brainwavesThis post is on the interrelationship between your frontal and temporal lobes  no no no that sounds too much like science journalism Let me digress into the neuroscience of creative action … oh now you’re plagiarising your own book! Recent research has proven that there is a correlation … don’t contradict your own teaching and start with something that sounds like academic messaging

Does this interruptive pattern in the process of writing ring a bell for you? Before you can even finish an attempt at a clear, concise and compelling sentence, you go and censor yourself back to square one. In my masterclass Group Projects, where all participants collaborate together in the authoring of copy, I see this happen over and over again. One participant will be composing a sentence out aloud for me to write down (and project onto the screen for all to see) then stop mid-thought and abort their half written narrative as bad, wrong or boring. And yet it is so important to complete the thought into at least a rough sketch of a sentence so that you a) get it out of your system, b) document the thought so that it can be fairly judged to c) have something tangible to build on and d) see where it can lead you.

As you can imagine, this stop/start approach to conceptualising and writing is not only frustrating but also self defeating. I wrote about this in my book Copywriting in Action (page 161-2), where I cite neuroscientist Alice Flaherty’s own research into the interrelationship between our brain’s temporal and frontal lobes. In brief, the temporal lobe functions to understand the meaning of things, while the frontal lobe has to do with speech and generating ideas. So when you’re in the process of creating something, such as composing (constructing) a sentence, it is the frontal lobe in action. Meanwhile the temporal lobe is judging it. Now if you let the temporal lobe have free reign of the process, it’s censorship won’t get you far (unless of course your initial thought is clear and precise and instantaneously articulated with unquestionable impeccability). But for us mere mortals who need to work hard to express well, an unregulated temporal lobe can imprison our capacity to generate and articulate ideas into a creative block. Just being aware of this potentially conflicting relationship between lobal functions will enable us to discipline our mind and perform our task more effectively (in terms of quality) and efficiently (in terms of time).

But now I have some more quantifiable facts to add to Alice Flaherty valuable insights into the powers of our mind. In February 2011, Richard P. Chi and Allan W. Snyder from the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney, published an illuminating research article in PLoS ONE with the rather hoodoo voodoo title, Facilitate Insight by Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation.

They took 60 normal individuals and subjected them to a transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS). This is where you pass a very small current from one side of the brain through to other side. Chi & Snyder worked on the assumption that certain parts of our brain control our thinking processes. When we acquire knowledge, we use it to control how we acquire more knowledge or reason, and determine our approach to tasks and problem-solving. They quote economist, John Maynard Keynes who said, “The difficulty lies not with the new ideas but escaping from the old ones which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds”.

In other words, we end up with a closed mind because of what we know. So if you could free the mind from the inhibitions imposed by what you already know, you can then think more objectively and as a result, more laterally, more creatively, and ultimately, more insighfully.

Chi & Snyder’s procedure was to stimulate their volunteers with tDCS, switching off the left side of brain (minus) and leaving the right side switched on (plus). This inhibits the dominant left hemisphere, specifically the anterior temporal lobe which is believed to have an inhibiting effect on the more creative right side of the brain.

There were two groups: The Sham Stimulation Group (control) and The tDCS Group. When they got their subjects to do a simple task rearranging matchsticks to solve a problem within 6 minutes, only 20% of participants in the sham stimulation (control) group solved the Type 2 (hard) problem compared to 60% of the tDCS participants. Similarly, only 45% of participants in the control group solved the Type 3 (easier) by the end of 6 minutes compared to 85% of the tDCS participants.

In short, the people who had the left side of their brain switched off were successful 50% of the time, compared to 20% of the time in the control group. This suggests that if we “disinhibit” that part of our thinking that interrupts our creative process, we can think far more creatively. How do we do this with a tDCS hit? As I said at the end of the opening paragraph, awareness is our tDCS – to Defer Censoring Story until we have complete ideas and narratives to review, refine or rewrite. Of course, this requires discipline so that we can resist that inner censor called the temporal lobe from convincing us that our work is not good enough. It may be right, but that shouldn’t stop us from going through the process to a workable outcome. A lot of that process is confronting our own insecurities, idiocies and mediocrities. These we can use as the manure for growing the insight that makes for genuine creativity.

