[[this is an excerpt from a little Kindle eBook I wrote, Make Better Art: Cultivating Your Creative Center in an Overstimulated Age]]
Changing our relationship with screens is the first step, but that alone is not enough. We must understand the deeply embedded cycle of stimulation addiction, and learn how to heal it.
The difficulty in changing our habits with smartphones and the internet is due to a neurochemical addiction. Every notification, message, or piece of new information gives us a short burst of dopamine, the chemical in the brain responsible for regulating reward and motivation.
Most of our actions are driven by the expectation of a neurochemical reward. Information (for evolutionary survival purposes — ‘will I die if I eat this plant?’), validation (for self-worth), connection (feeling part of the tribe) are just a few of the things we seek on a regular basis that result in a neurochemical reward. Ultimately, human beings are driven by reward — it is what guides our day-to-day behavior.
Novelty is one of the key driving factors that results in dopamine rewards in the brain. Throughout evolution, new information about the surrounding world has helped human beings survive, so we’ve developed a biological thirst for novelty. Learning new information in an environment could give us clues as to whether predators or prey were close by.
In 2017, most of the novel information we consume is nowhere near necessary to our survival, but our thirst has remained. This easy access to novel, seemingly important information has led us to consume all the novel information that we can in order to get that low-hanging reward.
The body uses dopamine to say ‘hey, novelty is good, do more of that.’
But when we take a step back and stop stuffing every waking second of consciousness with novel information, that innate drive for novelty (and the dopamine reward) is then used towards creating new ideas and generating a deeper sense of wonder and excitement towards new experiences and the world around us.
I can’t stress enough how important this is. Picture the scenario of when we’re pulling down on the screen to refresh to get new information. When we stop constantly doing this in our digital lives, we start doing it in our analog lives. We become more driven for new experiences, new creations, new memorable moments of existence.
The brain is great at building associations between actions and rewards. The more you do something, the more the brain strengthens the association between that thing and the reward it’s related to (‘doing this will give us that feeling. do this more.’). With dopamine, the more we get our motivational rewards from external stimuli (notifications, text messages, reading articles) the more the brain thinks that’s what it should be doing to get its good feelings from. Especially when that action is as simple as looking at your phone. It tells us to go get our good feelings from responding to text messages (‘you completed a task, good job!’ says the brain) and receiving notifications, instead of things like practicing, creating, or exploring deep thought and meaningful conversations.
It may be helpful to think of it as the brain building roads between the action and the associated reward. The first time you get a social media notification and receive a dopamine rush, the brain is just cutting out the weeds to create a trail to walk down. The next time, the brain lays down some cement. A hundred times later, the brain has built a cleanly paved, well lit road to drive on to get its dopamine reward.
At this point, when the brain is seeking its necessary dopamine, it’s obviously going to go down the road that’s smooth and well lit. It’s spent the most time building that road. Why would it go down a more challenging, time consuming, undeveloped road?
The problem then, is that the clean, well-lit roads represent actions that lead to an easily attainable, unfulfilling reward. The less developed roads that the brain chooses not to take are less familiar and require attention and effort. Yet these roads generally are ones that are more healthful, skillfull, and deeply fulfilling — like daily practice, building a mindful awareness of your environment, or creating.
We need to retrain the brain to spend its resources developing the fulfilling roads.
This is an important concept, so here’s another way of thinking about it. When we’re constantly using external stimuli to entertain ourselves, we’re training the brain to get its neurochemical rewards by snacking on outside sources. We’re feeding the brain sugary junk food rewards constantly through stimulation, which trains it to expect to be constantly fed and rewarded with quick, fleeting hits of dopamine.
But these sugary hits don’t result in the fulfillment or nourishment we feel when we’ve created something, or connected to someone. They’re usually trivial bits of information or some false sense of feeling connected over surface level communications. They’re quite literally a thumbnail of experience — just a glimpse without any depth of the full experience. They’re shallow, cheap thrills that string us along, only creating more of the restlessness they sought to calm in the first place.
In this situation, the brain has no incentive to cook nutritious food if there’s a free, constantly refilled pantry of junk food in the house. The brain’s primary concern is survival, so as long as it’s getting the necessary dose of calories, it doesn’t care how.
