To Boost Your Creativity, Embrace Your Inner Scientist

What Your Brain Needs to Reach the Next Level

“Sir Isaac Newton” by Jean-Leon Huens

Your Predicting Brain

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Classical science sees the brain as reactive. Neurons sit dormant till some sensory stimulus comes along to activate them. You spy a snake in the garden. The sight of it triggers a “fear circuit” in your brain. A neural chain reaction signals your breath to quicken, your heart to race, and your legs to run.

In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says that view is wrong. The 86 billion neurons in your brain are never dormant. They chatter continuously among themselves. “Intrinsic networks” made up of millions of interacting neurons keep your heart beating, your lungs breathing, and your food digesting, no external stimuli required. When you’re asleep, and sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch are offline, intrinsic networks weave your dreams. By day, they not only power your imagination (daydreams), they construct your entire experience of reality.

This is where it gets tricky. During waking hours, you see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world outside your head. But your brain doesn’t just record sensations, stack them like Legos, and present you with Reality. Rather, it compares incoming sensory data with your stored memories and concepts, then “guesses,” based on past experience, what new sensory input most likely represents.

What you experience as “Reality” is the guess — the prediction — not the direct sense impression. If the prediction is wrong, your brain corrects and adjusts your reality.

A loud bang! sounds nearby. Based on my past experience, I hear a gunshot and dive for cover. Based on your past experience, you hear a car backfire and look around for a vehicle. A kid runs past us with a fistful of fireworks. Both our brains correct for this new sensory input. We heard a firecracker. Such predictions and corrections, times millions of intrinsic networks interacting across billions of neurons in every waking moment, weave our worlds.

Here’s Lisa Feldman Barrett:

You might think that your perceptions of the world are driven by events in the world, but really, they are anchored in your predictions… Through prediction and correction, your brain continually creates and revises your mental model of the world.

“Reality” is a guessing game.

Your “Inner Scientist”

Wikimedia Commons

The good news is that your brain is a highly-skilled guesser. As Lisa Feldman Barrett writes:

… your brain works like a scientist. It’s always making a slew of predictions, just as a scientist makes competing hypotheses. Like a scientist, your brain uses knowledge (past experience) to estimate how confident you can be that each prediction is true. Your brain then tests its predictions by comparing them to incoming sensory input from the world, much as a scientist compares hypotheses against data in an experiment.

Most of the time, your “Inner Scientist” brain gets predictions right — or “right enough” to ensure your physical survival, anyway. On the species level, you’re good to go.

But, what about on the individual, artistic level? How could knowing that your brain is constantly predicting and testing reality, instead of simply recording what’s in front of you, help boost your creativity? How might embracing your “Inner Scientist” make you a better artist, writer, musician, etc.?

Practice Makes Perfect

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Most everyone is familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule,” from his 2008 bestseller Outliers, which states that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field. Critics have since attacked the specifics of Gladwell’s “rule,” but it’s hard to argue with its general premise — Practice Makes Perfect.

It’s easy to see how practice, in the common understanding of performing an action over and over, would improve performance. Each time you paint a picture, or write a story or song, your brain makes note of what, in your opinion, worked and what didn’t, what pleased or disappointed you. The repetitive practice of making art over and over, with memories of your own creative work as your sole or primary guide, is sure to move you steadily toward consistently making art that pleases you.

But is that your goal? Or do you want to create art that expands your limits and exceeds your own expectations?

To reach that “next level” of creativity, you’ll need a different kind of practice.

You’ll need to make new memories.

Making Memories

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Think back to your “Inner Scientist.” Your predicting brain constructs your present reality by comparing what’s in front of you, even your own creative work, with stored memories. It stands to reason, then, that to take your art, writing, music to the next level, you must first build a mental stockpile of high quality “next level” memories. Only then can your “Inner Scientist” predicting brain compare your current creative efforts with the art you aspire to create in the future, and construct a reality that surpasses both your past performance and your present expectations.

Since you haven’t reached the “next level” yourself yet, the way to make those memories is to immerse yourself in the “next level” work of other artists.

Painters, view hundreds, thousands, 10,000 paintings representing the “next level” you want to achieve. Writers, read. And read. And read. Read authors you know are better writers than you. Read hundreds, thousands, 10,000 books and stories and poems so beautiful you wish you had written them yourself. Musicians, listen to hundreds, thousands, 10,000 songs you couldn’t play or sing today to save your life. To boost your creativity, don’t settle for your natural memories of where, artistically, you’ve already been. Make 10,000 “next level” memories of where you want to go.

Then let your “Inner Scientist” predicting brain take you there.


Thanks for reading!