If you’re frustrated, stymied and stuck, congratulations!
Frustration is a sign you are on the verge of a breakthrough. Frustration is not just an unpleasant side effect of being in the Incubation stage of the creative process. It is what moves you from Incubation to the satisfying “a-ha” of Illumination. (Read more about the 6 Stages of the Creative Process or find a comprehensive discussion in Chapter 4 of Around the Writer’s Block.)
The role of frustration has to do with your brain’s two attention networks (Task Positive Network and the Default Mode Network) and is illustrated in studies of what happened when researchers put people in a fMRI and asked them to solve puzzles.
For the full story, listen to my TEDx talk, Why Not Let Your Mind Wander. For a marvelous horsey metaphor that defines and explains the two attention networks, read Ann Betz’s post The Power of Dreaming, The Power of Action.
From the fMRI data, researchers knew that their subjects relied on their TPN, Task Positive Network (aka pay attention and get this done focus) to solve the puzzles. That is, until they couldn’t.
At some point, every person in the study had a puzzle s/he couldn’t solve. They tried and tried, but the solution evaded them. They got annoyed. Some complained that the study was flawed. Some told the researchers they were bad scientists for giving them unsolvable problems.
If they weren’t trapped in the fMRI machine, they’d probably would’ve gone AWOL to check their phones and get a snack.
Not having a way out made the test participants even more frustrated.
Until that point, the researchers had seen brain activity in the TPN, not the DMN, Default Mode Network (aka daydreaming and mind-wandering). There had been no characteristic spikes in brain activity that would signal a subject had had an “a-ha” moment of creative insight. (I think it’s amazing that researchers can see that spike of creativity up to 8 seconds before a person having the insight becomes consciously aware of it.)
The participants got so frustrated, they gave up. Brain activity shifted from TPN to the DMN. Shortly after the shift, most subjects showed the spike of creativity and suddenly “saw” how to solve the puzzle they had given up on.
When you’re using the TPN to focus on a task or problem, your brain activity is concentrated in a few key areas. When you’re using the DMN and letting your mind wander, your brain activity is dispersed throughout the brain. Your brain makes more, apparently random, connections that it can in TPN. Areas of the brain that don’t connect in TPN, connect during DMN.
Since creativity is bringing previously unrelated ideas together, DMN gives the brain more opportunities to make a creative connection.
Frustration pushes you out of TPN to DMF.
When the research participants finally got so frustrated with an “unsolvable” problem that they gave up and abandoned their usual approach, they were able to find a creative solution.
Without frustration, you wouldn’t make the shift that makes creativity possible.
So if you’re good and frustrated, hooray! You’re on the verge of seeing something in a new way.
If you’re not frustrated, don’t worry. You’ll get there.