To put it in Hemingway’s words as one of my students did, “Write drunk, edit sober”.

49 Comments

  1. Sandra says:

    Thank you Nicolas for this insight. I was completely unaware of the detrimental effects this habit was having on my creativity however since doing this course, I have made a conscious effort not to doubt or ‘delete’ anything that comes to mind. I am also going to start writing with a glass of red next to me 😉

    • NICOLAS DI TEMPORA says:

      Ah yes Sandra, there’s nothing like a glass of Cabernet Disinhibitor to unlock the doors of perception.

  2. Simon says:

    I feel in a group situation, confidence has a lot to do with this. When you’re publicly commenting in front of a group, on subject matter that you’re only just learning, there can be an element of ‘is this the right answer?’. Is good to be told at the start of the course that ‘there’s no such thing as a silly answer’, still you can’t help but feel the pressure of potentially being judged by your peers.

  3. Karl says:

    This is fascinating, censoring myself is something I’ve done far too often, including in class. I look forward to getting my ideas out before judging them

  4. Christopher says:

    It’s funny I do feel kind of exposed and embarrassed about the projects that I share in the course.

    But I guess that’s just me extending my comfort zone.

  5. Mel says:

    For me this is going to be such a difficult habit to break… Especially when working solo. So often as this post summarises perfectly I type some copy only to stop halfway and rethink it, edit, lose my first train of thought and then get frustrated when nothing great was achieved. One of the things I really enjoyed – even though it was confronting – in Week 1 of the course was that I had to write ALL my ideas down, even if they were rubbish (which some were!). I found this really challenging, but also so helpful and I hope to bring it into my everyday work.

  6. Simon Carr says:

    I saw quite an old video bye John Cleese on process of creativity in one part he spoke of the need to get the bad ideas out in order to let the good ones flow. He also spoke in some detail about the process he go’s through to get into the creative mind. While the language he used was very different the concepts he talked about bear a striking resemblance to the content of this post. I found that to be very interesting.

  7. M. Soan says:

    By far my most favourite post and the most appropriate and accurate regarding this insufferable aspect of a writer’s brain – and life as it were. My internal censor is fierce, constant, unyielding and at times downright cruel. I personally experience two parts to this censorship process. There’s censoring the idea or kernel of inspiration which is to be the focus of the writing, and then there is censoring the writing itself. How grand it would be to switch that wretched left brain off and allow the right brain to go crazy. Then, switch the left brain back on again to hone the right brain’s ideas if need be. My biggest learning curve is always to just get it down and finesse it later but it’s easier said then done. I find freewriting very helpful when first starting a piece. To re-qoute Hemingway – the first draft of anything is s***, so we may as well deal with it and move onto the next draft. Will definitely be looking further into the above concepts. Thanks!

    • Re: ‘… to switch that wretched left brain off and allow the right brain to go crazy’ is very possible without being a lab rat. Now that you are aware of the temporal and portal goings on, you can now mindfully switch off and on.

  8. Katie says:

    Now it’s all about actually applying this new knowledge and making it work to our benefit. It’s probably not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps I need a sticky note that says “Ignore anterior temporal lobe” next to my computer.

  9. Kirby Fenwick says:

    That Hemingway quote is one of my favourites, his point (if I may be so bold as to infer what the great writer meant) being that, as you say, too often we self censor to our own detriment. Get the words on the page, let it all spew out, write them down as fast as they fall and worry about meaning and message and comprehension later – after the stiff drinks wear off!

