Can You Cultivate Creativity to Learn How Your Mind Works?
When it comes to personal growth, what are effective ways of thinking? How do we use creativity to enhance possibility without becoming too emotionally uncomfortable?
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
— Scott Adams
The inner world.
First of all, do you want to learn the contours of your inner landscape? The mind is highly detailed, more so than people may realize. There are those who hold the belief that they are simple. They may be, but they also may not be paying attention. Not paying attention may serve to keep things simple. When we pay attention to our internal experiences, to what we easily notice and what is more elusive, the landscape shifts, becoming more complex through the iterative process of self-reflection and change.
Psychoanalysis, as Freud described it in his famous “Recommendations” paper, involves two simple rules. First, the analysand (patient) is instructed to say whatever comes to mind, and notice if it is being edited. This is called “free association”, and it isn’t easy. Learning to do it is considered by some to be a developmental achievement, and in a way just the beginning of the psychoanalytic process.
Second, the analyst (therapist) is meant to listen without selecting for any particular material, called “evenly hovering attention”. In a sense, it is like mindfulness meditation, with one person verbalizing the ideas generated about of their brain’s resting activity, and the other person witnessing it. With analysis at that time, these experiences were periodically interpreted through a theoretical framework based on early childhood development. Unlike mindfulness meditation, however, rather than having one person witnessing their own thoughts, there is second person witnessing the first person’s thoughts (in the form of speech).
You could say that in classical psychoanalysis, the analysand’s inner experience is “socialized” to the analyst, using the common business expression for sharing information with others. As when communicating with other people, we necessarily censor ourselves. We do this purposefully, strategically… and we do this out of unconscious influences.
The power of meandering.
The free association method is quite powerful. It is much more easily said than done, for in attempting to allow ourselves to speak uncensored, we confront many unspeakable thoughts, memories and feelings. We learn about ourselves (when it works right), for the chance not only of learning who we may be but also discovering who we are and becoming the best version of ourselves we can be. In this regard, psychoanalysis may be seen as rectifying developmental missteps arising from being raised in an environment which did not recognize who we are. A world blind to oneself is a cold and unnuturing world.
Seen in the light of contemporary network models of the brain (which are probably wrong, or crude approximations at best), following the activity of one’s brain at rest (as when daydreaming or free associating) is a bit like watching the spontaneous activity in one’s “default mode network”. The network doing the monitoring would be the “central executive network”, biased in what it scans for by the “salience network”. Over time, there are shifts in the activity within these networks. What is crucial to recognize is that these shifts are influenced by external and internal factors. For therapy, the context strongly influences salience and executive networks, including the person of the therapist as well as the method used.
If we think the therapist only wants to hear about awful things, we are more likely to notice them, and perhaps talk about them. If the therapist is optimistic, reasonably so, we may notice more “positive” ideas. If the therapist is non-judgmental, we may be less hesitant to say whatever comes to mind. If the therapist has a lot of personality, that can both facilitate and hinder the process, dependign on how you look at it.
In terms of free association and the default mode network, as we watch ourselves think and hear ourselves speak (to a therapist), we may notice patterns of thought. We may notice patterns of feelings. Thoughts may repeat, with different underlying feelings, and feelings may repeat with different overlying thoughts, supposing that thoughts are above feelings. Maybe they are, depending on the position of one’s head. In any case, the mere process of being open to any thought at all has an impact.
Mental blinders, and blunders.
In some cases, this is taken as a kind of a threat, causing our mind to circle the wagons. We shut down ever further in the face of our own curiosity. Our thoughts may take on a characteristic pattern of feeling invaded, or at least placed in a position of feeling pressured. This can lead to performance anxiety. The anxiety biases the activity of the mind, typically leading us to have more something along the lines of increased suspicion of others, and familiar thoughts about others and ourselves. Over time, we may notice this and recognize that it is our bias (in response to an interpersonal stress), but that the analyst is not who we presumed that person to be. Our perceptions of the analyst are shaped by our own expectations of others. This is called “transference”.
