Many of my life’s epiphanies happen when I’m busy doing something other than looking for the meaning of life. Showering, cooking, driving, jogging. Things that require a bit of attention but not total focus. In fact, I’ve had so many personal epiphanies while hiking and folding laundry that I’ve become curious about it. Why is a little distraction good for insight?
My best guess is that activity quiets the mind – that conscious, thinking part of the mind that is usually humming like an air conditioner through our every waking moment (I’m talking here about executive function in the prefrontal cortex for you science nerds). For example, if I’m busy chopping carrots, I suspect that my brain hands over more control to the motor control regions of my brain and less to the self-conscious, idea editing part of my brain. While I’m still free to think, it’s likely to be a little less structured, a little more freeform. Like a child on the beach, rambling around in the sand, looking at all the foamy surf, the pretty stones and seashells, the smashed bits of crab. There’s no agenda here, except to keep rambling.
In this way, distracted thinking is a bit like meditation. A regular sitting practice not only enhances one’s powers of concentration, but focusing on the breath for long periods frees other regions of the brain to rest and loosen up. In other words, to get quiet.
A 2012 study from the University of Leiden revealed that meditation can positively affect two key components of creativity: divergent thinking (which generates new ideas, like the kid finding trinkets on the beach) and convergent thinking (which figures out how to use those ideas, like the kid realizing that sea glass might make awesome jewellery). Put these two kinds of thinking together and you end up with novels, lightbulbs, antibiotics, and iPhones.
I love Halloween, and not just for the kooky outfits and tooth rotting mayhem. I think it’s great that we have a special day to get playful about our deepest fears: death, violence, the supernatural, the unknown, the uncontrollable. By making fun of what scares us we can defuse some of its power. As a writer, I should probably dress up as something appropriately terrifying: a persistent blank page, a bad review, a hard drive failure, a rejection letter, a Visa statement.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” But I’ve only recently appreciated what great advice this is, especially for writers. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to solve my fears, to get past them so that I can finally be the writer I’ve always dreamed of becoming. Creative. Confident. Fearless. But somehow, I never quite got there. Fear was always the fart in the tent of creativity. Let me outta here! And though I claimed to like deadlines and “working under pressure” the truth was that although fear might make me type faster, it doesn’t make me write better. Fear repels and rejects while creativity involves, explores and, well, creates. Gosh darn it, if I could just overcome my fears, all would be good. I’d be unstoppable.
Or so I thought.