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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.

Is Your Writing Stuck Because Your Brain has Plateaued?

sean DSouza flying

Sean D’Souza

By Sean D’Souza

I’m delighted to introduce you to today’s guest blogger, Sean D’Souza, Chief Brain Auditor for Psychotactics. Sean is a fellow brain geek — fascinated by the human brain and able to translate what he discovers into engaging articles (as you’re about to see). He is the author of The Brain Audit—Why Customers Buy And Why They Don’t. Visit the Pyschotactics website for more articles by Sean including a free report on “Why Do Most Headlines Fail?”

As you read’s Sean article, consider how much of your writing resistance is caused by your brain plateauing…

Imagine you had thirty-three seconds to pick up a glass of water, take it across the room, and throw the water down the sink.

Could you do it?


And you wouldn’t need more than ten seconds to do the task, especially if the sink isn’t very far away. Now give that very same task to a two-year old child and watch what happens.

Yup, kids of that age struggle with everything!

In fact, if that toddler spilled half the contents of the glass on your carpet, you wouldn’t be overly surprised. So why does that toddler struggle so much? The reason for the struggle is because that child’s brain is thinking of everything.

Thinking? What’s bad about thinking?

Well, for one, it takes up a lot of energy

When you picked up the glass, you didn’t think about it, but here’s what you did. You placed your thumb and another finger around the glass. Then the other fingers wrapped themselves mere seconds later.

A millisecond later, your brain was able to calculate the amount of water, the possible weight of the glass and enable you to accurately lift it from the table, without thinking about it.

This non-thinking zone is the plateau

Imagine having to think of everything: how we drive, how we walk, how we talk—how we do almost everything we do every day.

The brain is a gluton for energy -- so it compensates

The brain is a glutton for energy — so it compensates

Our brains would quickly get overburdened with all the steps. That’s because your brain needs twice as much energy than most other cells in your body. To have to think of every action, would be like the brain having to turn on every single light in a five-bedroom house all at once.

And all the time too. That’s not only tiring but also a complete waste of energy.

So the brain makes the action as automatic as possible

If it first needed to ‘turn on thirty lights’ to get the job done, it begins to turn ‘fewer and fewer lights’ to get the very same task done. The task of lifting a glass and tipping it over may take ‘thirty lights’ for that two-year old, but your brain needs a lot ‘fewer lights’ to do the same thing. And paradoxically, your learning has reached a plateau.

The very thing that makes our lives easier also makes it miserable

You see this when you’re teaching a course, for instance. On the cartoon course, we start off with a new assignment and there is nothing but groaning and moaning as the participants take on the task of learning.

But about four days later, after some practice, their brain works out the mistakes and makes the task mostly automatic—especially if it’s a a small task. When we learn many such tasks and understand the sequence of these tasks, we plateau.

So for most of us, driving a car isn’t a problem

Most of us could be woken up at 2am in the morning, and still drive. We could be given half a bottle of wine, and yes our driving would be impaired, but we would still be able to drive. We could juggle eating a banana, scream at the kids in the background, speak on the phone—and generally be a super-hazard to ourselves and others—but still drive.

That’s because most of the elements of the driving routine are automatic. No more learning is required unless you run into a new situation. And while this is ‘automation’ is exactly what we need, it’s also a super-curse.

The plateau follows almost immediately

At this point, you feel comfortable, and you stay well within that comfort zone. So for instance someone on the cartooning course, would be easily able to draw several cartoons in a space of 6-9 months of instruction.

A cartoonist that is in the plateau-zone would find it hard to understand the concepts of tones, focal point, spot colour, balance of vertical and horizontal, variation contrast, consistent humour, broken lines, perspective etc. Even those very words would put sheer fear into their brains. They would want to stick to the core of lines, emotions, possibly some perspective.

Sure they can draw, but the process of drawing is being done without thinking. It’s second nature. Automatic.

And that’s the plateau

The only way to get out of that plateau is to keep pushing the boundaries. As your brain slips into auto mode, enjoy the ride for a while, then go back into manual. And that’s when you get smarter. But of course, this requires your brain to switch on all those ‘thirty lights’. It’s a queasy, uncomfortable feeling. So most of us head back to our automatic transmission. And that’s the difference between pace and potential.

If you truly want to soar, you can’t go at pace forever

You have to find your potential. Any two-year old can tell you that.

P.S. All this nonsense about how we ‘can’t remember names, can’t draw, can’t cook, can’t dance, can’t write’ is just that: nonsense! It’s a life that’s being lived at pace, not potential. The plateau is a great place to be for most of the time, but sometimes go up in the mountains. It’s heady up there!

How can you challenge your brain to write at your full potential? How far away from your plateau can you go and still keep your creative cortex driving the bus?

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14 Comments on “Is Your Writing Stuck Because Your Brain has Plateaued?”

  1. home bar June 8, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

    Exceptional post however , I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?

    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.


  2. Diego June 2, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

    This design is wicked! You obviously know
    how to keep a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was
    almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Wonderful job.
    I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.
    Too cool!


  3. Latashia May 27, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    Hello there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading through your blog
    posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same
    subjects? Thank you so much!


    • rosannebane June 2, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

      You might want to look at Joel Canfield’s Someday Box (www.somedaybox.com) or Steven Pressfield’s blog (www.stevenpressfield.com).


  4. diamant forge of empire May 16, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post! It is the little changes that produce the biggest changes.

    Thanks for sharing!


  5. Dr. Karen Shue February 7, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

    I don’t know that I would think of it as a plateau so much as “habits”. But the overall theme is true: there are times when our habits are helpful and times when they get in our way. For writing, I suggest my dissertation writers intentionally create and then use brain-habits to give their brains the energy and “space” to be creative. Brain-habits preserve the glucose and other nutrients that are needed for the creative Play — the fewer decisions we need to make, the more efficient and resilient our brains are at the interesting choices we have. So writing rituals, writing times, materials, etc. etc. can all be brain-habits that support the Play of the writing itself. If we wear ourselves out getting to the page, we get less done, no matter how much we push and challenge. So for me, it’s maybe less an emphasis on challenging the brain to be different, than supporting its natural inclinations, including to Play when it has adequate resources. Just a few additional thoughts…


    • rosannebane February 10, 2013 at 10:40 am #

      Thanks Dr. Shue for your insights. I just looked at your blog/website and will recommend it to writers struggling with dissertations. I’m intrigued by your mention of creative play in your comment (since Process aka Creative Play for the sake of play is one of the 3 habits I recommend), but I didn’t find a link specific to the topic on your blog. Please say more here or in an email to me at Rosanne@RosanneBane.com about your perspective on play. What brain-based resources have you found to support play? (I assume you’ve seen Stuart Brown’s book “Play”.) Thanks again!


  6. J M Gallagher February 7, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    Interesting article. Explains why I’ve cried so much over spilled water lately as I’ve learned how to edit better.


  7. Sean D'Souza February 7, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    Thanks Rosanne 🙂


  8. Charity February 7, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    Reblogged this on Writing Wrongs and commented:
    I love this post from Rosanne’s blog. It captures one of the reasons I’m participating in Write 1/Sub 1 this year. Give it a read–as you can see, it applies to more than just writing.


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