We marvel at how well-known artists, writers, and musicians can generate new works of art, books, and songs. Somehow, they emerged from anonymity, cultivating a process that balances skillful creativity with letting go of one project and moving on to another. Jazz musicians call their seemingly rehearsed improvisational ensemble the flow. Artists, writers, poets, and sculptors also harness the flow when they create their works. Sometimes, the results of the flow can lead to unimaginable productivity. How did horror fiction writer Stephen King generate 62 books and 200 short stories?
The creative flow is not something reserved for a select few. It is a natural state of imagination that all of us can harness. It all starts with the power of belief. What are the origins of creativity in the brain? How can we shift from a quiet mode to a state of flow that allows the unhindered expression of imagination?
The Brain’s Default Mode
Inventiveness, commitment, and perseverance are all the products of the propagative brain. However, it requires a transition from what the brain considers safe, efficient, and predictable to one that gives the brain a context to process, learn, and produce – allowing someone to embrace the unknown.
The brain makes up 2% of the body’s weight but calls upon 20% of the oxygen demands and 25% of all glucose. The brain produces sensory, motor, and observational skills that maximize adaptation and survival in the environment in which it develops. Studies have shown how the brain uses prediction to prepare a person for a potential stimulus. While it may not be the most efficient or healthiest response, the brain draws upon the past when assessing the present. Neuroscientist Dr. Marcus Raichle referred to this baseline control system as the default mode of brain function (2001).
In the default mode, a person applies a set of behaviors and coping strategies to an unknown stimulus. It is a subconscious process. Adaptive stress behaviors build up, calling on neurotransmitters such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. When the brain perceives a threat in the environment, it activates the autonomic nervous system, the flight-or-flight response, simultaneously calling upon memories and producing neurotransmitters and hormones to prepare the body for action. Here is an article on the autonomic nervous system and mindfulness strategies. The changes that occur in the body are physical, including the emotions that emerge.
The brain seeks to resolve a potential threat by directly facing it or avoiding it. Coping strategies offer a way for the brain to resolve any stress before it worsens the degree of internal inflammation. Some coping strategies are more effective than others. Less productive methods, like alcohol, smoking, drug use, anger, and internalization, may increase our risk of developing chronic illnesses. Researchers have hypothesized that suppressing or entrapping the fight-and-flight response can be a risk factor for depression.
If we prevent a coping strategy without developing others, and the usual stimulus-response cycle is interrupted, neurons attempt to fill in the gaps, often moving to the next best thing. The literature tells us that some people who can no longer find satisfaction through eating after gastric bypass surgery may develop gambling behaviors, hypersexuality, or alcohol dependence – supporting the theory known as addiction transfer.
What cannot be harnessed as kinetic energy transfers internally and potentially causes harm. It is as if the brain searches for something that fulfills the urge to feel more pleasure (or avoid pain), resolve boredom, level unsettled thoughts, or reduce the built-up tension. Reward deficiency syndrome is an impairment in the brain’s neurocircuitry relating to dopamine pathways. It is the basis of addictive behavior.
Motivation can help us propel forward despite the pain of change. And it is the foundation of creativity.
Creativity and Intelligence: Moving Past the Safe Mode
Motivation: there is a Goldilocks way that the brain moves someone from an idle state to engage in a new behavior. Too much or too little stress equate to forms of destabilization. The brain sifts through memories of events arriving at a reactive approach to the matters at hand. In one way, the brain blurs the present into something that has already happened. Instead, creative flow allows us to interact with the clay of the now waiting to be sculpted.
The brain hones the ability of cognitive shortcuts, or heuristics, to accurately predict a process. If the brain is well-prepared for specific scenarios through knowledge or experience, it may best anticipate the environment. This readiness forms the basis of intelligence. Neuroscientists believe intelligence equates to the brain’s ability to function most efficiently (the neural efficiency hypothesis).
The psychologist Howard Gardner wrote his theory of Multiple Intelligences, which describes intelligence as the more optimal functioning of eight domains: linguistic (words), logical-mathematical (numbers/reasoning), spatial (“picture smart”), bodily-kinesthetic (“body smart”), musical, interpersonal (“people smart”), intrapersonal (“self smart”), and naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”). As individuals, we can harness our intelligence to develop unique creations.
Creativity requires breaking the inertia, as the brain seeks to occupy time with less challenging things such as social media, streaming movies, and other forms of “vegging out.” The vital part of inducing creative flow is that the brain perceives the “hurdle of doing” as a motivator, not a stressor.
A stress reaction stifles creative flow. Studies have shown that the release of cortisone inhibits new neural connections or neuroplasticity. For creativity to flourish, we must approach uncertainty with resilience and curiosity. I like to refer to this as the propagative mind. Mindfulness practices can get us there.
The Ingredients to Creativity: Thought, (Enough) Boredom, and the Hands
Just like jumping takes one to the limits of gravity, so too does the brain leverage the tools of our thoughts for creativity, including memory, intuition, and imagination to forge an unknown present against the force of inertia. It is a present that has infinite options – lines, shapes, words, movements, and structure. Yet the coordination requires calibration and planning for imagination to manifest into a unique and skillful creation.
As the body sits idle, it wishes to continue to “connect the dots” to an activity that settles thoughts while blocking the discomfort of boredom. However, boredom also precedes creative flow. If you sit with it long enough, your thoughts energize into action. Your next work of art might just begin as a daydream. Just ask JK Rowlings about when she conceived of the world of Harry Potter.
The final ingredient of creativity is the direct tools of the hands. The hands are the bridge that merges thought with action. Homunculus images show a considerable amount of the brain’s motor and sensory mapping is dedicated to the hands. The wiring enables our hands to perform subtle and bold movements. We can even use our brain to move our body to make art without hands. Ann Adams, an American artist who, after developing polio at the age of 24, trained herself to use her mouth to draw and paint works of art. Humans use their dexterity to organize and arrange their thoughts into structure, whatever field they are in, artist, musician, writer, chef, or builder.
Creativity is a skill that can be developed. It requires a calm motivation to free it. Stress can block it. To harness the force of imagination and reveal it through perspicacity and individuality is to truly be human. All humans have the raw materials to create a particular experience – transforming their memories and genome into a work of art, writing, or movement – an opus as unique as each individual.
Suggestions to Unlock Creative Flow
- Schedule Peaceful Time Preferably after Exercise
- Sit and Allow Time for the Flow to Develop
- Pen to Paper without Filtering the Flow
- Enjoy the Process
Christopher Cirino, DO, MPH
Becoming Tomorrow’s Doctor is scheduled for publication on March 31, 2022. The website was created to highlight topics that current and future doctors will need to consider in their practice.
View all posts by Christopher Cirino, DO, MPH