Review: Your Creative Brain, by Dr Shelley Carson

For some light reading, I recently read Neuroscience of Creativity (that sounds like a joke. Honestly, I found it relaxing). It was an enlightening read, covering the latest thinking (as of 2013) around how creativity happens, at a mechanical level. There are sections dedicated to neurophysiology, genetics, neurochemistry and more, all in relation to the creative process.

It’s a great read. I never even considered questions like how to measure creativity in animals before this.

But it has a problem. This problem is caused by it being a collection of scientific papers.

The book is completely useless.

Well, that’s not fair. It’s excellent at what it sets out to be: theory and research. What it fails at is as a practical guide. You learn a lot about how neurotransmitters control creative thought, great. But what does that mean? What strategies can you use for optimising these chemicals? The closest thing to practical advice is a study investigating whether improved working memory enhances creativity. Working memory can be developed through training, so this is promising. But their experiments found no improvement after extensive training.

That’s unfortunate for everyone except theorists. Because, rightly or wrongly, the whole make-your-brain-better genre has a bad reputation. There are many dubious claims, a lot of lacklustre science. The best science isn’t useful while the best guides aren’t accurate.

At least, that’s what I thought. I was happy to be proven wrong.

Dr Shelley Carson’s Your Creative Brain is gorgeous mix of theory and practice. Each chapter talks about the science of your brain and how it relates to thinking. Most impressively, each chapter includes exercises for improving creativity.

Firstly, I should mention the author’s credentials. Dr Carson has a PhD in Psychology from Harvard University. Her research has included creativity, which is a plus. And she has worked as a senior consultant for the Department of Defense – in other words, putting theory into practice.

She also wrote a book. Hence this review.

I briefly mentioned Carson’s CREATES model in one of my podcasts. With it, she classifies creative thought into seven skills (or “brainsets”). You can take a quick test to see where you’re strengths lie.

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Should you read it?

If you are a creative person, absolutely. There are two sides to this book. The first is gaining insight into your creative style, seeing its strengths and limitations. The other side is seeing other, valuable ways of thinking. In both cases, you’ll find exercises for accessing and developing these brainsets.

That’s incredibly valuable. To sweeten the deal, there are also exercises in developing the ultimate creative skill: rapidly switching between these brainsets.

Neuroscience is an evolving field. The CREATES model is wrong. But it is useful.

If you are not a creative person… well, you just broke my heart. You are a creative person, I promise. And if you learn the brainsets, you will see how wonderfully creative you are.

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The theory presented is simple. Arguably, that’s a strength – in something as complex as neuroscience, what do we know for sure? Well, we know about the gross structure of the brain and what different bits do. We know how brainwaves change if we’re concentrating versus zoned out. We know that certain chemicals regulate or enhance certain mental functions.

Dr Carson probably knows a lot more about the brain than this. But using these principles, she outlines how creativity works. Not just as a vague, overarching discipline, but how a rationally creative brainset differs from an evaluating one. It’s a simple, accessible, powerful view of your brain in action.

This makes it interesting. The exercises make it useful. With nothing more than a pencil and stopwatch, your brain shifts into strange ways of thinking. It helps you understand how others think, while rounding out your own thinking style.

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If you feel like your mind is in a rut, you should try thinking in different styles. Before that, read my posts on creativity.

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