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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.

When is Winning Really Losing?

What’s better for you: an easy win (e.g. your writer’s group loves your latest effort, the query you sent gets a quick and enthusiastic go-ahead, a blog post almost writes itself) or a painful setback (e.g. your writer’s group has questions and suggestions for your next revision, the editor you queried says “No thanks,” it takes days to figure out what to say in your next blog post and even more time wrestling with how to craft it)?

We want the easy wins, but the losses will give us more in the long run. As uncomfortable as disappointment is, it really is good for you and your creative brain.

To understand why, let’s review a study known as the Iowa Gambling Task (described in more detail in How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer). Neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Antoine Bechara devised a game where subjects were given four decks of cards and $2,000 play money. Subjects could choose from any deck and each card told them whether they’d won or lost money. Damasio and Bechara had stacked the decks so that two decks were high risk, offering bigger payouts, but even bigger losses. The other two decks gave smaller rewards, but rarely punished the player with a loss, so a player who pulled exclusively from these two decks won more in the long run.

As you might expect, it took the subjects some time to figure out through trial and error which decks to choose. After drawing an average of 50 cards, most subjects went to the profitable decks exclusively. They couldn’t explain why they were doing so until they’d pulled an average of 80 cards, however. But a machine monitoring their skin’s electrical conductance (one component of polygraph testing) revealed the subject’s anxiety level and showed that subjects were nervous about pulling from the high risk deck after pulling only 10 cards!

It took 10 trials for the emotional brain to determine which decks were dangerous. It took 50 trials before the emotional brain was able to consistently influence behavior (subjects started pulling from the safe decks). And it took a whopping 80 trials before the subject’s logical brain could articulate why he or she preferred the safe decks.

When the subjects won, their dopamine neurons fired and since dopamine is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, they felt pleasure. When the subjects lost, their dopamine neurons stopped firing and they felt bad. Dopamine neurons learn fast, but only when a person is trying different things and experiencing both positive and negative results and emotions.

As Lehrer explains “This is a crucial cognitive talent. Dopamine neurons automatically detect the subtle patterns that we would otherwise fail to notice; they assimilate all the data that we can’t consciously comprehend. And then, once they come up with a set of refined predictions about how the world works, they translate these predictions into emotions… These wise yet inexplicable feelings are an essential part of the decision-making process. Even when we think we know nothing, our brains know something. That’s what our feelings are trying to tell us.” (p. 48)

In other words, intuition needs practice. The only way to get that practice is to try different approaches to give your dopamine neurons more experience. Lehrer points out “Dopamine neurons need to be continually trained and retrained, or else their predictive accuracy declines.” (p. 48)

“Failure” is nothing more than an experience we didn’t enjoy, but an experience that gave our dopamine neurons valuable information nonetheless. Okay, sure some failures can be life-threatening and I’m not suggesting you do something truly stupid. But how much of the “failure” and disappointment you avoid in your writing life is life-threatening? How many risks, i.e. opportunities to learn, are you denying yourself?

“Success” is nothing more than an experience we enjoy. Stop looking for the familiar, easy win and go for the novel risk. If you succeed at the familiar, it’s a small win that fails to give your dopamine neurons new information. But if you succeed at the novel risk, you win and learn valuable new information. Even if you fail, you get new information and that’s a bigger win than succeeding at the familiar.

What can you “fail” at today?

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4 Comments on “When is Winning Really Losing?”

  1. rosannebane October 21, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    Thanks Laura! I’m pretty amazed myself at what the research shows. And the best part is that all this good stuff is also going into the book (Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want) in more detail.


  2. Laura Sommers October 21, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    I’m constantly amazed at the research you are uncovering… and what it means to us as creative people!



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