Konstantin Ivanovich Gorbatov - A Winter's Day, 1934
Konstantin Ivanovich Gorbatov – A Winter’s Day (1934)

Over the last year, I’ve done the most creating that I probably ever have, and it seems that maneuvering the hurdles of the creative process is a skill in itself. I think it’s important to talk about the possible mechanisms behind that, for myself and others, those looking to develop or enhance their creative potential.

Absorb diversely, explore foreign fields, inculcate the boring until it becomes exciting

“Everyone you meet knows something you don’t know but need to know. Learn from them.”
—Carl Jung

Paul-Albert Besnard - Truth Leading the Sciences, Giving Light to Man [1891] (cropped edges)
Paul-Albert Besnard – Truth, Leading the Sciences, Giving Light to Man (1891)
The more we educate ourselves, the more expansive our world can seem. Each new concept we learn adds another layer onto every applicable area of life, such as being able to examine the psychological richness of behavior with increasing depth, or the philosophy of music, or metaphorical comparisons between science and art. We are thus rewarded for our intellectual efforts, as an accumulated knowledge aids us practically while coloring the world; exponential saturation and profundity. Our creative palette keeps expanding when we develop our unique aesthetic discernment for what we allow into it and what we discard, so that no new experience is wasted because there’s always something to assimilate.

“Through others we become ourselves.”
—Lev Vygotsky

There are many people whose creative energy, at some point, became inverted, and now exists almost exclusively to generate excuses, complaints, flaws, and negations. Nassim Taleb teaches the wisdom of ‘via negativa’, the omission of (harmful) things to maximize efficacy and make room for positive additions, via positiva, but the rigid negator becomes trapped in pathological negation, walled in, always working to formulate a why-not, until they exhaust all reasons why and are doomed to stagnate indefinitely (“sitting in a bunker, here behind my wall”). Who knows what potential exists for the negator that becomes a life-affirming individual, always striving to find the silver lining, sparking flashes of light in the darkness. 

“Negation is a human function that would stop the free advance of life and consciousness, opposing critical questioning and spontaneous understanding. The refusal to discuss a problem…that make whole courses of action impossible, are negations, that have their poisonous effects. Physiology reflects their poison, in all the ramifications of learned helplessness…Negation excludes or suppresses those complex processes of being,* and implants nothing but–at the most–obligation in their place.”
—Raymond Peat, Vision & Acceptance Interview (2014)

As a creator, knowing the dark side of rigidity and negativity, it’s important to continually reorient yourself towards the things you like, and away from the things you don’t. If something ignites our disgust, that is our physiology warning us away from it, often implying long-term sickness if we don’t heed that warning, owing to echoes from evolutionary mechanisms.

A creativity of negation, that is, a fixation on things that you hate, is a destructive addiction in the same way that alcoholism or drug addiction is. It drives joy and progress away, inviting rot and disease. Negation may attract crowds that resonate with the hatred, which would appear as validation to continue, but a group that is joined only by mutual negativity, or a common enemy, is inevitably a leaning tower with an inevitable, and probably disastrous, expiration date.

Frans von Stuck, Ringelreihen, 1910
Frans von Stuck – Ringelreihen (1910)

When we imbue ourselves with positive meanings and passions, we surround ourselves with an aura of that protective energy, and it permeates in our demeanor to attract those that resonate with it, to form the antithesis of a tribal anger: a wellspring of generative energy; a bastion of creativity. This is how the world is pushed toward Heaven, step by step, and we beautify the world when we collaborate on life-affirming goals and projects.

Embrace your eccentricity 

Embracing our strangeness, we give rise to new flavors, permutations that are stamped into human history forever. People seek out and are enamored by intelligent eccentricity because it’s refreshing; it’s a celebration of differentiation, of aristocratic fetishization, of the oddities that we never noticed having a light shone on them, providing perspectives that pull us toward the sublime, or mystical. It’s for this reason that we should embody and refine our idiosyncrasies like a sculpture that gradually transforms from vague resemblance to striking portrait.

Nourish your health and refine your thoughts: marinate, contemplate, process, externalize

Physiological health equals creative capacity. Behaviors that raise neurogenesis, endorphins, dopamine (in the right places), or balance GABA and glutamate, get the creative generation flowing: walking, weights, meditation, yoga, exercise, hot showers, adequate protein (Colzato, et al., 2015), will facilitate creative generative states, which includes consolidating already-absorbed information for articulation in different mediums. This consolidation may not be noticeable on a conscious level; for example, we require sleep to integrate and relate memories, and realize solutions to ongoing challenges (Wagner, et al., 2004; Wamsley and Stickgold, 2012). 

