Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On Your Creative Brain

JAN: I was lucky to get my hands on Shelley Carson's new book, which may be life-changing for me, and if it doesn't actually CHANGE my LIFE, it sure explains a lot of it. It is a terrific book that every writer, artist, cook, gardener, musician -- well hell, everyone -- should read because it's not just about the creative arts, its about bringing more creativity into all aspects of your life.
Shelley researcher and lecturer at Harvard. Her work, which includes extensive research and writings on creativity, has been featured on The Discovery Channel, NPR, BBC and CNN. She also writes for Newsweek, Psychology Today, Scientific American and The Huffington Post.

Shelley was born in Lawrence, Kansas, lived in Florida and California much of her life, and was working as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines when she met her husband, a pilot. So I asked her how she wound up at Harvard.

SHELLEY: You see the best and worst of people on an airplane and I learned that everybody didn't think the way I did. It started as a growing passion to learn about the human mind. My husband was from this area, so we moved here. I quit being a flight attendant when I had my kids - because of the travel - and decided to study psychology. I blindly applied to Harvard - it was a good school nearby. No one was more surprised than me when I got in.

JAN: How did you wind up becoming an expert on creativity?
SHELLEY: I'm a psychopathologist by training. From a very early time, I was fascinated by the number of highly creative luminaries past and present who struggled with inner demons. I began researching the interface between pathology and creativity, and I realized that if I was going to study this, I needed to know the whole field of creativity. It took me a long time to convince my department that a course on creativity belonged in the psychology department. It was perceived as a nebulous fuzzy topic not studied empirically. But now a whole body of research --- brain imaging -- has been getting the attention of the scientific community.

JAN: What was your goal in writing this book?
SHELLEY: When I started doing creativity research, the more I learned about neuroanatomy, the more I realized that everyone has the potential to be creative. We have the ability to innovate and to improvise, but a lot of people have trained themselves to not be creative. I wanted to write something that showed that we can train ourselves to be creative, and to provide a way to do it using some of my clinical research.

JAN: The book describes seven brain activation patterns that you label the CREATES brainsets model, (The acronym stands for the seven brainsets: Connects, Reason, Envision, Absorb, Transform, Evaluate, and Streams) How did you come up with this model and the concept that we can switch between these brainsets?

SHELLEY: I gathered information from all the labs around the world, sixty to seventy published studies. Everything was so contradictory, I needed to make sense of it to go forward with my own work. I've spent years assimilating the information. Every lab was coming up with its own conclusion from braining imaging. I started to realize there were different brain states for different types of creativity and different phases of the process. The brainsets model is a work in progress, the more we learn the more it will change and grow and morph.
One of the big findings in the neuroscience of creativity is that people tend to activate their brains in certain ways when they are doing creative work. Highly creative people activate their brain differently than normal people. I decided that if we can learn to mimic the pattern, everyone can enhance their creativity. It is possible to train different brain activation patterns.

JAN: The book talks a lot about the "executive center" the regions of the prefrontal cortex that is the "boss of the brain," in charge of planning, abstract reasoning and conscious decision. And how critical it is to get this part of the brain, as well as the frontal lobe "judgment center" to step aside and let the lower-order areas of the brain have the spotlight for awhile. (These are the rear lobes of the cerebral cortex devoted to processing sensory information and the association centers that pull together and integrate the sensory info into a meaningful experience and allow distant parts of the brain to come together) Can you give writers advice on how to access these back parts of the brain?
SHELLEY: You need to defocus your mind, turn down the filters and the idea emerges. Maximize creativity between writing sessions by preparing your mind at the end of each writing session, when you know you are winding down. Think about what you want to accomplish in the next session. If you have given yourself the right information, the associational centers will be thinking about it. I like to think of it as the executive center, the cortex in the front of the brain, sending an executive order to those people in R&D in the back (the association centers) and letting them take care of it. You need to create a portal to the brainset you want. Open a door. and reward yourself every time you do that.

