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Secret to creativity? U of T expert says sleep more, offers other tips

U of T's Greg Wells says more sleep is one of many ways we can boost our ability to be creative (photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

With the advent of artificial intelligence, creative thinking will become even more critical, writes the University of Toronto's Greg Wells, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

In a piece in the Globe and Mail's Leadership Lab series, Wells offers advice on how to boost that creativity. 

The physiologist and exercise medicine researcher at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children says sleep more, meditate and add physical activity into your day. For example, exercising in nature helps promote problem solving, he says.

“If you need to solve a problem or come up with a new creative approach, reducing your sleep hours is the opposite of what your brain needs,” he writes. “Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and had a ‘Eureka!’ moment – a deep insight? I certainly have; it's one reason I keep a notebook by my bed. I need to ensure that I capture the insights generated during sleep.”

Creative problem solving appears to happen during the REM phase of sleep, which typically occurs in the second half of a night’s sleep if a person is getting the recommended 7.5 hours.

He adds that scientists at the University of California, Irvine found that exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors, stimulate neurogenesis, and improve learning and mental performance. As little as 15 minutes of exercise improves mental performance, he says.

“If you're wondering what kind of exercise is best for creativity, research suggests that aerobic activities like walking, swimming, cycling and running are best.”

His last idea is to add deliberate mindfulness practice and meditation to your daily routine.

“Think of meditation as strength training for the brain. Just as you would lift weights to build and strengthen your muscles, you can use meditation to build and strengthen your brain and then, in addition, control and sharpen your mind.”