How to think like a child

Letting go of adult inhibitions can free up our creativity and boost our wellbeing, says Lena Corner

Picasso once said: "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after he grows up." He certainly had a point, and now researchers at North Dakota State University think they may have found an answer. Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson, who carried out a US study into adult creativity have discovered that the more an adult acts and thinks like a child, the more imaginative he or she becomes. "Thinking like a child is entirely possible for adults," says Robinson. "And we found that doing so is beneficial for certain types of creative activities."

While we're not suggesting you regress into making loud personal comments about people on the bus, or screaming when you want something, there are many things you can do to tap into your inner child. You could try not taking yourself too seriously, for one. Or be spontaneous, inquisitive and generally more chaotic. Or simply take life more slowly – enjoy a nice long bath instead of darting in and out of the shower. "It's all about finding anything we can do to relax ourselves," says chartered psychologist Mark Millard. "Most of the time most of us are too tight. We all need loosening up."

So if your creative impulses haven't dried up or been beaten out of you entirely, here's a handy guide to bringing out the best in yourself by behaving like a small child.



Lose your cool

Ever watched a child dance or sing? As the old adage by American author William Purkey goes: "You've gotta dance like there's nobody watching ... sing like there's nobody listening." This is exactly how children do it. It may not be in time to the music, and it may not look cool, but it's as spontaneous and as free as it gets. "Children have an enormous capacity to be uninhibited," says chartered counselling psychologist Martin Lloyd-Elliott. "Adults always thrive when they have at least a few areas of their life in which they allow themselves to let go completely."

This is about more than just not taking ourselves too seriously, says Michael Dunn, senior lecturer in business psychology at the University of Derby. He cites new research done into the way the brains of jazz musicians work which suggests that lowering our barriers can be highly productive. "Scientists discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow," he says. "And in doing this they are coming to the task more like a child would."



Have a bad idea

How many of us have sat around in meetings with a half-decent idea in our head, yet not spoken up because we're worried people will laugh? We've all learned through bitter experience that if you say the wrong thing or express a dodgy idea, then chances are you'll be ridiculed.

"Children are much less inhibited about saying the things that might not be right," says Dunn. "To be creative, what we are looking for is not one idea but dozens of ideas – some good, some average and some rubbish. We need to go through the wrong stuff to get to the right stuff. So no matter how wild and wacky an idea is, we need to learn to suspend judgement and get it to the table. Kids aren't bothered about doing that, they have no fear of saying what they think." In other words stop being so paranoid and speak up. As Einstein once said: "If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it."



Learn to dawdle

If you've ever tried to get a child to school in a hurry you'll know: short of dragging them down the street, it's impossible. They don't seem to have a speed setting other than extremely slow. Do as they do and drag your feet whenever possible, stop to gaze into any shop window you fancy and miss the crossing when the green man comes up. "Going for a walk, letting our minds wander and having a really good rummage around in our mind is a very good problem-solving technique," says chartered psychologist Mark Millard. "Don't go out with blinkers on. Walk around and see what captures your attention. It's a great way to help us bust out of our usual mindset." Which is common sense: it's about slowing down and giving ourselves more time to see things.



Be bored

Many of us can remember issuing that pitiful lament: "Mum! I'm bored." Well, these days we just don't say it enough. When we're not working, we're doing our chores, watching TV, or Facebooking our friends, we just don't allow ourselves any proper down time any more. The psychoanalyst Dr James Hollis says all of us should "create space to invoke possibility". But it seems we have forgotten how.

"We need to make time and space to daydream, to meditate, to let our minds wander – to allow ourselves to be bored," says Lloyd-Elliott. "Most people seem to be allergic to stillness and silence and dreaded boredom. They have to fiddle with their phones, games consoles and laptops rather than just be. Too much human doing and not enough human being. Children embrace dead space and time and fill it with imagination. The greatest creative ideas often emerge from the gloom of boredom."



Break the rules

We have all had it drummed into us that there is one correct answer to everything and it's wrong to make a mistake. Children have no idea about these rules; they are chaotic and willing to search for many different answers. "We all got educated into a fixed way of looking at the world," says Millard, "which is really very good if you are a banker an accountant or someone who drives a car. But it's definitely very unhelpful if you are faced with a problem where you need to be more imaginative." Dunn also believes we accept convention too readily. "My students, for example, sit in the same seat for class week after week, for no reason other than that's what they have always done," he says.

"Try folding your arms with the other arm on top – it feels wrong. Without making the effort to mentally suspend any rules or conventions, creative output will be limited. "Children don't know theories," he concludes. "Their brains are not conditioned. They haven't learned the shoulds and have-tos of the adult world. They don't know what's possible and what's not. How many adults would crawl around the floor trying to pick up a sunbeam?"



Get yourself a babysitter

Not literally of course, but putting someone else in charge, even if just for a little while, can be hugely beneficial. There's a phase in psychology known as "executive control", which is all about how we are driven by deadlines, chores, work or whatever else, which means our attention is narrowed and so therefore able to be less creative. "We believe," says Millard, "that if we don't attend to these pressing issues something dreadful is going to happen." When we are stressed we limit our focus and home in on the things that are troubling us. "We tend to ruminate and turn things over and over and over and get fixated, which is not very helpful if you are trying to come up with new ideas," Millard adds. So, try handing over the reins, let someone else take control and sit back and think of higher things.



Sit in the back seat of the car

Another way of relinquishing control. Aside from giving up all responsibility for map reading, CD-changing and arguing about directions, occupying the back seat gives you a different perspective on life – it's simply a way of looking at things from a new angle. "It's just about changing age-old habits and breaking out of routine," says Millard. "Occupying a different physical space does wonders to change your outlook." Strapped down like a child, you are pretty much powerless to do anything (even to get out if there are child locks), so you might as well relax and enjoy. There's no need to go as far as getting yourself a booster seat.



Get an imaginary friend

Bear with us here, it's not as crazy as it sounds. We're not suggesting you launch into elaborate role-play or incessant chatter to an invisible being, but visualisation exercises have long been a valuable tool for the psychologist.

"One technique that I often use is to get people to imagine that they are an adult holding the hand of a child who is frightened of the situation they are in. It enables them to see the situation more clearly," explains Dr Rachel Andrew, a chartered clinical psychologist.

I have a friend who, when faced with a tricky situation, always asks himself the question: what would David Bowie do? It isn't quite an imaginary friend, but it seems to work for him.

"What someone like this could provide for an adult is a sense of comfort, security, friendship and belonging," says Millard. "It could just be someone you can sound ideas off, or someone who pats you on the back and keeps you going, or who sees things in a slightly different way. Anything that encourages positivity or changes your perspective can be very helpful."

Just try not to chat to them too much while out you're in public.

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