  10. Lucy says:

    Sometimes I think I can feel when my brain is not being creative, or limiting itself. Although there are supposed to be no nerves, I can feel how the thoughts hit a wall, so to speak. I think it is really good advice to finish rough or “crappy” drafting, because it is so easy to dismiss in half way through.

  11. Kat says:

    This remind’s me of Anne Lamott’s advice in her book Bird by Bird – write a ‘vomit draft.’ Basically, spew words onto the page, don’t pass judgement (no matter how terrible they might be), and go back and edit it later. Not sure where who first said it, but it’s true – ‘you can’t edit a blank page.’

  12. Allison Fogarty says:

    What a relief. I’ve been building up the process of writing so much that I get too scared to begin; fearing it will be crap if it’s not perfect straight away. This is a great perspective.

  13. Andy says:

    How frustrating its been to want every sentence to be perfect as soon as the thought emerges. I think most writers are programmed to think their copy is bad, its certainly what drives me to improve re-write after re-write. I find a blank page the most intimidating, so love the idea of letting it all out, censor-less . “Express, don’t impress”…gold.

  14. NICOLAS says:

    Thanks Ben, you can overcome the fear by practicing this handy little Copy Rule – express, don’t impress.

  15. Ben says:

    Really interesting post with some practical and logical methods for overcoming writer’s block. I constantly find that I’m either too eager to eliminate the bad or refine that which I have not even finished thinking that I do not actually get down to business and say ‘something’! Fear of failure or potential humiliation often prevents me from fully articulating my ideas. Upon reflection, it seems logical (and liberating) to let the ideas flow freely and completely before you judge them.
    P.S. I like your re-working of the tDCS acronym!

  16. Appu says:

    Understand from the article that you should just write what comes to your head instead of allowing the temporal lobe to judge every single thing that comes up through the Frontal Lobe.
    Once everything is on paper, then start developing the insight from the starting base.
    I feel that I can apply this better alone in terms of deferring the censoring . However, in a group situation, I find that I censor something and refine it before sharing with the group. So have to practice what the article says in group situations also.

  17. Anagha says:

    I would love to know more on how to really develop the right brain thinking…

  18. I truly relate to this……It is exactly refreshing to read. Discipline and creativity one requires both. I too am now going to start putting ideas down without judgement – just get it out there!

  19. Emmillia says:

    “The difficulty lies not with the new ideas but escaping from the old ones which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds”. – does this apply to cliches? It feels like they crop up in writing because they are part of learned or familiar.

  20. Julie says:

    I can really relate to this. It’s why I stopped painting, but I am hopeful of not letting it stop me from writing. Annie Lamont in her book, One Bird at a Time, writes of that critical radio in your head providing commentary on your writing and of the need to consciously turn that “radio” off – it’s not always easy to find the “off” switch!

  21. Lucy says:

    Very true that we often stop a thought before it’s even fully formed. I’m definitely going to start putting ideas down without judgement first and see where it takes me.

  22. Coreen says:

    Really interesting piece. I don’t think you even realise what’s going on in your thinking process until you see it laid out like this. I personally find that I’m always battling logical reasoning vs. letting ideas and random thoughts flow when it comes to my writing. I had no idea that it can be such a hindrance and I’ll certainly be more aware of it now!

  23. Janneke Coyle says:

    I often find myself battling against temporal thoughts and the result is a stop, start, delete re-write scenario.. I would love to learn more about engaing my frontal lobe and running with these inital ideas more.

  24. Leona Devaz says:

    I’m really fascinated by that case study. I would be keen to learn more, especially on how to harness more of that right brain thinking. I’ve realised through reading this, I often ‘censor’ thoughts and err on being safe. Time to let that go!

  25. Sarah says:

    How true. When I’m thinking of a headline or opening line, I prefer to sit by myself, writing numerous sentences to their completion for review later on. I believe that doing so allows you to control that temporal lobe, long enough for the idea to be recognised and articulated.

