I’m going to take a look at the science of creativity, so my personal challenge while writing this is to address the subject without using any terms that sound Zen.
Ancient Greek motifs often depict Apollo, the god of reason and rationality, holding the hand of Dionysius, the god of impulse, chaos and intoxication. According to the Greeks, these two seemingly contradictory gods were interlinked by nature, and were both required for the proper functioning of the world. This dichotomous relationship between reason and instinct, the rational and the irrational, is at the heart of writing, which demands both creativity and technique.
Technique can be learned and continuously improved, but what of Dionysian creativity, the seemingly inherent ability to generate ideas from the ether? There’s a long-standing tradition of regarding creativity as some form of magic, believing that great ideas spring unbidden from some deep recess of the mind, and that some people are gifted with particularly powerful nooks that give them a superhuman ability to create.
Modern neuroscientific research suggests that the historic view of creativity is bunkum. In his review Glimpsing the Neuroscience of Creativity, Theron Fairchild of Kanagawa University, Japan, uses science to debunk many of the popular myths surrounding creativity. There is no right-brain dominance; ideas do not spring by magic from some strange creation factory in the brain; creativity and mental illness are not correlated; and the creative process is not an inherent good.
Instead, it seems that creativity is an evolutionary development, and, like intelligence, is a necessary function of the brain and an essential part of problem solving, which has been key to our survival as a species. Our ability to conjure ideas out of thin air may have less to do with magic and more to do with figuring out how to catch a woolly mammoth. And the endorphin rush we feel when we’ve created something may be the legacy of a time when problem solving needed to be encouraged with a physiological reward.
According to Fairchild, ‘Even more than cognition and intelligence, creativity appears to involve such a vast interplay of brain structures, states, and neural activity, that describing it as anything short of terribly complex would be a gross understatement.’
Rather than being rooted in a single, mysterious centre, creativity calls upon much more of our brain than other mental activities, and requires the complex interaction of concentration, memory, judgment, and abstract thought.
Creativity may have developed its magical reputation thanks to its complexity and difficulty. A defect of memory, judgment or concentration can impair the process, and with the plethora of things that can distract or unsettle us, it’s no wonder that society has come to regard creativity with a degree of awe.
If there are myriad ways to derail the creative process, is there anything we can do to stimulate it? Firstly, we should discard any fear of failure. In their paper All Negative Moods Are Not Equal, Rajagopal Raghunathan and Michel Tuan Pham, demonstrate that fear and anxiety result in cautious, low-risk decisions, and such thinking is the antithesis of creativity. Fear skews our judgment and stifles our ability to think in the abstract. And if you want to ignore the science and rely on anecdote, I know from experience that fearful employees in organisations under threat of cost-cutting or restructuring are far less likely to come up with creative solutions to problems than those in healthy companies.
Countless writers and artists have turned to drink or drugs to help the creative process. Patricia Highsmith once wrote that drink was essential for the artist because it made her ‘see the truth, the simplicity, and the primitive emotions once more’. Highsmith was not alone; Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Faulkner are just some of the long list of writers who were partial to a few drinks.
There appears to be some truth to Highsmith’s sentiment, and a 1989 study by Ehlers, Wall, and Shuckit seems to confirm that moderate alcohol consumption can increase creativity. However, there is a price to be paid for the increase, as Koski-Jannes discovered in a 1983 study into the effect of alcohol on the ability of young men to problem solve. Entitled To Drink And/Or Create? Koski-Jannes’s research showed that although the subjects became more creative and generated more ideas, the quality deteriorated in relation to the volume of alcohol consumed until the ideas were judged inadequate. So, booze may get the ideas flowing, but they might not be any good. Or to put it in terms writers will appreciate, one might want to write drunk and edit sober.
In The Neuroscience of Imagination, Christopher Bergland explains that aerobic exercise increases the coherence of alpha waves in the brain. Increased alpha wave synchrony has been demonstrated to reliably indicate that the brain is in a creative state. In addition to exercise, there is growing evidence that meditation may improve creativity and recent research carried out at Brown University showed that people can use meditation to manipulate their alpha rhythms. Exercise and meditation come without the drawbacks of alcohol, so instead of reaching for the bottle, writers might be better served by a brisk walk, or half-an-hour’s peaceful contemplation.
Exercise and meditation may also help with another important aspect of creativity; inattention. In order to concentrate on the generation of an idea, the brain needs to switch off to external stimuli. This appears to occur naturally; increased alpha wave synchrony is associated with deep concentration, and the inhibition of action, meaning the body is less prepared to react to external stimuli when the brain is being creative. Aerobic exercise will often physically remove us from distractions, while meditation absents our mind. Without inattention, the complex interaction of different mental processes required for creativity simply won’t happen.
So, if you want to be more creative, once you’ve dispensed with fear, a good next step would be to master the art of inattention. Or in layman’s terms, be nothing and think emptiness. That sounds pretty Zen, so I’ve failed the personal challenge I set myself. But that’s okay; I wouldn’t be a writer if I was afraid of failure.
Original Article can be found here