Are creative brains different from other brains? Do creative people look at the world differently? Can you train yourself to be more creative?
In a word: yes.
First, I would like to argue that creativity is made up of four elements: imagination, empathy, flow, and technique.
The first aspect that I see as part of creativity is imagination, a basic aspect of the human brain that we don’t think is shared by other animals. Imagining things that might happen in the future or remembering things that happened in the past are major aspects of what makes us human; imagining the experience of another person and attempting to convey that experience is what makes us artists.
Imagination leads to empathy. Studies have shown that readers are more empathetic; they live the lives of many people and understand that other people experience the world differently than they do. It stands to reason that the writer who dives into the mental processes of characters gains the same understanding. Writers and other artists imagine being in the skin of another person to convey that experience; how much a writer should or does diverge from their own racial or gendered experience is the subject of much debate.
Flow is the unencumbered, timeless experience of immersion into your craft. “Flow” was defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a specific state where you lose track of time and become totally absorbed in what you are doing. When you allow your “inner critic” to fall away and you dive into the experience of telling a story, a flow state can result. The flow state has been correlated with exceptional performance in creativity in science and the arts, as well as in the fields of teaching, learning, and sports achievement. There are several factors that can help bring about a state of flow, including, among other things, appropriate levels of challenge and skill, which brings us to the fourth aspect of creativity, technique. Arguably, art is inherently challenging; as the artist’s skill increases, the complexity of their art can also increase.The flow state is difficult to enter when there is a struggle with technique; one of the ways in which artists can begin to willfully enter the flow state is to master techniques specific to their field in order to expand their repertoire of expression. Technique applies rules to structure our imaginative wanderings, and the mastering of techniques can open the floodgates, so to speak, and help to get rid of writer’s block.
What does all of this have to do with the brain?
When you are being creative, you are creating connections between things that weren’t necessarily connected before. The same thing happens in your brain when you learn something new. The process of being creative and making unexpected connections leads to neural pathways in the brain that get “used” to making unconventional connections. The process feeds on itself; the more creative you are on a regular basis, the easier it will be to be creative and get rid of “writer’s block” or any other creative block you might be experiencing. Also, persisting in an activity to the point of mastery and allowing for a flow state experience helps to lower anxiety and raise self-esteem; natural side effects of mastering a skill.
Neuroplasticity, or the idea that the brain is “plastic” and changeable, is a popular topic in the field of mindfulness at the moment. The application of neuroplasticity is that we can modify our very thoughts by introducing new habitual thought patterns. Terrified of a blank screen? Because of the plastic nature of the brain, with time and effort you can learn a new thought pattern that helps get you over that blank-screen hump to type furiously away for hours a day.
The idea that we can train ourselves to create is not particularly romantic. But Thomas Edison did say that genius was only 1% inspiration; the other 99% is perspiration. Clinging to the idea that you have to be inspired all the time in order to create sets you up for disappointment. Instead, understanding that working every day, in every condition, sets you up to be able to be creative every day in every condition.
So where do you go from here? I’ve included some tips on training yourself to create and be creative:
Set yourself up for success with small goals.
Want to write every day? Set up a specific time that you can cordon off on a daily basis and set yourself a word goal. Start low and slow – maybe 200 words a day. Give yourself a regular schedule and consistent successes to start in order to begin to change your neural pathways.
Integrate physical activity into your day.
Moving boosts your creativity, so make sure you get your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes per day. Yoga, running, going to the gym – whatever makes you feel good and works in your schedule.
You know how the best story ideas come to you just before you fall asleep? That’s because your barriers are down; brainstorm your way through writer’s block by putting yourself in a relaxed state without falling asleep. Try sitting comfortably, closing your eyes, and counting 50 breaths, then focus on your story and where it could go.
Do you have more tips for other readers? Add them in the comments below!