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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.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Don’t believe everything you think

By Rosanne Bane

The Unplugged Toaster

When my mom was young, toasters weren’t particularly reliable or safe. Toasters were rumored to have caught fire and burned people’s houses down. So my mom got in the habit of unplugging her toaster when she wasn’t using it.

Fifty years later, toaster technology has significantly improved. Unless you have a toaster perched on the side of a filled bathtub, it’s as safe to leave a toaster plugged in as any other appliance in your house. But my mom still unplugs her toaster.

The Unnecessary Loaf Pan

Mary Doe decided to teach her teenage daughter, Madison, how to make cherry chocolate cake from a recipe Mary got from her own mother.

“Where’s that loaf pan?” Mary asked, rattling around the kitchen cupboard.

“What loaf pan?” Madison replied.

“The one I always fill with water and put in the oven with the cake. The white Pyrex loaf pan.”

“Oh, I took that to Jeanine’s. I’ll get it tomorrow,” Madison promised.

“Then we can’t make the cake until tomorrow.”

“Why not?” Madison asked aggrievedly. She had already texted her boyfriend to come over for cake.

“Because we need the loaf pan.”

“Can’t we use something else?”

“No. The loaf pan fits perfectly next to the cake pan on the rack.”

“Why do we use the loaf pan at all? No one else I know puts a pan of water in the oven when they’re making a cake.”

Mary was annoyed with the delay, with her daughter’s tendency to leave her things at other people’s houses and with the put upon tone in her daughter’s voice. “We just do. I’ve always done that. My mother always did it.”

Madison speed dialed her grandmother. “Gram, why do we always put a loaf pan of water next to the cake pan when we’re baking a cake? Mom says it’s like some kind of family tradition or something.”

“Well I don’t know why you do it,” Madison’s grandmother replied. “I always put one in the oven because my oven rack was warped and the only way I could get a cake to stay level and bake evenly was to balance a loaf pan of water on the other side of the rack.”

The Upshot

What are the unplugged toasters and unnecessary loaf pans in your writing? What are you not doing because it wasn’t safe years ago that may be safe now? What old habits that you just don’t need any more are limiting your willingness to try something new?

Your brain is plastic

The Unused Brain

When I was growing up, science told us that even though the brains of children grow, develop and change dramatically, the adult brain was fixed and immutable.

What you had in brain capacity when you were twenty was all you were going to get and it was only going be downhill from there on out. If you killed your neurons by drinking too much or using illegal drugs, you’d never grow any new neurons to replace them.

When old age started slowing your thinking and erasing your memory, there was nothing you could do to reverse, or even slow, the process. And if your brain got injured in an accident or a stroke, whatever function you didn’t get back in a few days would be lost forever.

Now, new discoveries in brain imagery and brain science demonstrate that the adult brain is plastic, that it can change, grow and develop. We grow new neurons throughout our lives, though neuroscientists are still researching how, when and why neurogenesis is triggered.

Not only can we continue to learn and store new memories throughout our lives, we can expand and change our brain capacity. What we do, how we behave, what we practice changes not just our memories, but the very structure and function of our brains.

The brain of a concert violinist is structurally different from than the brains of people who don’t play the violin. Brain scans show that the brains of the Dali Lama and his Buddhist monks are structurally different from your brain and mine because they meditate hours and hours a day, day after day.

Yet the violinist, the Dali Lama and the monks were all born with brains very similar to yours and mine. You and I can also change the way our brains are wired when we change what we habitually think and what we habitually do.

Back in the day, people who’d had a stroke just learned to cope with their loss. There was no point in putting them through extensive therapy. Just as even further back in the day, there was no point in sending girls to school.

Of course, if you believe that there’s no coming back from a brain trauma or that you’re just stuck with the brain you have now, these will be self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe your brain can’t grow, develop and change, you’ll never do the work and put in the lengthy practice necessary to grow, develop or change your brain.

The key to recovering from a brain injury is to be willing to keep practicing the movements and functions you used to have even though you are awkward, frustrated with all the mistakes you’re making, and it seems like there’s no progress. People who show up day after day willing to try and make mistakes and try again eventually do recover, sometimes a little, sometimes miraculously. Take a look at Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight or The Brain that Changes Itself by Norma Doidge.

The Unchallenged Writer

Are you willing to write badly? Are you willing to make mistakes, see them and keep practicing at improving? Are you willing to let others see your mistakes and help you? Are you willing to write today and everyday even when your Saboteur is screaming “Stop!” or crooning “You can do it tomorrow.”? Are you willing to embarrass yourself in the pursuit of discovering how much you’re capable of? Are you willing to let go of self-limiting beliefs?

You know what they say: Argue for your limitations and they’re yours.

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2 Comments on “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”

  1. mkelberer December 20, 2009 at 9:22 am #

    Dammit! Why is “hard work” always the solution???? I need to find a blog that preaches the easier, softer way….
    Kidding! – Great piece, Rosanne.


    • rosannebane December 20, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

      Thanks Michael. I’ll give that ‘easier, softer way’ some thought.



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