We’re all about practice, so I’ve spent the past few (very busy) weeks playing with the ideas in my last post:  that in the creative process, distractibility might be more valuable than concentrated focus.

Since I’ve sometimes tended to see my own darting mind as a bit of a shameful liability, I thought I’d just let it go where it wanted and observe the results. What if these studies are correct, and the capacity for being distracted is a bit of a gift, rather than a shortcoming?

[At this point, unsure where to go next,  I stopped and checked my email.  Back again!]

I’ve noticed that shifting to another activity for a brief time seems to operate as a kind of mental “refresh” button.  I don’t know if the distraction makes some obscure connection or shifts thinking to another part of the brain, but here I am, working at a good clip.  My writing process seems to alternate between focused concentration and distracted poking about.  Sometimes the oscillation is rapid; sometimes I’ll focus for ten or fifteen minutes at a time before skittering off.

[Listening to the birds outside.  Noticing a bill I have to pay tomorrow.  Going off to check an email that just came in.  Be right back.]

All right, I’ll stop trying to be James Joyce here.  But after my experiments of the last couple of weeks, it’s clear to me that the distractibility that my teachers found frustrating is a good friend to my own creative process.

New solutions come from new connections, and too much concentration at the wrong time can block our view of those unexpected relationships between seemingly random ideas.  What if Newton had been too busy with calculation to notice that mythic apple’s fall?  Or if Archimedes (the Greek, not the owl this time) had been too busy working on the problem of the king’s crown to bother taking a bath?

My advice:  forget trying to be a good little pupil.  Rush over to the window of your mind and see what’s going on in the schoolyard.  Let’s show some gratitude for the ideas that float around us, unnoticed.  And notice a few of them.




More from Jonah Lehrer’s ImagineHe’s describing a study by neuroscientists at Harvard and the University of Toronto:

…the ability to ignore outside stimuli…is typically seen as an essential component of productivity….[Those test subjects] who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments.  (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)  According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness.

The distractible subjects took in more information and had a less rigid view of what might be relevant to the task at hand.  They were more open to unexpected relationships between concepts — the essence of creativity.

I’m glad to hear this, because I’ve noticed that my own mind seems to be more — what’s that sound?  Oh, sorry. — distractible than it used to be.  (Or perhaps I’m just noticing it more.)  In any case, my irritating inability to focus when a radio’s on in the background might actually be a fount of creativity.

What was I saying?

I’m so excited about reading Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine:  How Creativity Works (my favorite science writer on my favorite topic) that I plan to post a series of short pieces on ideas I glean from it.

Let’s start with a quote:

Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next. When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve.  Because such failures contradict the romantic version of events — there is nothing triumphant about a false start — we forget all about them….

The danger of telling this narrative is that the feeling of frustration — the act of being stumped — is an essential part of the creative process.

Lehrer goes on to make a convincing case that the very feeling of getting nowhere is a signal to the brain to try another mode of problem-solving:  the underground, barely sensed, beautifully powerful process of insight.

The brain shifts away from the analytical, left-hemisphere mode that we’re taught is the proper way to approach a problem.  The solving moves to the holistic, big-picture right hemisphere.  The anterior superior temporal gyrus, just over the right ear, becomes active; its specialty seems to be making unusual connections.  A burst of gamma waves, a sudden sense of illumination, and aha!  The answer arrives.

That’s probably my favorite moment in life.  The solution seems obvious — a given, in more ways than one.  We don’t have the sense of “I thought that up”; it more like something was handed to us, unearned.  Perhaps that’s why we’re a little suspicious of our own creativity:  we’re taught that hard work is the only respectable way to achieve.

And Lehrer makes the point that hard work is definitely part of the full creative process — more on that in later posts.

But let’s never discount the beautiful way our creativity transforms frustration into solutions.  And let’s honor the sense of hitting a brick wall.  It’s cuing the brain to try a better way.