Creativity and goofing off

Scientific studies reveal that not thinking gives creativity a big boost.

That means doing something that doesn’t require much concentration, such as going for a walk or washing the dishes, is more likely to result in an imaginative idea or the solution to a problem than sitting at your desk straining your brain into an acute case of constipation.

It turns out that the mind operates in two modes: linear and creative. The first, which most of us are in most of the time, helps us plan and accomplish our day-to-day tasks and long-term goals.

The second is more of a freewheeling state populated by daydreams, random ideas and off-the wall thoughts. Some call it goofing off.

It’s this freedom from focused thinking that opens the door to creativity. It works best when the body is active, and the brain minimally engaged. So, walking (alone or with a silent companion) is good, scrolling through your social media feeds is not.

Throughout history, famous people have credited non-thinking moments to creative inspiration. Mozart claimed he often “heard” his music while on a walk, while Albert Einstein counted on Mozart’s symphonies to loosen the creativity tap when he was stuck.

Unfortunately, our culture and therefore our brains have been trained to go, go go and we often don’t get enough – or maybe any – idle time.

In a Psychology Today article titled, “3 Ridiculously Easy Tips for More Creativity and Happiness,” Emma Seppälä suggests:

-Make sure you have some downtime every day

-Do something different, meet someone different or read or watch something different

-Play, whether it be sports, or with your children, grandchildren, or pet(s).

Those all open the door to a broader perspective and thus more inventive thoughts. In fact, researchers say, dividing your day into focused and non-focused thinking segments is most productive. It will likely boost your mood too.

As George MacDonald, Scottish author and mentor to Lewis Carroll, once said, “Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.”


On being creative

Some say being creative has to do with a person’s genetic makeup. Others consider it an attitude. I’ve learned that the drive to create can be a lifelong passion.

In 2013, I interviewed Ruth Dickson about her upcoming art show at the

Ruth Dickson in 2013. Image courtesy Comox Valley Record

Pearl Ellis Gallery in Comox, BC. Within the last 12 months, she had completed nearly 52 paintings and published her sixth book. She was nearly 95 years old.

As a young mother living in the isolated community of Sayward, BC, Ruth played around with her children’s paints and pastels. Later, when the family moved to Cowichan, she took her portfolio to the University of Victoria and was accepted into the second year of the art program. Eventually she taught classes in oil painting, silkscreen and batik at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University).

When Ruth turned 90, she decided she’d lived long enough to have something to say about her past. So, she took her walker and a manuscript to a week-long workshop at the Victoria School of Writing. “I was the oldest student they’d ever had,” she said. “But they thought my work was funny and interesting and were excited about it.”

Ruth wrote the first draft of her books in longhand as it “helped her think.” She taught herself to type and transcribed her first two, poetry collections on an old Remington typewriter. For later books, Ruth joined the technological age, noting that she loved everything about computers except learning a new word-processing program.

Ruth credits her love of the outdoors and her rich fantasy life to growing up in remote locations on Scottish light stations and the Canadian Prairies.

She was always curious and eager to learn but, due to the Depression, was unable to receive as much education as she wanted. Instead, after marrying in 1941, she vowed to learn something new every year.

“I discovered you can learn your whole life — and to never be afraid to try something new,” she said.

Ruth’s memoir about her time in Sawyward, BC in the 1940s. The painting on the cover is her work.

In her mid-to late nineties, Ruth’s normal routine was to paint one week and write the next. One wall of her spare bedroom contained a table and painting supplies, while the other was set up for her literary endeavours.

Despite health challenges in her later years, Ruth accepted a commission to create a two-metre painting of a great white shark. She also participated in an hour-long Port Townsend, Washington radio program sharing the story of how, as a young mother, she shot at a cougar sneaking up on her baby’s carriage. And, when a rat made a brief appearance in her apartment, she incorporated a much cuter version of the unwelcome guest in a baby sweater she knitted to celebrate the birth of a great-grandchild.

Despite our age difference, my interview with Ruth evolved into many emails, phone calls and visits over tea and cookies. She was a lively, entertaining companion and will always be an inspiration to me on how to remain curious, engaged and creative throughout life.

Ruth passed away in Courtenay, BC on March 12, 2021 at age 102. Wherever her spirit has gone, I’m sure a paintbrush, notebook and computer are close at hand.

When You’re 97 is a collection of humorous drawings and comments Ruth created as a lighthearted look at the challenges of growing old.

Fossilized wolf pup sheds light on wolf migration

When Neil Loveless found a tiny, fossilized body complete with head, tail, fur and skin thawing in permafrost, he thought it was a dog. Although it was not the precious metal the gold miner was looking for, he stored it in a freezer until a paleontologist could check it out.

The remains, now identified as a Pleistocene gray wolf pup about seven weeks old, were found in the Klondike gold fields of the Canadian Yukon. The female pup lived and died on the ancestral land of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, who have a cultural and spiritual relationship with wolves. The little pup was named Zhùr, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in word for wolf.

It’s rare to find fossilized mammals from ancient times, especially one as intact as Zhùr. Scientific studies conducted since the discovery in 2016, reveal that Zhùr ate a diet rich in fish, not the more traditional fare of muskox or caribou. The fish were probably caught in the nearby Klondike River by her mother or other members of the pack.

Zhùr was old enough to venture outside the den, was well nourished, showed no sign of disease and her remains did not appear to have been disturbed by predators or scavengers. Scientists speculate that the young wolf died inside the den when the roof collapsed suddenly.

Other fossilized wolf remains have been found in northern climes such as Siberia but Zhùr’s is the most complete, missing only the eyes. And the approximately 56,000-year-old body provides tantalizing clues to the movement and evolution of wolves in North America.

Over the years, there have been numerous theories regarding the migration of wolves between Europe and North America. Genetic tests show that when alive, Zhùr was closely related to ice age wolves inhabiting Europe but not with wolves found in North America where she lived. Her mummified body provides a vital clue to a significant change in the population dynamic of grey wolves in Canada at the end of the ice age.

Due to its scientific and cultural importance, Zhùr’s body has been accepted by the Canadian Conservation Institute and is now on display in an exhibit at the Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.

Feature photo courtesy Yukon Government 


The Wolf Moon

The first full moon of the year appears in the heart of winter. And, depending on location and culture, it may be called Frost Exploding Moon, Freeze Up Moon or Cold Moon. For obvious reasons, my favourite full moon nickname is Wolf Moon.

It’s said that Indigenous people dubbed the January moon Wolf as the predators could often be heard howling throughout the long, dark nights. While some people believe the wolves are howling at the moon, they actually use that form of vocalizing to defend their territory, communicate with other pack members or grieve the death of another wolf.

Photo by John Cavers

Sometimes wolves seem to howl for the sheer pleasure of it or as a warm-up to the nightly hunt. Young pups learn to howl by watching and listening to their elders.

Although visible for several nights, the official 2021 Wolf Moon will appear in North America the evening of January 28. So, grab your binoculars or telescope and look up.

And speaking of looking up, the reason people think wolves howl at the moon is that, whether they’re sitting, standing or lying down, they always lift their snouts to howl. But that’s more for the vocal affect than anything in the sky.

Try it yourself by looking down and howling and then tilting your head back and howling again. Not only does the head-back howl sound better, the angle of the throat and mouth also projects the sound over a longer distance.