on the findings that emotional distress and adverse health effects occur when there is a perceived imbalance between efforts and occupational rewards.

Which side of the brain are you living in?

As a leader which side of the brain do you encourage by your environment?

References: Grant Grant Gellates from Who Killed Creativity? / John Corrigan Group8 Education research / Siegel – Mindful Therapist / Peter Lennie New York University Center for Neural Science.


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