The Joy Of Creative Risks — More Than Just A Kick In The Head

In the 1980 independent film The Gods Must Be Crazy, a Coke bottle falls from a small plane passing overhead and into the path of a Bushman in the Kalahari Desert. He and his villagers view the plane as a god, so they see the bottle as a fascinating and curious gift the gods saw fit to bestow. They invent all sorts of interesting uses for it, which unfortunately includes bonking on heads, something hard objects tend to inspire in human beings. When they start to fight over it, the bottle comes to be regarded as an “evil thing.” They figure the gods had to be crazy to send this into their lives, and elect Xi, the Bushman who brought it into the village, to find the place where 
 the gods reside and return it. On his journey he encounters white people, technology, and violence for the first time, including a culture clash that lands him in jail for months. He does succeed in the end, tossing the bottle off a mountaintop that could easily be viewed as a home for the gods, then happily returns to the home he loves.

Creativity is something like this Coke bottle — a kick in the head, a force that can put us on an unknown path we can only discover by taking it. Whether the energy of change drops an idea on us as if from a divine, higher plane or develops through small, gradual, painstaking steps in a new direction, it can shake everything up in a seemingly magical way. It is the energy of change, the partnership between our capacity for choice and the universal, constant energy of pure potential. The challenge, of course, is that to tap it we have to take some degree of risk. which almost always involves discomfort. A creative risk is an emotional one, and it brings up all sorts of feelings from pockets of paralyzing self-doubt to indescribable joy. When a shift in our thinking, an upgrade in our coping or communication skills, or a new, expanded sense of self takes hold, it is the creative process that guided us through the unfamiliar. And its the brain chemistry of reward, triggered by the steady stream of small but unmistakable risks, that propels along the path.

Neuroscience about the connections between brain chemistry, the arts, and creativity explains the psychological and emotional benefits of creative risks. Dopamine — the brain chemistry of reward — is produced in the oldest part of the brain, the brainstem, but released in the newest, the cortex — where we create, think, decide, and plan. “Thus, we feel rewarded when we create new objects or actions,” writes James Zull, professor of biology at Case Western University, “and since creativity is based on the decisions made by the creator, the reward system kicks in when we are in control and inventing things that we have thought of ourselves. Freedom and ownership are part and parcel of the neurochemistry of the arts.” Thanks to this research, we know that experiential learning and therapy changes the brain, and lifelong engagement with the process of creative learning and psychological growth fuels ongoing brain development.

The human mind is juiced by experiences that combine novelty/mystery with emotional involvement and a feedback loop of 
 some kind, such as music, theater, comedy, dance/movement, play. Any kind of creative exper­ience will do, whether it is scientific research or making an experimental papaya pizza or redesigning the baby’s room to make better use of space, but the most direct route to the learning/expansion wellspring of feel-good brain chemicals is the artistic experience itself. Research psychologist Ernest Rossi describes the states of creative, artistic, and spiritual excitement as “essentially similar to the psychobiological arousal evoked by novelty, environmental enrichment, and physical exercise” and which “neuroscience associates with gene expression, protein synthesis, and brain plasticity in the normal process of the reconstructing consciousness, memory, and learning in daily life.”

Creativity will break through any crack in our consciousness, but for the most part we throw it back at the point it starts to shake us up. All of humanity is awash in a sea of possibilities, but we can struggle to grasp what does not fit within our worldview. If we have been told we are not creative, that creativity requires a certain talent or ability we lack, it can feel true even though it is not. The gods, if gods there be, might think it is a little crazy that we repress, deny, and isolate our rich resources of creative energy, the fuel for innovation, originality, discovery, and meaning that lie within us because creativity is the greatest human ability of all. It is the power to make language and culture and space stations and contact lenses that can stay in your eyes for a month and nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Tokyo and computer chips that know when we have had too much to drink. Creativity was the force that moved some ancient man to roast the day’s kill after the discovery of fire, and later on to add oregano and a little olive oil. And it is creativity that keeps us from destroying one another no matter how hard we try, and God knows we do try, and is the energy behind the systems and organizations designed to help us live together.

In reality, anything we want to change about our lives involves the creative process. To acquire a healthy habit, learn a new role or get better at an existing one, calls for imagination to see inwardly and for creative energy to act in new ways. And a growing number of studies demonstrate that creativity training, or development in a creative domain, integrates the brain, body and emotions in a symphony of heightened functioning that has far-reaching impact on our ability to solve problems and cope with uncertainty. Columbia University’s Center for Arts in Education Research reports the effects of arts learning along five specific dimensions of ability. These were the ability to:

Express ideas and feelings openly and thoughtfully;

Form relationships among different items of experience and layer them in thinking through an idea or problem;

Conceive or imagine different vantage points of an idea or problem and to work towards a resolution;

Construct and organize thoughts and ideas into meaningful units or wholes;

Focus perception on an item or items of experience, and sustain this focus over a period of time.

Joy is a self-rewarding emotional state, and the creative experience one of the most powerful ways to experience it and for a healthy brain to stay that way. A creative risk can be as simple attending a live play or concert and then engaging in a discussion about it. Dance. Join book discussion groups. Take an improv or storytelling class. Learn something new every day. Read political analysis from people with whom you disagree and try to imagine what it would be like to share their perspective. Volunteer. The combination of dopamine-triggering novelty with meaning, connection and self-expression that involves a creative risk can be a banquet of joy for the emotional brain and a ton of fun in the bargain.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc, a NYS-approved provider of CE for social workers, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a live show that features true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds.