Years ago, we were taught that three neurotransmitters did all of the work in the brain (hundreds are identified now) and that we were born with all of the neurons we’d ever have — not true. We were also told things like “You only use 10% of your brain’s capacity in your lifetime” (false again, we use all we’ve got).
Over the years, we’ve come to a far more complex understanding of all of this neurology stuff.
- Creative thoughts arise from the connection of two previously unconnected thoughts.
- Being curious (attempting to receive more thoughts) fuels your brain’s ability to create.
- Particular kinds of learning increase the connections between neurons. (A connection is called a synapse)
- Choosing to exercise will in thinking… i.e. choosing to think certain thoughts and not think others, can actually grow new neurons.
Taken together, these tidbits connect in our brains to form a powerful conclusion: You can grow a more creative brain. And both the research and our anecdotal experience confirms this amazing opportunity.
Have you brushed your brain today?
Think about it. We all groom ourselves, clean ourselves, and take care of our bodies. But…What level of attention do we pay to brain hygiene? How much time do we spend each day in specific, focused exercise of our brain?
Not enough, in most cases.
From a creativity perspective, we want to do a number of things with the brain, falling into two categories:
- Make New Connections.
- Choose Thoughts That Serve Us.
Since many of our newsletters and blog posts recently have been about curiosity and making connections, we’ll focus here on choosing the thoughts that serve us.
Here’s an oversimplified, but accurate, way to get our meaning: If the gator brain, fear of newness, judgmentalism, defensiveness, and arrogance rule our thinking in any given moment, our creativity will be impeded significantly. In order to keep that from happening, we must first notice these thought patterns as they arise, then choose to exercise our will to find a more productive pattern. If we are unable or unwilling to do this, we put ourselves in danger of entering the zone of unclear thought.
At N&I, our term for that conscious exercise of will is Focused Concentration. Similar to, but not the same as, what most people think of when they think of meditation, focused concentration is about exercising the Will Muscle to turn from one thought to another. Turning from the thought that does not help in making creative connections to the types of thoughts that do. Repeatedly, against resistance, to create strength. You can read more about focused concentration in our newsletter, “How Stories Can Change the World” and in our book “More Lightning, Less Thunder: Energizing Innovative Teams”
The basics are pretty simple:
- Find something incredibly boring to focus your attention on.
- Because it is boring, your mind will wander.
- When you notice that your mind has wandered, exercise your “Will Muscle” by turning your attention back to the boring thing. Each time you do this is one “rep” in body building terms
- Repeat. Do not indulge yourself in the more interesting daydreams and thought excursions that show up. Come back to the focal point.
You can do this seated and listening to repetitive boring music, or boring yourself by trying to just notice air moving in and out of your nostrils. What you attempt to focus on doesn’t matter, so long as your mind wanders, you catch it, and return to your focal point. Success in focused concentration is defined by how frequently you exercise your will muscle and do a thought turn, not by how long you stay focused on the boring thing.
This kind of practice helps one defer judgment better, listen more effectively to others, manage unpleasant emotions, stay present in a brainstorm and be creative on demand. All of these skills are powerful in assisting the innovative brain to achieve its potential. The bonus is a more peaceful mental life.
The fascinating thing that we’re learning with new brain imaging systems like fMRI is that this type of activity grows new neural tissue precisely in the areas of our brain where we can make the novel connections that fuel our creativity. Cool.
The evidence of this is thunderous these days. As an example, a recent study conducted by the UCLA Laboratory of Neuroimaging and released in the Journal of Neuroimage demonstrated the increase in grey matter seen in meditators. Take your brain for a walk to an free overview of the article.