Secrets of the Creative Brain
In this week’s “Writing Wednesdays” post (“The Artist’s Journey, #10“), Steve discussed the two worlds in which artists reside, and how artists break through from one world to the other to access ideas and inspiration. But . . .
How does that happen?
Why does it happen?
AND, why can’t we make it happen on demand?
When I’m sitting in front of my computer, desperately trying to deep six Writer’s Block, why can’t I flip a mental switch to obliterate the bastard?
Why, instead, do ideas emerge when I’m teetering between the moon and the sun, when I’m taking a long shower, or driving along a stretch of highway, generally just zoning out?
Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D, has some answers. In her work as a neuroscientist and psychiatrist she has spent decades researching creativity and working with leading artists and scientists, to include Kurt Vonnegut, George Lucas, Jane Smiley, and William Thurston.
In an article she wrote for The Atlantic a few years ago, titled “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” you’ll find:
“When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.”
This would be an argument for studying and practicing—for “preparation and incubation.”
For example, Steve was reading the Bhagavad Gita when The Legend of Bagger Vance came to him, but in order for him to have the idea of using “the structure of the Gita to write a story about golf” he had to know the Gita and golf. If you’ve read The Authentic Swing, you know Steve used to read the Bhagavad Gita on airplanes and that he started caddying when he was 11. By the time the idea for The Legend of Bagger Vance hit him, he had a few decades of “preparation and incubation” under his belt.
You’ll find the same with other writers.
Ray Bradbury wrote of his experiences with ideas:
“My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg—I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”
Ray started writing when he was 12. Decades of prep and incubation followed—as did Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and hundreds of other stories.
Nancy includes similar commentary in her article:
?This narrative is appealing—for example, “Newton developed the concept of gravity around 1666, when an apple fell on his head while he was meditating under an apple tree.” The truth is that by 1666, Newton had already spent many years teaching himself the mathematics of his time (Euclidean geometry, algebra, Cartesian coordinates) and inventing calculus so that he could measure planetary orbits and the area under a curve. He continued to work on his theory of gravity over the subsequent years, completing the effort only in 1687, when he published Philosophiœ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In other words, Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration—a version of the eureka experience—and production. Many forms of creativity, from writing a novel to discovering the structure of DNA, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process.?
Her comments are also an argument for resting the mind. As anyone reading this knows, Creativity has her own hours. She does not work on demand.
What Nancy found in her work is that the association regions of the brain are “wildly active” during the state of rest.
So when you’re frazzled and on deadline, and facing the Ivan Drago of Writer’s Block? The best route might be a drive, a long walk, a shower, or a few minutes reading your favorite book.
I hope you read Nancy’s full article yourself. When you do, you’ll find that much of it is actually about the connection between creativity and mental illness. This piece from Nancy was familiar to me and I’m betting it is familiar to many of you:
“One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”
When you’re working in a field that those around your don’t understand—or running down a dream that no one supports—it can be painful. Anxiety can be found driving the train instead of lounging in the dining car.
While we can’t speed dial Creativity, if we do our work and rest our minds there’s a chance that Creativity might just show up uninvited more often than not.
Will you be ready when she arrives?