During activities like meditation, exercise, play, and daydreaming, we’re nourishing and stimulating the brain in ways that will make clearer the ideas we already have, and encourage divergent and convergent thinking that connects ideas and solutions more fluidly. Our brain is an electrochemical organ, and all of the mental and bodily habits that keep it healthy neurologically are stimulating it electrically, opening various modes of thinking not otherwise possible. 

Among the greatest creators and thinkers of history were those who utilized, even relied upon, walking, hiking, or “forest bathing” (shinrin yoku) for their work, if not their sanity, to discharge from the heaviness of thought, to allow processing. This includes Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanual Kant, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur Rimbaud, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Einstein.

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
Søren Kierkegaard, in a letter to his niece, Henriette Lund, 1847

“….the moment my legs begin to move my thoughts begin to flow.”
Henry David Thoreau, in his journal, 1851

By cultivating these healthy habits, we’re increasing the rate by which these “finalized” ideas flow into our waking minds, ready to be materialized. In the 1920s, psychologist Graham Wallas defined this as the “incubation period” in the creative process. We absorb, incubate, and are then illuminated with sudden realizations and connections, to finally verify these externally.

Meditation is proven to increase creativity, specifically divergent thinking, but it also reduces overall mental stress and improves attention and emotional regulation, which we know further increases creativity, since negative mental states are the killer (Ding, et al., 2014).

In 1997, Steinberg, et al. found that aerobic exercise significantly improved creativity and mood, but the creative boost was independent from the mood-lifting effects. That is, creativity was heightened whether a test subject’s mood improved or not. Dance had a better effect than regimented workouts: free engagement of the body begets free engagement of the mind.

“It may be that ‘free’ rather than prescribed exercise is more likely to release the ‘stream of consciousness’, as we ourselves have found in pilot experiments; …The slightly greater improvements in creativity after aerobic dance could possibly be due to the nature of the exercise, which allows more freedom of movement than the regimented aerobic workout.”
—Steinberg, et al., “Exercise enhances creativity independently of mood” (1997)

Abandon perfectionism, abandon ideal conditions

Since willpower is limited, and prolonged will-power exertion quickly depletes blood glucose, sabotaging performance (Gailliot, et al., 2007), we have to be careful how we go about managing our time and decisions. We can customize our environments to drastically reduce wastefulness, and maximize productivity, efficacy, and well-being. To tyrannize over oneself with excess discipline is probably catastrophic through the physiological stress it will induce, especially long term, and an excess of disciplinary expectations and environmental restrictions placed upon oneself can paralyze and discourage to the point that less work gets done than if we just gave ourselves a reasonable balance in terms of leisure vs. discipline (Kempke, et al., 2016). The dread of being overworked and deprived of comforts induces learned helplessness which is counterproductive for your goal. The balance of benevolent, reasonable, gradual, scaled self-discipline, while compassionate rewarding yourself as progress is seen, encourages continual productivity (Ferrari, et al., 2018). The art of preventing that self-reward from becoming a fall back into prolonged stagnation takes time: you just learn which influences and tools to utilize for these instances, and environmental customization can play a big role here. 

Asceticism and sensory deprivation 

Franz von Stuck - Falling Stars (Franz and Mary Stuck), 1912
Franz von Stuck – Falling Stars (Franz and Mary Stuck) (1912)

Breaking away from process addictions like social media, news feeds, any hyperstimulus that pacifies rumination but exhausts mental energy, is immensely relieving and helpful. Indeed, though it may not be consciously obvious, passive browsing depletes mental resources and stifles creativity. We can barely stay sane if we’re not adequately breaking from hyperstimuli, let alone be creative. To relieve ourselves of that stimulation can be seen as a form of sensory deprivation, and it’s during sensory deprivation that “excess” space opens, a silence that the brain will automatically attempt to fill. The same principle applies for phosphenes, the colors and patterns we see when we close our eyes tightly: spontaneous generation occurring out of darkness. 

If we turn our minds into allies, we can bare to be alone with them, and this is where peace can be found. Our minds are capable of existing in a state of true calm, and I’ve found that it’s especially during these modes that the most productive generation occurs. You struggle less and create more, seamlessly, pleasantly. By constantly gorging ourselves, we’re attempting to mute negative emotions, but also inadvertently hindering the possibility of generating wonderful ideas. The overstimulated mind becomes numb and dull, and fails to create novel insights, to see refreshing connections that others miss. 

