Life is a cascade of challenge. Sometimes the flow trickles and sometimes it roars. How well you navigate determines who you are and your quality of life. Do you embrace the flow or avoid it? Does a torrent motivate or immobilize you? Do you look to the future with hope or fear?
Your answers to these questions probably correlate to your creative skill. A creative person sees opportunity in challenge. She tolerates and does not fear ambiguity. Entering life’s white waters, she is not paralyzed by stress but energized by the exhilaration. She does not look back or paddle upstream but races downstream toward the new vistas beckoning.
In Iconoclast: a Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, Gregory Berns explains how highly creative individuals are hard wired. fMRI studies indicate that iconoclasts’ brains differ in terms of perception, fear response and social intelligence. Importantly, he provides practical ways for each of us to nurture such capabilities in ourselves. Yes! We can rewire the circuits and become more creative by pursuing three specific strategies:
- Bombard the brain with novel experiences and learn to see differently
- Tame the stress response and overcome fear
- Develop social intelligence and persuade others to accept your novel ideas
The neuroscience behind creativity
Because the human mind runs on just 40 watts of power, it constantly seeks to conserve energy. It takes a lot of shortcuts, including in the area of perception. According to Berns, “the most likely way you perceive something will be in a manner consistent with your past experience. Commonplace perceptions feel comfortable and cost little energy to process.” The brain categorizes your past experience and then draws from these categories to determine what you “see.” By its nature, the brain does not want to expend the energy required to see differently.
Step #1: Bombard the brain with novel experiences and learn to see differently
Bern’s studies indicate that iconoclasts’ brains are more easily able to see differently — that is, their brains do not seek to conserve energy at the expense of creative insight. What about the rest of us? When confronting life’s cascade of challenge, what can we do to generate innovative solutions?
Berns suggests that we intentionally shock the brain with novel experiences, compelling it to expend the energy required to achieve creative insight. “By forcing the visual system to see things in different ways, you can increase the odds of new insights.” Specifically, he suggests that the “surest way to evoke the imagination is to confront the perceptual system with people, places, and things that it hasn’t seen before…In order to think creatively, bombard the brain with new experiences. Only then will it be forced out of efficiency mode and reconfigure its neural networks.”
For those who can learn to see differently, the brain has another, even more primal attribute that inhibits creative action. Fear. We fear the criticism, rejection and ridicule that may result from thinking differently. We avoid the risk associated with possible failure. We recoil from ambiguity because we fear the unknown. According to Berns, “The stress system is not rational. It reacts when provoked, and this reaction is powerful enough to derail many of the most innovative people out there.”
Step #2: Tame the stress response and overcome fear
Berns offers a number of specific strategies to overcome fear. None are simple and all require persistence and courage. For example, he says we need to understand the effects of fear and then re-frame it. Instead of fearing failure, train yourself to focus on its potential for learning and growth. Similarly, learn to tolerate ambiguity. The unknown can prove either detrimental or helpful to us. Berns suggests that we nurture the ability to mitigate our fear of the unknown by seeing its possible benefits. Finally, to avoid fear of ridicule, recruit a like-minded person to support you when you present an innovative idea to others.
Let’s assume that you have successfully tamed fear and are generating creative ideas. According to Berns, you have one final hurdle: taming the fear in others. Novel ideas are different. By its nature, the brain perceives what is different to be threatening. This is a primal response.
Step #3: Develop social intelligence and persuade others to accept your innovative ideas
Seeing differently and taming the stress response do not guarantee your success in creative endeavors. To implement novel ideas, you need to light up the brain’s circuits for social networking.
“In order to sell one’s ideas, one must create a positive reputation that will draw people toward something that is initially unfamiliar and potentially scary. Familiarity helps build one’s reputation…successful iconoclasts have an uncommon ability to connect on a social level that transcends the idea itself. The key to doing this is through social networks. In order to be successful, the iconoclast builds a network through two fundamental approaches: familiarity and reputation.”
Navigate life’s quick water with dexterity and joy
Reduce your stress! Face your unique cascade of challenge with a creative worldview. See differently, tame your fear and build social networks based on familiarity and reputation. While you may not become an iconoclast, you will surely navigate life’s quick waters with greater dexterity and joy.