When we take a step back and remove the sugary treats that we give the brain throughout the day, something special happens. The brain is still hungry for stimulation and the dopamine reward. But instead of snacking on the sugar that we usually provide, it realizes it needs to provide its own fuel source. So it ends up growing its own ‘food’ — entertaining itself through more nutritious ways.
The brain ends up entertaining itself by…
- coming up with solutions to problems it’s been ruminating on
- autobiographical thinking: reflecting on past events, developing deeper understanding of where you’re at in your life, and planning for the future
- shining light on and diving into thoughts and feelings that have been hiding in the shadow
- taking in the surrounding environment more fully through the senses
- (most interestingly) connecting dots and generating new ideas from scratch
This space for the mind to operate is, quite simply, the feeling of boredom. The very thought might make many of us writhe and wriggle. “There’s so much great content! So much to do! Why waste a minute!”
But conversations with the Creative Flow take space and time to develop, and we need to follow uninterrupted trains of thought in the process. Think of boredom as a nutritious soil for creativity to sprout from.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that bored people “are more likely to engage in sensation seeking” — to look for activities that engage their minds and stimulate the brain’s reward centers, making them more prone to “divergent thinking styles” — the ability to come up with new creative ideas. The study concludes, “boredom may encourage people to approach rewards and spark associative thought.”
In her book, Bored and Brilliant, Manoush Zomorodi, host of the WNYC radio show Note to Self, deeply examines the link between boredom and productive, creative, reflective thinking. It’s a great read that, even if you’re keen to implement more stints of boredom in your life, will push you further towards cementing boredom as a key tenet of your daily life.
In the book, she writes: “Your mind needs boredom to do some of its most important work. We think of boredom as being a waste of time, and yet boredom can spark goal setting, strategizing, and essential autobiographical planning. While it may not seem productive, boredom helps us find meaning at every level of existence.”
Compare the feeling of coming up with an awesome idea, vs. getting a satisfactory amount of approval points on social media or seeing pictures of cool people doing cool things. Which is more gratifying, and which ultimately leaves you feeling more fulfilled?
The former takes patience, acceptance of boredom, and possibly pain. But it’s what we seek.
The latter feels great. For about 10 seconds. Then leaves like a fickle lover, with the psychological mess of social comparison in its wake.
I won’t sugarcoat this. Cultivating boredom is quite difficult, especially if you’ve been caught in the normalized cycle of constant information snacking for the past 10 years.
The process is frustrating at first — truthfully I felt slightly like an addict in rehab when I first started the practice of doing nothing for a period every day.
When we’re just sitting around, we feel that we’re missing out on accomplishing something, learning something, or staying in the loop. If we’re waiting or in transit, we should be reading, listening to a podcast, answering emails, connecting with friends, or doing something mindless to give ourselves a break from a tough day.
But I challenge you to spend that time to cultivate, and, over time, appreciate boredom and the fruits that come from it. It’s incredibly rewarding, and it will be reflected in your art.
To give yourself space, for the brain to get its dopamine rewards from creating new ideas, simply observing changes in consciousness, absorbing the world around you, and having conversations with the Creative Flow.
+ Any time that you’re waiting for something, don’t reach for your phone — instead, find a point of focus in your external environment and make a note of 3 interesting things. Look at all the things in motion around you. Notice the people and their energies. Notice the architecture of the buildings. Notice the color and detail in cars. Listen to the multitude of sounds constantly changing. Stay strong and take solace in the fact that you are healing your dopamine addiction and giving your brain the space it needs to work out problems. It’s helpful to keep your phone physically out of reach, so you’re not fighting the temptation. If you’re really agitated, close your eyes and do a mini meditation by focusing on your breath.
+ On your commute, make 1/2 of the days free of external stimuli: no phone, reading, podcasts, music, nada
— > If you feel the urge, try journaling during this time (if you’re not driving). When the brain has nowhere to be, nothing to do, it tends to spit out truth that it’s been neglecting
+ If you’re struggling with this, check out the 6 Bored and Brilliant Challenges, designed to guide you towards accepting the challenges and reaping the benefits of boredom
+ Before a session of creating, try doing a boring task: washing the dishes, cleaning. Science Daily explains a study that drew a link between performing boring tasks and creative thinking