I want to ask you a favor. Yes, you, reader. I have a pair of pants. Tell me: how many different ways can I put a pair of pants to use?
Now, imagine you’re an architect. Same question.
Now, imagine you’re Cher. Bill Gates. A scuba diver. A medieval knight. You still have the pants. What can you come up with?
What you just practiced is an exercise called “psychological halloweenism.” This action refers to the conscious act of wearing another self, and according to psychiatrist Srini Pillay, it’s essential to being creative.
One great irony about our collective obsession with creativity is that we tend to frame it in uncreative ways. That is to say, most of us marry creativity to our concept of self: we’re either “creative” people or we aren’t, without much of a middle ground. I’m just not a creative person! a frustrated student might say in art class, while a another might blame her talent at painting for her difficulties in math: I’m very right-brained.
Pillay, a tech entrepreneur and Harvard professor, has spent a good chunk of his career subverting these ideas. Pillay believes that the key to unlocking your creative potential is to defy the clichéd advice (go figure!) that urges you to “believe in yourself.” In fact, you should do the exact opposite: believe you are someone else.
In a recent column for Harvard Business Review, Pillay pointed to a 2016 study demonstrating the “stereotype effect,” or the impact of stereotypes on one’s behavior. The authors, education psychologists Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar, divided their college-student subjects into three categories, instructing the members of one group to think of themselves as “eccentric poets” and the members of another to imagine they were “rigid librarians” (people in the third category, the control group, were left alone for this part). The researchers then presented participants with ten ordinary objects, including a fork, a carrot, and a pair of pants, and asked them to come up with as many different uses as possible for each one. Those who were asked to imagine themselves as “eccentric poets” came up with the widest range of ideas for the objects, whereas those in the “rigid librarian” group had the fewest. Meanwhile, the researchers found only small differences in students’ creativity levels across academic majors — in fact, the physics majors inhabiting the personas of “eccentric poets” came up with more ideas than the art majors did.
These results, write Dumas and Dunbar, suggest that creativity is not an individual trait, but a “malleable product of context and perspective.” Everyone can be creative, as long as they feel like creative people (thus, the talented painter from the example above reinforces her creativity by aligning her self-concept with it).
Pillay’s work takes this a step further: He argues that identifying yourself with creativity is less powerful than the creative act of imagining you’re somebody else. This exercise, which he calls “psychological halloweenism,” refers to the conscious action of inhabiting another persona — an inner costuming of the self. An actor, for example, may employ psychological halloweenism as a matter of course, whereas a grown child caught in decades’ worth of family expectations may find it nearly impossible (which is perhaps why siblings tend to rehash the same dull arguments ad nauseam).
According to Pillay, psychological halloweenism works because it is an act of “conscious unfocus,” a way of positively stimulating the default mode network, a collection of brain regions that spring into action when you’re not focused on a specific task or thought. The default mode network may be quiet, but it’s hardly idle: It spends all day rummaging through our memories, collaging ideas together, and interpolating past, present and future into our sense of self and placement in time and space.
If creativity is truly context-dependent, it makes sense that Pillay feels a sense of urgency for his work — perhaps no environment is quite so hostile to creative thinking as that of the typical modern white-collar worker. Most of us spend way too much time worrying about two things: how successful/unsuccessful we are, and how little we’re focusing on the task at hand. The former feeds the latter — an unfocused person is an unsuccessful one, we believe. Thus, we force ourselves into quiet areas, buy noise-canceling headphones, berate ourselves for taking breaks.
What makes Pillay’s argument stand out is its healthy, forgiving realism: According to him, most people spend nearly half of their days in a state of “unfocus.” This doesn’t make us slackers — it makes us human. The quietly revolutionary idea behind psychological halloweenism is: What if we stopped judging ourselves for our mental down time, and instead started harnessing it? Putting this new spin on daydreaming means tackling two problems at once: You’re making yourself more creative, and you’re giving yourself permission to do something you’d otherwise feel guilty about. Imagining yourself in a new situation, or an entirely new identity, never felt so productive.