I’m back from a social media-free week and boy was it wonderful. It was both freeing and humbling. This from the person who didn’t have a TV for years and who initially refused a mobile phone for work. How did I fall into the habit of checking email first thing in the morning? Pulling up Twitter or FaceBook while I waited for my daughters at ballet? Or peaking in at the internal life of my phone just because it happened to flash? I thought I was in control of my phone but as it turns out, my phone is in control of me.
Giving our phones priority over ourselves and over the important people who share our lives has many ramifications, not just for our relationships and our driving records, but for our creativity.
So let’s talk about transient hypofrontality. This is what happens in our brains when we’re creating. Our powerful and practical frontal lobes are calmed and temporarily by-passed so the brain can makes connections it otherwise wouldn’t make. Rex Jung, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, and his colleagues have been studying the difference between intelligence and creativity and what they’ve found is transient hypofrontality, a term coined by one of Jung’s collaborators Arne Dietrick at the American University in Beirut.
The ”down regulation of the frontal lobes,” Jung says in an interview with On Being allows ”a freer interplay of different networks in the brain so that the ideas literally can link together more readily. So with intelligence, you know, the analogy I’ve used is there’s this superhighway in the brain that allows you to get from Point A to Point B. With creativity, it’s a slower, more meandering process where you want to take the side roads and even the dirt roads to get there, to put the ideas together. So the down regulation of frontal lobes, in particular, is important to allow those ideas to link together in unexpected ways.”
Jung, who also helps people with brain illness or injury rebuild their lives, is one of the leading experts on brain intelligence. His interest in neuroscience started with a simple volunteering position. He was ”disenchanted or bored” with his job in the business world so he joined a friend who was volunteering with the Special Olympics, coaching basketball, volleyball and track. His interest grew into passion and he realized that people could have huge amounts of creativity even when traditional measures of intelligence were lacking.
So how can we induce transient hypofrontality and become more creative?
We need to forget about productivity and embrace downtime to free our brains from ”ongoing cognitive activity,” Jung says.
LESSONS FROM MARGARET ATWOOD
I suspect this is why Canadian author Margaret Atwood likes to iron between writing stints. Exercise, walks or runs, meditation or yoga, even a shower or a bath, or washing the dishes free up our frontal lobes so we can make creative connections that wouldn’t happen under the control of our bossy frontal lobes.
There’s something else that Atwood does that will help us. In her upstairs study she has two desks and two computers, one of which is connected to the internet and one of which is not.
Checking email and Facebook at work, chatting and driving, Tweeting during a conference and trying to create just doesn’t work. Daniel J Levitin, a James McGill Professor of Psychology, Behavioural Neuroscience and Music at McGill University in Montreal, calls multi-tasking a ”pernicious illusion.”
We devour fives times as much information as 25 years ago, we all feel we don’t have as much time as before, we feel less effective and it seems harder to make decisions, he says in an interview with Australian radio program All in the Mind.
Part of our brain, the insula, is responsible for task switching and every time we change our focus we use brain glucose, Levitin says. Lots of switching and we burn up the glucose, start releasing the stress hormone cortisol and shut down our brain’s ability to process complicated problems.
Even the distraction of an unread email in our inbox reduces our functioning IQ by 10 points because our brains are still asking questions about who sent it, what is it, how will I treat it.
Our multi-tasking productivity-focussed lives are making us less creative and less productive. The brain has what Levitin calls two different attention modes: the central executive mode when we’re actively involved and focussed on a task; and daydreaming mode. If we want to be more creative and productive, we need to daydream, not multi-task, because daydreaming resets our brain and restores some of the lost glucose.
Ah finally, I hear you saying with a sigh, permission to daydream.
All those teachers who yelled at us for daydreaming were wrong. We knew exactly what we were doing.
Writing With Miss Kiki: Schedule in daydreaming time of 5 or 10 minutes every day for one week. Go somewhere without your mobile phone. Take an old-fashioned timer or set the microwave timer. Sit with your notebook and, as Margaret Atwood recommends, a sharp pencil or two. Daydream. Reset the timer for 5 or 10 minutes. Start writing. Don’t stop until the timer goes. Repeat every day this week. At the end of your session write one word about how you feel.
Fascinated by transient hypofrontality? Listen to Rex Jung explain it on OnBeing. For more on the brain, music, and organising your world to boost creativity listen to Daniel Levitin on All in the Mind and check out his best-selling book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.