Creativity and Relaxing

Redwood forest waterfallWe have to occupy the conscious mind so that we can access the subconscious. It’s like throwing a dog a bone so we can rob the house. – Ezra Pound

I have long advocated to my clients for writing and creativity coaching clients that when they feel stuck with any kind of problem after trying to figure it out with the rational, linear mind, whether it’s dialogue for a character in their novel, a design for their garden or an issue at work, to stop and get up and do something else. Go for a walk, lay down for a nap, do the dishes or go for a drive. Something that occupies the conscious mind so that your subconscious has a chance to bubble up to the surface with the solution.

So I am fascinated by the new neuroscience that supports what I have found to be true from my own experience. A psychologist looking at why interrupting our focus can be so helpful in allowing for the flash of insight that brings the solution to our problem used an Electroencephalography (EEG), which measures the electrical activity of the brain, and noticed that before someone was able to solve an insight puzzle there was a steady stream of alpha waves coming from the right hemisphere of the brain.

Alpha waves are associated with a relaxed state of mind. That’s why when we’ve been working on a problem for a while answers so often pop into our mind while we are taking a warm shower. The study also found that people with an absence of alpha wave activity were not able to solve any of the insight puzzles.

It’s also been shown that people in a happy, positive frame of mind were 25% more likely to experience a flash of insight than people who were feeling angry or upset.

Research shows that by focusing we actually inhibit the creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. When we keep focusing outside ourselves trying to solve a problem we actually inhibit the flow of alpha waves and our brain’s ability to make the connections that lead to the insight. Also unless we quiet our minds we can’t hear the answer that has been quietly trying to rise to the surface. Our mind chatter masks our ability to tap our deeper ways of knowing.

This is why innovative companies like Google allow employees to spend 15% of the day pursuing new ideas through free time where they do whatever they want. It’s a policy that’s been shown to work in the creation of new ideas and products.

While the insight seems to come out of nowhere research shows that he brain is actually laying the groundwork beforehand. This fits my own awareness of the creative process where I’ve noticed if you give your mind a problem to solve it will work on it 24/7 without your necessarily being aware of it until the resolution pops into your mind. Neuroscience has found that 30 milliseconds before the flash of insight there is a burst of gamma rhythm in the brain. It’s believe gamma rhythm comes from cells distributed across the cortex pull themselves together into the new network that is able to bring the insight to consciousness.

So while spending time focusing on the problem and developing the skill and knowledge in your field is important understanding how the subconscious plays a critical role in creative problem solving supports us in relaxing and playing in the middle of creating.

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