Are smart phones destroying our children’s potential for creativity?

Posted on April 27, 2012


Here’s a classic altercation that must happen in many a household over teenage use of the smartphone.

Me: For goodness sake, put the iPhone down for 5 minutes!
Teenager: Why?
Me: Because you’re wedded to it and it’ll consume you one of these days.
Teenager: What does that mean.
Me: It means you’re reliant on it and you never make anytime for peace and quiet in your life. Why don’t you turn it off and just go and read a book or what a film. It’s a constant distraction going ping ping ping all the time.
Teenager: It’s not my fault you don’t have any friends [exits]

Teenagers eh? They put you down so well. And perhaps that makes the rest of this post redundant, but I was reminded of this exchange as I read Jonah Lehrer’s new book “Imagine” on the train this morning. It hasn’t had glowing reviews everywhere, as you’ll find, but what I like about the book is the way in which Lehrer accepts that it is all parts of the brain that are required for the end-to-end creative process. He examines evidence from a number of sources on how creativity works. One piece in particular caught my eye.

Marcus Raichle is a neurologist at Washington University. He had been studying visual perception using an MRI scanner to track the brain’s activity as participants were asked to count a collection of dots. This was done using an MRI scanner, a fairly dull task, and in between exercises the participants had nothing to do. However, the machine continued to scan the brain activity. What Raichle noticed – by complete chance – was the brain activity between tasks. When they had nothing to do, when the brain was supposedly not in use, there was a surge in activity. Put simply, the brain was daydreaming. It was imagining. It was making the most of the quiet period to go bonkers.

The distractions of life that we surround ourselves with are never good for our creativity. A client recently sent me this clip of John Cleese talking about the need to find time and space to be creative. He talks about the fact that it is when he walks away from a problem, or when he sleeps on it, that the creative juices start to flow again. He’s tapping into the simple human truth, that the relaxed state enables the right hand side of the brain to start having insights.

The question for us involved in creating the right conditions for people in workplaces is how far we go in creating procedures and policies that enable the left hand side of the brain and the right hand side of the brain to flourish? Much has been made of 3M and Google’s policy towards giving employees a percentage of time to think and innovate. Can we go further and see flexible working policies as more than a work/life balance issue that too often gets pigeon-holed as a soft people policy and instead see this as a productivity issue?

Of course you could go too far with you right brain thinking policies. I was recently made aware of the Quietest Place on Earth. A room where every sound is absorbed; where sound can be equated to that heard (or not heard) in space. Nobody lasts in there too long. The world record is 45 minutes. Gradually, the absence of sound drives you mad. Every internal sound is amplified – heart beat, inner ear etc. You start to hallucinate. In short, the right brain insight drives you crackers. With no distraction, your imagination drives you mad.

So are smart phones the exact opposite of the quietest place on earth. Are they consuming the left brain of many a teenager’s life so much so that the right brain has no time to think. And what does this mean for future creative generations. I think I need a quiet place to think through what this means. Straight after I’ve texted the kids to see where they are – and we do that a lot.

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