Shush – creativity and the science of quiet

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. He’s also a copywriter with over a decade of scribbling experience at top creative agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

Photo by Lionello DelPiccolo on Unsplash

The strangest sound I ever heard in a creative studio – amongst a symphony of strange sounds – was the word ‘mushroom’ shrieked at the pitch and volume usually reserved for announcing incoming mortar fire.

(For context, it was because a designer had carelessly let slip to colleagues that she was both afraid of, and severely allergic, to mushrooms. Her desk, predictably, had been immediately stroganoffed with around 40 mushrooms.)

Jostling for top spot in the hit parade of odd noises are a variety of cackles, wolf howls, clangs, crumples and even, once, the sound of a large cake being hit with a cricket bat – a sort of ‘whoomp’ if you’re interested.

Compiling such an audio compilation – aside from making me consider the market for a ‘NOW! That’s What I Call Agency Chaos’ cassette – made me ponder the environment we’ve created for ourselves.

Under the banners of ‘collaboration’ and ‘creative energy’ the studio has adopted the sort of sound ecosystem you would find in the canopy of a Brazilian jungle, or a Walkabout bar.

In many ways, there is nothing particularly wrong with such an atmosphere. The vast majority of people working in a creative agency are doing so precisely because the peace and uniformity of a ‘regular’ office makes their genitals invert.

But while the clatter of creativity is good for our wayward souls, it may not be as useful for our minds.

Now, my scientific knowledge extends no further than being able to identify, if not actually use, a pipette. However, I’m incredibly interested in the scruffy, hectic nature of what we do and the human chemistry behind what allows us to do it.

In particular, I’m fascinated by the conditions that govern the most intangible part of our work, the creative state.

There is (he said with no great authority) a neurological state known as the default mode network. In slightly simpler terms, this is the state of self-generated cognition. In actually simpler terms, it is allowing your mind to wander.

The correlation between this state and creative activity has been well established, demonstrating the power of unconscious, or at least lest actively controlled, thought to produce ideas.

It is, in a way, an invitation to idle – redefining what a productive working state looks like for a creative. I’m sorry madam but I shan’t get out of this hammock, can’t you see I’m default moding?

Stillness, of course, is not the same thing as laziness and if you use this knowledge as an excuse to nap or finesses your floundering fantasy football team you are perverting the science – and your fantasy football team will, invariably, remain shit.

But, to enter this hallowed state of creative inspiration, we need to manufacture the right conditions. Allowing your mind to truly wander is easier to achieve in a quiet place than it is in a room filled with people arguing loudly about how to treat potentially fatal mushroom poisoning.

Stillness, quiet and calm are the triggers for the default mode activity that spawns your greatest ideas. Noise, chaos and, worst of all, a relentless, flapping ‘busyness’ suppresses it.

Now I’m well aware that not every creative enjoys quiet time. Working in isolation can be unsettling, even rather intimidating if you feel cut off from the challenge, support and filter of the creative pack.

But, allowing some time every day to let your mind quietly steer you somewhere new, will make you a better creative and a better collaborator. Some agencies are even experimenting with designated quiet time, where the only focus is unfocused thought. No emails, no meetings, no chat.

So next time your studio erupts with the sound of a hundred monkeys in a bowling alley, seek out your quiet place and listen to nothing but the sound of your brain getting to work.

Andrew Boulton lectures on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln

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