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.”


Creativity and Covid-19

Covid-19 and the res­ult­ing re­stric­tions are like liv­ing in a sci­ence fic­tion movie only the end doesn’t ar­rive in two hours. We fret about toi­let pa­per, people who in­vade our two metre space and loved ones that are now kept at a dis­tance. The tilt in our world was sud­den and the fu­ture re­mains uncertain.

People cope with stress and change in dif­fer­ent ways. My in­stinct was to sleep and for the first month I clocked in nine hours or more a night plus an af­ter­noon nap. I haven’t slept that much since I was a teenager.

My partner’s cop­ing crutch is chocol­ate. During the first week of phys­ic­al dis­tan­cing, Rick brought home two gi­ant slabs of chocol­ate cake, two pounds of Belgian chocol­ate and two boxes of chocol­ate cook­ies. At some point, we real­ized that ex­cess­ive sleep­ing and gor­ging on chocol­ate was not sus­tain­able long-term.

I turned, as I have for much of my life, to writ­ing. To me, writ­ing is a place in my mind where there are many doors and end­less op­por­tun­it­ies for ex­plor­a­tion and adventure.

But on oc­ca­sion, it’s dif­fi­cult to ac­cess this place. For a while, Covid-19 was an in­vis­ible wall res­ult­ing in lots of white space on my laptop screen. And I wasn’t the only one. Artists aban­doned their easels; some writers didn’t even turn on their computers.

So, how to prime the cre­ativ­ity pump in the midst of a glob­al pan­dem­ic? Unfortunately, there’s no ma­gic trick to se­duce the muse into a vis­it. But go­ing for a walk can pro­duce start­ling results.

According to an art­icle by psy­cho­lo­gist Sian Beilock in “Psychology Today,” an abund­ance of con­cen­tra­tion can kill cre­ativ­ity.  On the oth­er hand, do­ing some­thing that re­quires only a small amount of con­cen­tra­tion such as wash­ing the car, va­cu­um­ing the rug or brush­ing the dog of­ten al­lows the brain to con­nect thoughts in new and per­haps un­usu­al ways.

When I told chiro­pract­or, Alicia Steele, that I fre­quently find solu­tions to writ­ing prob­lems while walk­ing, she ex­plained that the bi­lat­er­al move­ment of arms and legs pro­motes activ­ity in both sides of the brain.

Taking a break and do­ing some­thing re­l­at­ively mind­less can en­hance cre­ativ­ity. The trick is to not think about the prob­lem you’re try­ing to solve.

As for stress, I’ve al­ways found writ­ing an es­cape from the wor­ries my brain chooses to ru­min­ate on and sus­pect many cre­at­ive folks feel the same.

No one ex­plains it bet­ter than Graham Greene in Ways of Escape: Writing is a form of ther­apy; some­times I won­der how all those who do not write, com­pose, or paint can man­age to es­cape the mad­ness, mel­an­cho­lia, the pan­ic and fear which is in­her­ent in a hu­man situation.”

Photo by Rick James



The Dark Sources of Creativity — guest blog by Susan Ketchen

Readers of my nov­els of­ten shake their heads when they fi­nally meet me and say, “Where do you get your crazy ideas?”

 I usu­ally brush them off with jokes about my over-act­ive ima­gin­a­tion, and about how ideas come eas­ily when I’m lost in thought (some­thing that hap­pens more and more these days) in the shower or in the pas­ture with my horses, though of course nev­er while house cleaning.

These re­sponses are di­ver­sions from a dark­er truth.

I am in­spired by mis­takes, mis­deeds and transgressions.

Sometimes the mis­takes are my own. I seem to feel that I can re­deem my­self by dis­guising my own ri­dicu­lous be­ha­viour in the deeds of a char­ac­ter. For ex­ample, in a piece about the per­ils of self-de­lu­sion, I fic­tion­al­ized an in­ter­ac­tion I had with a neigh­bour. His lovely garden was be­ing decim­ated by deer so he in­stalled an ul­tra-son­ic deer repeller.

Unfortunately I could hear it. I was re­luct­ant to com­plain, but found I could not ig­nore the noise and after a few days tromped next-door for a chat. Perhaps he could turn it down? He thought he might try, or he would just re­turn it to the store.

Two nights later I was again at my bed­room win­dow, steam­ingly in­dig­nant be­cause I could still hear that aw­ful high-pitched noise. I really didn’t want to com­plain again, but that night I needed earplugs to sleep, and how fair was that?

The source of cre­ativ­ity — and all the twis­ted turns it takes — will forever re­main a mys­tery. Photo by Susan Ketchen

So the next day I re­turned to my neigh­bour. I wasn’t sure what to say. What if he didn’t be­lieve me? Or thought I was be­ing a pest? I muttered some­thing non­sensic­al to him. And he told me he’d re­turned the unit two days be­fore, gen­er­ously adding that I must have been kept awake by some­thing else.

This dark event has so in­spired my cre­ativ­ity that not only did I de­vote sev­er­al chapters of my nov­el to the puzzle of self-de­lu­sion, but I am still writ­ing about it here. I fear I may nev­er sort it out.

I have also used the trans­gres­sions of oth­ers to in­spire my writ­ing. And it seems that my memory is very long when someone wrongs me. From grade one through three, I was so­cially se­cure at school. In fourth grade two new girls ar­rived. They were exot­ic be­cause they were twins. They had lovely clothes, were smart and so­cially gregari­ous, and one of them pushed me down in fun on the play­field and hurt my back! I also toppled from the so­cial scene. I felt as though I’d be­come in­vis­ible overnight.

Several dec­ades passed be­fore my wounded pride was re­paired by cre­at­ing Amber and Topaz in my nov­el Born That Way. I made the twins into a couple of stuck-up little girls who bul­lied my prot­ag­on­ist, Sylvia, but nev­er really got her down. Through Sylvia I ex­per­i­enced suc­cess man­aging a more dif­fi­cult situ­ation than I had faced ori­gin­ally. Apparently it’s nev­er too late to grow up.

For my next pro­ject I am con­sid­er­ing writ­ing about how we ra­tion­al­ize our treat­ment and train­ing of an­im­als. Controversy is every­where: there are train­ers and whisper­ers and be­ha­vi­or mod­i­fi­ers all over the place, and mostly they dis­agree with each oth­er. Plus they all have loy­al fol­low­ings, and people get quite heated when it comes to de­fend­ing their pets:  ad­vising someone that their dog needs bet­ter train­ing is nev­er met with grat­it­ude. Bad be­ha­vi­or abounds. Indeed, there are mis­takes, mis­deeds and trans­gres­sions every­where. It is a gold­mine of cre­at­ive inspiration.

All I need is a de­cent pseudonym.

Susan Ketchen is the au­thor of the nov­els Born That Way (2009), Made That Way (2010) and Grows That Way (2012), all pub­lished by Oolichan Books. Find out more about Susan on her web­site www​.susanketchen​.ca