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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.

Want to Write Better? (Part 2) Give Your Brain a Makeover!

What will smart writers’ brains be wearing this summer? Whatever it is, it needs to be different from what your brain wore last season. Because your brain needs a makeover — a cognitive style makeover.

If your brain is resistant to the idea of a cognitive style makeover, and really, what brain isn’t, remember that we agreed in our previous post that thinking differently helps you think more creatively and therefore write better.

This resistance to a makeover (aka change), like all writer’s resistance, is natural. The human brain evolved to prefer the predictable and familiar and to minimize risks.

But natural is not couture – that is, not innovative, creative, different.

There are evolutionary advantages to creative thinking, but the cognitive style you need to be creative runs contrary to the brain’s usual approach. Resistance is a reflection of the tension we feel when one part of our brain wants one thing and another part wants something else. 

When it comes to cognitive style makeovers, we are our own biggest censors. The strongest push away from curiosity comes from within.

At the very least, we need cognitive style alternatives: classic, trendy, grunge, business casual.

Who Are You Wearing, I Mean, Thinking?

What’s your brain’s typical look? What’s your preferred style?

Let’s call the brain’s typical ways of functioning the “dominant cognitive style.”

This dominant cognitive style drives your nonconscious behaviors – the choices you make about where to focus your attention, what information is relevant and what isn’t, how to process that information, and what assumptions you can rely on to anticipate how the world works and how people behave. And all without even realizing you’re making these choices and assumptions.  

There are individual differences of course (thank God!), but in most human brains, the dominant cognitive style seeks certainty, security, minimal risk, the familiar and the predictable.

The last thing your dominant style wants are crazy, dangerous, pointless alternatives. The first thing creativity requires are crazy, exciting, valuable alternatives.

Did You See That?

The human brain excels at pattern-recognition. Your dominant cognitive style will actively ignore information that deviates from expected patterns. We don’t see what’s there, we see what fits our expectations and assumptions about what should be there.

Seeing is NOT believing; believing is seeing.

If you doubt this true for you, if you think you really see the world as it is, consider this:

“In the middle of the retina, where the optic nerve connects to the eye, we have a blind spot where there are no photoreceptors. When we look at the world around us we are totally unaware that there are gaping holes in our vision.” — Michael Talbot, The Holotropic Universe

If you’re not seeing black holes, congratulations your brain is working, and you are not perceiving reality. Your brain is creating reality. (Take a look at David Eagleman’s work for more.)

Changing Your (Out)Look

To shift your brain out of its (your) preferred cognitive style, avoid typical patterns and stop reinforcing your assumptions.

Your brain extrapolates the whole from pieces. If the information you take in is 90% negative and 10% positive, your brain assumes reality is 90% negative.

Setting aside questions of what’s true, what’s fake and what sources can be trusted, most of reality is not “newsworthy.” How often is your life, home, job featured on network news? The news media doesn’t even try to present ALL of reality. It can’t. What it presents is primarily negative.

You know this of course. So your brain can account for the skew in the information you take in, right? Wrong. What you know consciously affects your nonconscious beliefs and behaviors for a nano-second before your dominant cognitive style snaps back.

Can you see where I’m going with this? *cue the scary music of doom* To change your outlook, take a media fast: ingest no social media and no news from any source other than talking with real, live humans for at least three days.

If going cold turkey scares the bejeebers out of you, go on a media diet: significantly reduce your consumption for at least three days.

OMG What Will You Do with All that Time?

Now that you cleared your typical choices out of the closet of your mind, consciously give yourself alternatives so you won’t revert to your usual cognitive style (at least not while you’re paying conscious attention).

Go outside. Perceive reality directly. Being outdoors not only changes what information you’re taking in, it changes how your brain functions.

Read a book, a big, fat book that takes hours to read. Dig into the nuances and contradictions. Bonus points for reading in genres you don’t usually read.

Meditate. Like being outdoors, meditation changes both the information you attend to and how your brain functions. Meditate long enough and it changes your brain’s very structure. Bonus points if you’re now wondering if that’s really true and what my source is for that claim. Answer: It’s based on MRI scans of Tibetan monks.

Give your brain downtime. When you meditate, you attempt to focus your attention; when you give your brain downtime, you let your thoughts wander wherever. Daydream. Imagine. Stare at clouds. Float in warm water. Watch paint dry. Listen to the trees when the wind blows.

Leave a comment to let me know what you did with the extra time you found during your media fast and how you look/see in those alternatives.


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