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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

Review: Presence, by Amy Cuddy

The mind-body connection is something that has always interested me. I find it fascinating that solely addressing psychological issues can, in some cases, treat physical conditions like chronic pain or digestion issues. That is only one example of how appreciating the mind-body connection – something that can seem almost mystical – can improve your life.

What’s interesting about this is that the connection runs both ways. What you do with your body also shapes your mind. It’s a simple truth that contains immense power.

Presence elaborates on this. It’s an engaging read, densely packed with the how and the why behind using your body to change your mental state.

Simply put: if you hold your body as if you are confident, you will feel confident. If you physically act as though you are scared, you will become scared. We know that the mind leads the body; the body also leads the mind.

The logic behind this is intuitive. I’m sure you can think of a time where forcing yourself to smile has made you happier, or when hunching your shoulders and trying to disappear has rendered you a nervous wreck. As Cuddy explains, these effects are more dramatic than you might realise – a few minutes with poor posture measurably changes your hormone levels (for the worse, of course).

This isn’t a philosophical discussion of the spiritual joys of yoga. Presence is quantifiable, repeatable science.

*

Should you read it?

The book is Cuddy’s famous TED Talk (which currently has almost ten million views), only in more depth. So you might be wondering: should I buy the book, or is watching the TED Talk good enough?

You should buy the book if:

  • you loved the talk and want to learn more,
  • you watched the TED Talk a while ago but haven’t been applying its lessons,
  • the science of body language fascinates you,
  • you are intrigued by the concept but not completely convinced,
  • you have unanswered questions, like how power poses work if you have a physical impairment,
  • you have ever suffered from imposter syndrome

On the other hand, if you enjoyed Cuddy’s TED Talk and use power poses often, you might find the book is simply more of the same.

*

What does Presence mean for creativity? Can you apply these lessons to your artistic endeavours?

Oh, yeah. Big time.

Creative thinking works best under finely tuned and often contradictory mental states. What those states are probably varies between people but some would be widely applicable. For example, you need to be energetic (to think up new ideas and power through the obstacles) without being hyperactive (to focus on the task).

You also need to be confident without being arrogant.

Everyone has something to offer the world. Everyone has things that they need to improve. It’s easy to forget these truisms. It’s even easier to grow discouraged. Setbacks are common and sometimes a bad review can get under our skins, despite our best efforts. Presence allows us to moderate these emotions, to hack our brains for fun and profit.

The lessons of Presence focus on getting you through the normal, everyday challenges – job interviews, public speaking, dealing with confrontation. The techniques work because the confidence boost allows you to be truer to yourself; when you are comfortable with what you are doing and who you are, you focus less on what other people think. You dedicate yourself more to the task at hand.

Is this relevant for creativity? You tell me.

Confidence isn’t a dirty word, nor is it something that ‘other people’ have. Literally embodying confidence might not make you feel more creative directly but it will help you persevere in the face of difficulties.