In other cases, or at other times for the same person, free association is the totally most liberating thing ever. It’s just the best, hard to describe. Finally, I can say what I want, think what I want. I’ve tested the waters, and by and large the therapist listens to and accepts whatever I have to say. The therapist may not necessarily see it the same way, but at least in the role of therapist is completely accepting of who I am. I notice what I censor, with curiosity and acceptance. I hear what I have to say without shutting myself down or cutting myself off. I notice how dialogues play out in my own mind, etc.
Thinking, convergent and divergent.
What I’d like to say about these two extremes is related to creativity and the brain. Creativity is often measured in research settings by looking at divergent thinking. Creative people think more divergently, and divergence is also involved in deceit. Creativity may be negative or positive, depending on how it is used, and for what. Creativity and deception are correlated, but distinct (Kapoor & Khan, 2017). More creative people are capable of more effective deception, and deceptive people push themselves to be more creative. Divergent thinking is measure by asking people to come up with alternative uses for various objects, or by solving problems which require a creative solution. We can get into conflict with ourselves when we become creatively deceptive in order to keep ourselves in the dark about what is going on in our own heads. Human beings are experts at self-deception, and deceiving others, some more so than others. This can complicate self-examination and therapy, to put it mildly.
On the flip side is convergence. I believe this is a key distinction, when it comes to therapy. Convergent thinking means repeating the same patterns. All thoughts tend to come back to the same themes, the same ideas, the same assumptions. It is the goal of psychoanalytic therapy to identify and hopefully shift these patterns, on a deep, fundamental level. During free association, we may notice these recurring patterns. We may see how they connect to recurring behaviors and relationship patterns. We may recognize these patterns, but be unable to change them. Having a therapist in the mix is a wild-card.
There is a second person in the system now who becomes tightly connected on mental and emotional levels during the process of self-inquiry. This second person may be both skillfull in asking the right questions and making useful observations, as well as have a therapeutic presence. This second person may be very focused on their own inner experience, and practiced in self-reflection and response to observations within oneself. This is called “countertransference”. But on a non-verbal level, on the most basic mammalian level of attunement, being connected with someone who is practicing this kind of self-referential processing, and paying attention to others in such specific ways as therapists might, is a catalytic factor. It is pivotal because of teamwork, in a very streamlined sense.
Coming back to convergence and divergence, after a brief detour, it makes sense that convergent thinking opens up possibilities. One would want to shift from convergent to divergent thinking when exploration is required. Creativity is essential for healing. If we cannot experience or do anything different from what we are used to, change is impossible. If we cannot expand our repetoire of feelings with other people, it will be hard to behave in more desireable ways with them. But not all divergence is created equal. Some ideas are better than others. Inviting and cultivating creativity in relation to personal development goes hand in hand with check to see what directions work.
Some behaviors work better than others do, with oneself and in social settings, work, with friends, acquantances, strangers and family. Part of the therapeutic process is learning to recognize which new ideas are likely to be productive to follow up in more detail, and converge upon those. Having guidance can be helpful in shifting what is salient, but that step of becoming more open to novel ideas and solutions requires diverging from what is most familiar, and accepting the irreducible uncertainty around where to go next.
How do I do something I’ve never done before?
Many people ask how change will take place, and that is a valid question. Figuring out how, or even realizing later on that we figured out how without noticing doing so, is clearly pragmatic. We can become fixated on having a solution, having the next steps spelled out before proceeding. Converging upon this kind of thinking, even becoming fixated, may lead to a persuasively paralytic way of approaching self-development. At those times, it helps to put the question of how on the backburner, and approach the real-world situation with more flexibility, experimenting with a light touch on thorny problems, rather than attacking them with unrealistic expectations and failing over and over.
All of these kind of shifts presumable could be seen in brain activity in the Big Three neural networks, default mode, central executive, and salience. But when we start to notice a positive and qualitative shift in what we come up with when our brain is at rest, idling or daydreaming, it’s likely that deeper change is starting to take place.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.