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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.

Do You Know How to Shift Your Brain to “Creative OverDrive”?

Remember that writing project that you stalled out on (or are currently stalled with)? The one you just couldn’t get any traction on because your brain is in neutral or reverse?

Obviously, you need to shift gears to a creative brain state to get moving on that again.

The trouble is there isn’t just one creative brain state; you have to know which of several gears to shift into.

Creativity comes, not from one brain state, but from several states. Overdrive is a great option, but you can’t do all your driving in it.

Do You Need Your Prefrontal Cortex More or Less Active?

It depends. When you want to generate possibilities and new ideas (e.g. when you’re drafting or exploring ideas to discover your next writing project), you want your prefrontal cortex to be less engaged than usual. You need a diffuse, mentally fuzzy focus, not laser concentration.

But when you’re evaluating several options to determine which to devote further attention to or when you want to refine and improve an idea, (e.g. when you’re researching or revising), you need normal activity, or even enhanced activity, in your prefrontal cortex.

To achieve this “hyper-frontality,” you need to eliminate or ignore environmental cues, disengage from electronic media and refrain from distracting yourself so you can focus your attention on the question at hand.

Shifting Out of Ordinary Consciousness

On other hand, when you need reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, you should allow yourself to daydream or notice “irrelevant” details in the environment. Free play (with few or no rules) and Process can also induce this state.

And while distraction is often a form of resistance, intentionally “distracting” yourself (i.e. shifting your focus) can quiet your prefrontal cortex enough to give you new insight.

In a study that demonstrated the value of distraction, researchers “asked people to generate novel names for products. Those who were sidetracked by a different task thought of more original names than those who worked on the problem continuously.” (Scientific American Mind, July/August 2012, p. 50)

Seeing the Everyday in a New Way

In our typical state of consciousness with the prefrontal cortex engaged, we identify objects with generic labels. For example, on my desk right now, there is a water glass, my laptop, a file folder, my To Do list and a magazine.

We tend to overlook the distinguishing, sensory features of objects. For example, this particular glass on my desk is clear with a green tint, short and has a cow embossed on the side. I didn’t mention those details earlier because I didn’t really see these details, I just saw a glass.

Noticing the visual properties of an object reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex and allows you to see more options in everything.

Instead of “a glass” I could describe it as “a tube of greenish glass,” “smooth, hard, clear waterproof container” or “hollow cylinder of fused silicon.” Instead of a “magazine” I have a “stack of glossy paper stapled together” or “different shades of ink dried on a flat surface” or “mass of symbols and images.”

And after describing these objects in this atypical ways, my prefrontal cortex was less active and I found the title for this blog. (More tips from Scientific American Mind)

Writer’s Advantage

As writers, we practice describing things in alternative ways. You already know how to shift brain gears; you just didn’t know that you knew. Now you can intentionally use that skill when you want to downshift your brain into “Creative Drive.”

When you feel stuck and need a novel insight, challenge yourself to use a variety of sensory details to describe (mentally or in writing) an everyday object.

Or describe the object as if you’re explaining it to someone who lived in Colonial America or another distant time or place.

Or take a break and let your mind wander. Move around, stretch. Stop looking at the problem head on. Then return to your original task.

Chances are, the shift of mental gears will shift your perception and reveal new possibilities.

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10 Comments on “Do You Know How to Shift Your Brain to “Creative OverDrive”?”

  1. Joel Kiskola November 24, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    Great article. This makes so much sense. And clarifies some things, and makes explaining creative process easier. Background: I am studying Industrial Furniture Design.


    • rosannebane November 28, 2012 at 10:36 pm #

      Thanks Joel! I’m delighted the concepts translate to other artists/art forms.


  2. Daphne Gray-Grant June 28, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Can I make a suggestion Roseanne? I think you should start putting your subheads in BLACK rather than another colour. People often figure that another colour “stands out” more, when, in fact, the reverse is usually true.

    Take a piece of copy (with some coloured type in it) and hold it away from your face. Then squint at it. Decide which colour stands out the most and my guess is you’ll pick black. That’s because it’s almost always the darkest colour.

    As well, coloured type is HARD to read. My eyes just flip over the orange type you’ve used here, because they don’t want to have to work that hard!!


    • rosannebane June 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      Thanks Daphne for taking the time to tell me about this. You’re right, I assume another color stands out and makes the blog look more engaging. Do you think all colored type is more difficult to read or that some colors like orange are particularly difficult?


      • Daphne Gray-Grant June 29, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

        Hi Rosanne, I think all colours are equally difficult although something really pale (I’m thinking of a pale yellow) might be even harder. The only exception to this rule is if the type is super big and very fat (I’m thinking of 72 point futura extra bold.) In cases like that, a strong colour such as red might work.

        Colour may make the blog APPEAR more engaging, but it will make the type harder to read — and that’s DISengaging.

        I was taught this by a graphic designer more than 25 years ago and it has never steered me wrong! (I see you used black today. Looks way better!!!)


  3. rosannebane October 13, 2017 at 8:56 am #

    Thanks for linking to my blog, Jody!



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