Thursday, January 13, 2011

Creativity and the Brain

As a creative person, in both job title and nature, I've always been acutely aware of the fact that creation takes time, and it takes focus. While many want to believe that you can simply toss a concept out to a creative person and have them instantaneously volley back brilliance, it just isn't true.

It also isn't true that creativity thrives in the middle of absolute chaos and disorder. While the layman might not recognize it, there is order and organization to everything we do. It just doesn't look like the kind of order most people are used to.

Creativity requires a delicate recipe that consists of everything from sleep and memory to nutrition and emotion.

In his book "Brain Rules," John Medina reveals some very important things that scientists KNOW and have PROVEN about how our brains actually FUNCTION. One of them is that multitasking is a myth. Our brains simply cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. When we try, we lose productivity every time we switch from one thing to the next.

We seem to be so tethered to the technology and information in our lives, that we cannot - or do not - disconnect and allow ourselves the time and freedom to imagine, consider and ponder. All essential elements of being creative, to be sure.

"What separates the great innovator from the mere data gatherer is the ability to stop gathering data and think about what has been gathered. Alexander Fleming thought long enough about what John Tyndall had observed fifty years before to help others make penicillin out of it. To recombine elements of your experience — the data — into new forms is the act that makes the difference. The surgeon who develops a new procedure, the chemist who synthesizes a new molecule, the football coach who develops a new play — all these people stop to think and play with what they have." - Edward Hallowell ("Crazy Busy")

A great many of us schedule or attend hours-long brainstorm meetings in which we hope to assemble great ideas. We might even block out a half an hour to write them up later that day. But are we taking the time to turn off our iPhones, walk away from Twitter, and close our laptops to focus solely on the issue at hand? Or do we search for more information online, then check in on Fourquare, send a text, gamesnack, and give only abbreviated moments of time to what we are trying to create?

Are we untethering ourselves long enough to allow the flow of creativity to even begin, much less fully develop?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention," spoke at a conference I attended a few years ago, and he said that when your eyes really focus on something, they lose peripheral vision. It explains why when you are deep into a book or an article, you can be easily startled by someone walking up. Your eyes didn't see them.

The human brain represses some information (periphery) to allow for greater connection to other information. You can better read, synthesize and understand what you are reading when the brain blocks out the unneeded information on your surroundings. In this same way, creativity occurs when we focus and lose sight of the meaningless information around us.

Years ago, before iPhone, before Facebook, before FronterVille.... we used to close ourselves up in a room, or head out to a bar or coffee shop and simply sit, talk and think. Alone or with others, our focus was on a blank piece of paper. A canvas waiting to be filled. The periphery was muted and didn't exist because we could focus.

Even as I sit here writing this, my iPhone flashes with a text; my MacBook dings with a message. The pull of technology drags me away from writing this post.... which makes me laugh when I realize I am perhaps one of the worst examples of this. And I think many of us further fool ourselves into believing that these interruptions and technological sidebars make us MORE creative.

My resolution for the new year is to disconnect when I need to. Not that I am going to give up my Frontier, or my high score on Angry Birds. Not that I will stop trying to regain the Mayorship of my local coffee shop. Rather that I will allow the proper time and place for my techsnacking, to leave the much needed chasm where my creativity can flow.