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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Learning to See Again

TechnologysBy Rosanne Bane

Writers have to read. Most of what we know as writers, we learned through absorption, by immersing ourselves in good fiction. Unfortunately, learning to read and write has seriously impaired your creativity. I’m not kidding about this. We’d all be more imaginative, creative writers if we’d never learned to read and write.

Have I got your attention yet? Good. Here’s how it breaks down.

Grade School: Where You First Learned to Not See

The first time I read Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Artist Within, I had a distinctly uncomfortable ‘A-ha’ moment recognizing that being ‘smart’ in school wasn’t my smartest move. Edwards claims that because our current educational system teaches us to recognize and focus on abstract verbal concepts, it teaches us to not see.

urban-alphabetThe principles of arithmetic apply regardless of how the numbers look: 2 + 2 = 4 is the same as ii + ii = iv. We are taught to recognize the letter ‘R’ as a representation of a particular sound regardless of differences in the font, size or color of the letter. This adds another layer of meaning to Gertrude Stein’s observation that a


is a Rose

is a rose.

We learn to overlook the differences so that we can focus on the verbal abstraction.

Edwards suggests that seeing is intimately connected to creativity and wondered what effect learning to not see had on our creativity. But she was just speculating and I assured myself that I’m plenty creative even though I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag.

The Origins of the Alphabet: When Humanity Learned Not to See

But any reassuring doubts I had about reading and writing having a downside and literacy casting a powerful shadow were blown away when I read Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. 

Shlain claims (and I believe convincingly demonstrates) that literacy elevates the brain’s left hemisphere abilities of abstraction, analysis and linear processing to the detriment of the right hemisphere’s abilities of seeing the whole, synthesis and spontaneity.

I tried to minimize the significance of Shlain’s claims when I first read them. I told myself that the conclusions most people drew from the left-brain, right-brain dichotomy were flawed. (After all, the theory is based on research with people who had their corpus callosum surgically cut, permanently separating the left and right hemispheres, which creates legitimate questions about how applicable the research is to people who have intact brains.)

But I was intrigued by Shlain’s claim that literary is the cause of both men’s subjugation of women and the historical shift from recognizing both the feminine and masculine aspects of the Divine to focusing exclusively on a masculine God.

Quieting the Left Hemisphere: An Opportunity to See Differently

brainReading My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor’s personal account of losing her entire left hemisphere in a massive stroke and her amazing recovery, finally convinced me that there are significant differences between the brain’s hemispheres. For example, the left and right hemisphere process light and sound differently: the left hemisphere perceives shorter wavelengths of light, which increases the ability to see sharp edges and distinguish boundaries between things, while the right hemisphere perceives longer wavelengths of light, which softens visual perception and is more inclined to see the whole picture and how things relate to each other.

Of course, those of us who haven’t had a stroke or other brain injury have an integrated brain where the left and right hemispheres cooperate magnificently to, as Taylor writes “generate a single seamless perception of the world.” And creativity requires skills and contributions from both hemispheres.  

Still, the left hemisphere is a bit of a bully, insisting that real thinking is logical, linear and language-based and that the fuzzy stuff the right hemisphere does isn’t really thinking at all. The left hemisphere, which excels in academic settings and looks for abstract concepts and generalizations, actively interferes with the observations the right hemisphere has to offer.

How does the left hemisphere inhibit our creativity? Here’s a simple example. The left hemisphere perceives a door in motion and thinks “the door is closing.” The left hemisphere “knows” that doors are rectangular, so it muffles and discounts the right hemisphere’s observations that the door’s shape is constantly changing as it moves. Is it any wonder then that if we try to draw a door, the drawing will lack perspective? We can tell our drawing is off, but we can’t tell why unless we learn to attend to the right hemisphere’s observations and mode of thinking.

Is not easy to set aside the left hemisphere’s dominance, but if we can do that, we can learn to see again. We’ll see what’s really there. And not just doors or other physical objects; we’ll learn to see the softer perception of the whole picture and how we and everyone and everything around us connect and relate. We’ll learn to stop averting our eyes.

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2 Comments on “Learning to See Again”

  1. Eden Cross October 7, 2010 at 8:48 pm #

    How is one’s brain effected when one has ADHD issues? Also, do you know anything at all about the brain…when one is able to both perceive and receive extraordinary information eg: as a psychic medium? I can tell what goes on in my understanding, but I’ve always been quite curious about how my brain is actually functioning, with these very attributes or however you wish to word it all.


    • rosannebane October 8, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

      There’s a lot of information about ADHD and brain function. The first books I recommend are The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge and Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey (exercise can be as effective as medication for ADHD). You might also take a look at The Scientific American Brave New Brain by Judith Horstman.
      There are studies that show that certain areas of the brain are more active than usual and other areas less active than usual when people have spiritual experiences and deep meditative experiences. The best source that I know of would be Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley, but I don’t think she specifically addresses psychic experiences. Given the prevailing attitude in medical science, I don’t expect any research with brain scans of psychics anytime soon.


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