Is your mind messy enough?

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

How do you improve creativity? Neuroscientists suggest that you embrace the concept of messiness.

I can’t write if my desk is untidy. That’s why I obsessively jam everything into my large wire inbox so my desktop at least gives the appearance of being clean.

But my brain? I want it to be messy. That’s because creative people typically have messy minds.

What do I mean by that? New research by Roger Beaty and others is finally showing evidence of the neuroscience behind creativity. Interestingly, happiness is not what makes us creative. (I don’t know why anyone ever assumed it would. Look at the number of suicide attempts from some creatives: Virginia Wolf,  Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath and Kurt Vonnegut.)

Instead, the secret to creativity is being able to manage our motivational intensity. In other words: if we have a desperate urge to write something — whether it’s a book, article, thesis or blog post — our attention is going to be tightly focused. We’re so hungry we can taste it.

This desperate feeling makes me think of trapping monkeys. Hunters in Africa catch monkeys by placing some banana in a jar. The monkey reaches his hand into the jar, grabs the food and makes a fist with his paw. Now, the monkey’s dilemma: he can’t get his hand out of the jar unless he drops the food. He won’t. So the hunter throws a net over the animal and captures him. (Have you ever felt “captured” by your inability to write? Be honest!)

The determined, monkey-makes-a-fist attitude, however, is perfect for editing. That kind of concentration is necessary for the linear, logical work of making your prose perf better.

This dichotomy — between being open-minded and being highly focused — is completely contradictory and somewhat uncomfortable. In other words, it’s messy.

Here is what researcher and writer Scott Barry Kaufman has to say about it: “Creative people have greater connections between two areas of the brain that are typically at odds: the brain network of regions associated with focus and attentional control, and the brain network of regions associated with imagination and spontaneity.

“Indeed, the entire creative process—not just the moments of deep insight— involves states of euphoria and inspiration as well as states of calm, rational focus. Creative people aren’t characterized by any one of these states alone; they are characterized by their adaptability and their ability to mix seemingly incompatible states of being depending on the task, whether it’s open attention with a focused drive, mindfulness with daydreaming, intuition with rationality, intense rebelliousness with respect for tradition.”

As I was reading Kaufman’s thoughts, guess what occurred to me? Mindmapping! This technique encourages us to relax, open our minds and let our creative juices flow. If you haven’t tried mindmapping yet, or if you have and don’t feel it’s worked for you, check out my very brief video and try again. It’s honestly the closest thing to a magic bullet I’ve ever found for writing.

Here’s another tip I’ve shared before: Celebrate your crappy first draft. The crappier the better! This is because a crappy first draft demonstrates your determination to keep your mind open and relaxed while you’re writing. The fine-tuning work called editing is something that should only come later, when you’re prepared to be intense and highly focused.

Toggling between these two vastly different mindsets — being open-minded and being highly focused — is challenging and messy but it’s the best way to become a creative, confident, productive writer.

Do you allow your mind to be messy? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Charles Broming, the winner of this month’s book prize, How To Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish for an Oct. 14 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of Two Awesome Hours, by Josh Davis. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below.