Ever get stuck in a rut? Ever feel like your creativity has stalled? You’ve made excellent progress but now, everything has run dry. A small, insignificant problem has derailed your efforts and you can’t think around it. You try, but you keep thinking the same thoughts. You can’t see the problem with fresh eyes. And it’s killing you.
Have you ever felt like that? I think every creative person has, at one point or another. There are ways around it. I can share with you how to think with a fresh perspective. But you don’t have to keep reading. Be warned: some of these tricks are dangerous. Because they are powerful and risky, you don’t have to continue. They push your mind into new places but this comes at a price. Use them at your own risk.
But before we get into it, have you ever noticed how many creative people are alcoholics?
I’m sure you’ve noticed. Writers, especially, have a fondness for alcohol. If you don’t believe me, there are plenty of anecdotes to back it up. Okay, fine, have some data. One estimate I found recently put alcoholism at 26% among creative people. Compare this with 7% for drug addiction (all kinds) in the broader population. (Encyclopedia of Creativity: Alcohol and Creativity, Pritzker, 1999).
Okay, but that’s a correlation. Does creativity cause alcoholism, or does drug abuse cause creativity?
Evidence that creativity causes alcoholism: creative people are more likely to have relatives with mental illness (eg, schizophrenia, bipolar) than the base population. If the circuitry in the brain that causes creativity can also cause mental illness, drugs could be a way of self-medicating the worse parts of the experience.
Who knows. That sounds plausible. There’s probably some truth to that. But drug use can, in some ways, boost creativity.
It shouldn’t surprise you that drug use makes your brain see things differently. It alters your thought processes. It can disable your critical factor – that part of you which is saying ‘no’ to everything – which can create a flow state. A flow state with different thinking patterns is a powerful creative combination.
The stereotype of the drug-addled artist exists because of this dark creative technique. If creative people simply needed a boost, they’d be renowned cocaine abusers. Instead, we have alcohol and (especially) marijuana correlated with creativity. People that neglect their creativity don’t appreciate the difficulty of getting out of a rut. The drug abuse seems to them like a pointless act of rebellion, getting in with the cool crowd. Me? I know how rough a rut can feel.
But say you don’t want to go down that path. There are legal, financial, physical and social costs to casual drug use. Not to mention the impact it can have on your energy, focus and even creativity. What if you want a different option?
The good news is there are better options on the table. The bad news is that ‘better’ still means ‘bad’.
Like most subjects in neuroscience, the effects of fatigue on the brain are not well understood. My (out of date and incomplete) understanding is that when neurons fire, they release toxins. These toxins inhibit neural pathways. Over time, they build up, which slows down the brain. When we sleep, our brain is able to remove these toxins.
This probably isn’t accurate, but something like this happens when we are tired. Familiar neural pathways became sluggish. Our brain slows down and has to work harder just to think. That’s what it feels like, at least.
In a dynamic network like the internet, if one link between two devices slows down, the network routes traffic around the problem area. The brain is a dynamic network – wouldn’t it do something similar?
Don’t get insomnia. But if you do have a rough night, pay attention to your thoughts the next day. Your thoughts will be different because your brain can’t rely on the usual patterns. The usual patterns are worn out and haven’t recovered yet. So you have to think different thoughts.
While this is the goal, it’s not a great way of achieving it. Sleepiness can make you slow and irritable. It hurts your memory, a key part of creativity. Most of your thoughts in this state will be terrible. But they will be new. Sometimes that’s enough.
I had a terrible night’s sleep earlier in the week. The cat decided that the middle of the night was the perfect time to play. After politely informing her otherwise, I couldn’t get back to sleep. The next day, amid a blurry mental fog, the solution to a problem came to me. This problem had been holding back a project of mine. I couldn’t think around it – the same four or five solutions kept coming to mind. Until, in a sleep-deprived state, my brain couldn’t think those thoughts any more. It had to think something new.
There are better ways of reaching this state – unless your schedule is your own, in which case you can simply nap later. A better approach is to make yourself tired. Wear your brain down thinking of the problem. Then exercise, hard. Walk until your feet bleed. Lift heavy things then put them down. Run. Keep your fluids up and eat right.
Then, when you feel wrecked, think through the problem again. Let your mind follow whatever path is (now) easiest. Don’t force it, as forcing it will put you back on familiar ground.
Obviously, there are risks to pushing yourself this hard. Don’t take medical advice from creativity bloggers. But this is the best way to achieve a mental state that is fascinating. Seriously. Pay close attention to your mind. You’ll find it now works in new and mysterious ways.
Oh, and write down your ideas. They will be hard to retrieve once you’re rested.
Image source: Ettore Bechis – https://www.flickr.com/photos/tatuaggi/22883762469