In summary, you can cultivate creativity with:

  • Curiosity mindset: learn everywhere you can, and learn what you like to learn. This is similar to shoshin, or the Zen Buddhist “beginner’s mind”. High openness and eagerness to experience, and shedding possibly dysfunctional preconceptions.
  • Absorb diverse art, ideas, people, environments: increasing your palette, increasing your network of potential connections that, once imbued with your uniqueness, lend to the creation of stimulating and beautiful content.
  • Abandon perfectionism: if you have to start somewhere, start by doing it badly. Perfectionism and self-critical attitudes will not only stifle creativity, they can stop you from ever even approaching your craft, and actually contribute to physical disease. Go easy on yourself, take it one step at a time, and measure progress by highlighting your strengths, and compassionately noting and nurturing your weaknesses.
  • Exercise: in moderation, not too much, and not exercise you dread; that can impair creativity (Colzato, et al., 2013). If your exercise is hurting your creativity, switch it up, exercise less, or stop and let things settle.
  • Walking (Oppezzo and Schwarts, 2014)
  • Dancing (Steinberg, et al., 1997)
  • Meditation: I like the free app Stop, Breathe & Think
  • Hot showers
  • Daydreaming: allowing your mind to roam without the usual external stimulation.
  • Adequate sleep (Wamsley, et al., 2011)
  • Tyrosine (Colzato, et al., 2015), the amino acid; can be supplemented, or found amply in seaweed, eggs, cheese, meat, and fish.
Gustav Klimt - Moving Water, 1898
Gustav Klimt – Moving Water (1898)

Works Cited

“Negation.” Vision and Acceptance, http://www.visionandacceptance.com/negation/.

Colzato, Lorenza S., et al. “Food for Creativity: Tyrosine Promotes Deep Thinking.” Psychological Research, vol. 79, no. 5, 2014, pp. 709–714., doi:10.1007/s00426-014-0610-4.

Colzato, Lorenza S., et al. “Meditate to Create: The Impact of Focused-Attention and Open-Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 3, 2012, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00116.

Colzato, Lorenza S., et al. “The Impact of Physical Exercise on Convergent and Divergent Thinking.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 7, 2013, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00824.

Colzato, Lorenza S., et al. “The Impact of Physical Exercise on Convergent and Divergent Thinking.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 7, 2013, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00824.

Ding, Xiaoqian, et al. “Improving Creativity Performance by Short-Term Meditation.” Behavioral and Brain Functions, vol. 10, no. 1, 2014, p. 9., doi:10.1186/1744-9081-10-9.

Ferrari, Madeleine, et al. “Self-Compassion Moderates the Perfectionism and Depression Link in Both Adolescence and Adulthood.” Plos One, vol. 13, no. 2, 2018, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0192022.

Gailliot, Matthew T., et al. “Self-Control Relies on Glucose as a Limited Energy Source: Willpower Is More than a Metaphor.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 92, no. 2, 2007, pp. 325–336., doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.325.

Kempke, Stefan, et al. “Self-Critical Perfectionism Predicts Lower Cortisol Response to Experimental Stress in Patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” Health Psychology, vol. 35, no. 3, 2016, pp. 298–307., doi:10.1037/hea0000299.

Mcgirr, Alexander, and Gustavo Turecki. “Self-Critical Perfectionism Is Associated With Increases In Sympathetic Indicators In A Controlled Laboratory Stress Paradigm.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 71, no. 5, 2009, p. 588., doi:10.1097/psy.0b013e3181a99b64.

Steinberg, H., et al. “Exercise Enhances Creativity Independently of Mood.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 31, no. 3, 1997, pp. 240–245., doi:10.1136/bjsm.31.3.240.

Wagner, Ullrich, et al. “Sleep Inspires Insight.” Nature, vol. 427, no. 6972, 2004, pp. 352–355., doi:10.1038/nature02223.

Wallas, Graham. The Art of Thought / by Graham Wallas. J. Cape, 1926.

Wamsley, Erin J., and Robert Stickgold. “Dreaming and Offline Memory Processing.” Current Biology, vol. 20, no. 23, 2010, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2010.10.045.

Wamsley, Erin J., and Robert Stickgold. “Memory, Sleep, and Dreaming: Experiencing Consolidation.” Sleep Medicine Clinics, vol. 6, no. 1, 2011, pp. 97–108., doi:10.1016/j.jsmc.2010.12.008.

Ward, Adrian F., et al. “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, vol. 2, no. 2, 2017, pp. 140–154., doi:10.1086/691462.

Wirtz, Petra H., et al. “Perfectionism and the Cortisol Response to Psychosocial Stress in Men.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 69, no. 3, 2007, pp. 249–255., doi:10.1097/psy.0b013e318042589e.

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