JAN: The book offers a series of tests for readers to first identify which brainsets they favor naturally, various exercises to develop the brainsets that are outside their comfort zone and a reward system to reinforce tapping into different brainsets. To take one of the tests or sample one of the exercises go to http.//

And come back tomorrow, when I describe the different brainsets in more detail, show I fared on my "tests" and how incredibly useful I've found some of the exercises to be as a "pre-writing" ritual.

On an interesting note: some of Shelley's findings, and her advice, matches up with some of the advice from our very own readers here at Jungle Red.


  1. Shelley and Jan, this is fascinating! Thanks for the interview. Can't wait to see how to "prepare" my brain for work the next day. That's got to be one of the biggest problems we writers face--how to start again once we've stopped.

    Also loved hearing about the winding path that brought you to where you are today! I imagine many airline attendants would consider themselves experts in the worst of human nature--but not many would take that on to a Ph.D!

  2. Sounds intriguing.

    How do you think the application of brain imaging will change the general perception of creativity? For better or for worse?

  3. I took the quiz. Verrrry interesting! I'll be back tomorrow for more.

  4. I took the quiz, too. My deliberate and spontaneous scores were exactly the same. I must come back tomorrow and/or read the book to find out what this means! Fun!

  5. I'd like to thank Jan for interviewing me and spreading the word about Your Creative Brain! Just a quick response to Roberta's comment on preparing the brain for work the next day. Basically, by setting a goal for the next day's writing and making sure you have all the objective information you'll need for that session, you are alerting your information processing systems that there is a job in the inbox. I think it's also helpful to send a few words of encouragement to the R&D team in the back of your brain (some people have a name for it - your muse, Kipling called it his daemon)and then go do whatever else you do in your life, knowing that some part of your R&D team is working on your stated goals for the next session outside of your awareness.

    In response to Sheila's question, I think creativity is gaining prestige in scientific circles, partly due to the attention neuroscientists are starting to extend to it. It is also gaining ground in the business sector; creativity is now among the most sought-after traits for high-level executives, according to my head-hunter sources.

    Laura, your comment that you scored equally in spontaneous and deliberate pathways means you have multiple ways of accessing your creativity. That's excellent! The goal is to be able to access many of the brainsets easily and to be able to flexibly switch among them.

  6. I'm fascinated by neuroscience and worked on a neurology unit for years. I was amazed at how the brain recovered after severe injury. I know we had to be very creative in letting people find out again who they were and could be.

    I'm looking forward to finding out how to pick up where I left off in a creative mode. Otherwise, it's too tempting to keep going beyond the point of brain fatigue.

  7. Paulline,
    Me too, I find this stuff riveting. What's really interesting is how it helps explain the different ways writers say they work.

    I used to think those writers who said they were "channelling" their characters were nuts. Now I'm doing mental exercises to be more like them!


  8. Most the time on the Write First challenge, I prepared for the next day. When I did this, I found my writing went better and faster then when I didn't prepare.

    I also scored equally on the test.

  9. Okay, you lucky guys with normal, equally balanced brains MUST come back tomorrow and see what weird brain configuration I have..


  10. Yesterday, when I was in Manhattan, I went to the American Museum of Natural History's special exhibit on The Brain. Absolutely fascinating! And talk about serendipity - with Shelley here talking about creativity on Jungle Red.

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  12. Oh, so fascinating. So fascinating! Thank you!

    And, ah, I actually do that--each day before I write, I sit at the computer, and I think:
    Today, my goal in the manuscript is to--whatever it is.

    Like, tonight, it's to "have the lights go out at the rally." (I know what it means..)

    And when I'm finished, I set my goal for the next day. It really realy works. I can't tell you. (But then, you know.)

    And it makes me not worry--you know? (As much...) My brain says: when you need it, it will be there.

    Off to take the test! Thank you so much...

  13. I scored very slightly higher on Deliberate. Fascinating, as for me writing novels is a combination of very structured planning and spontaneous flow. Can't wait to read tomorrow's post!

  14. Okay! Took it. And now I *need* to know what it means.

    Does it matter that I love to take tests?