  26. michaelcxs says:

    Given that we refine the group project at home, does this mean we follow Hemingway’s advice when brainstorming during class? Somebody say “yes”.

  27. Jen Keating says:

    Now there is scientific proof we are our own harshest critics. Self censorship is applied and encouraged so much in general communication, particularly in the business environment. By removing judgement and allowing ideas to fully establish themselves before they are vetoed may just allow us to tap into our creativity. A scary, but exciting thought!

  28. Jennie says:

    Very interesting study! If only we could switch off the left side of our brains when we were working on a brief!

  29. rebecca says:

    This speaks not only to what I have been struggling with in my personal writing but also a lot in my life as a whole. Editing is important, but only AFTER I have finished drafting the whole idea. Negative self-talk is so damaging to all pursuits, creative or otherwise.

  30. James says:

    I think the concept is great. I find that another way to free up the process of writing is to handwrite the first draft instead of type, as this feels like a more natural way of helping ideas flow. It would be interesting to see a study on the different areas of the brain which light up while typing freely compared to handwriting freely. With typing it seems like you are governed by the rules of where the keys are and when to press enter. These are small details but if you are not competent in typing, thinking about the position of each key as you type may have an inhibiting affect. Just a thought.

  31. Sophie says:

    I’m constantly doubting my writing and questioning its worth or sense…free the mind and record everything. And pass the wine.

  32. Jeremy G says:

    The importance of completing a thought / sentence before criticising it and moving on really stuck with me after reading this blog post. I find myself guilty of not completing my thoughts almost every time I write, even when I’m writing comments such as this one! Training oneself to finish the thought, write it down and THEN judge it can be difficult, especially in a group setting where there is the potential fear of being judged by your peers on the thoughts you are trying to articulate. Truth is, there aren’t many of us who will write the perfect sentence on the first go. We all need to start somewhere and build on our initial ideas to come to that winner sentence.

  33. Melissa says:

    The concept ‘write drunk, edit sober’ really hits home for me. Plus it shows the importance of reviewing your work with fresh eyes as further insights can be gained after a bit of time away from the work.

  34. Bronwen says:

    This is s good lesson, in leaving judgement at the door until you have all your ideas in place. It is easy to be your own worst critic!

  35. Johanna says:

    Great post – this is something I need to work very hard at! I particularly love the idea that something discarded early in the process may find a more suitable use/place further down the track.

  36. An important part of the writing process is avoiding thought censorship. It is instinctive to stop and question what we come up with, but we must develop the habit of letting our thoughts out regardless of our immediate judgements towards them.

  37. Caitlin says:

    A very interesting study by Chi & Snyder. It highlights the effect our ‘internal struggle’ can have on our creativity. An important lesson to remember in writing.

  38. Where can we get the machine so we can let our creativeness flow? It would take a lot of practice to shut that side of the brain down when it’s habitual to get things right the first time.

  39. mark thomas says:

    The ever challanging temporal lobe, left part of the brain, ever vigilant, control lord of the frontal lobe, inhibiting our imagination, that has been my experience. When reading there has been experiments on inhibiting the controling temporal lobe, it brought to light, everytime i have a creative idea, see it for what it is, allow flow, and try not to question the source. Once again Nicolas, more pearls of insight, much appreciated.

  40. Jeff Hyde says:

    Really enjoyed the outline of the Chi& Snyder research. A tangible example of where creativity and neuroscience intersect. There are so many reasons why tDCS is great advice, especially for those whose livelihood relies in their ability to create. Apart from the four reasons given early in the blog, getting creative thoughts recorded as they flow and without interruption, at least gives one a chance to receive input from others. Suggestions and responses from others may well be enough to convince the temporal lobe not to censor the thought afterall. And even a discarded idea, as censored by the temporal lobe, could be useful later in a project or on another occasion entirely.

  41. Natalia says:

    An interesting blog and brings home the challenges of a writer and what we term as writer’s block. I’ve certainly had my fair share of writer’s block. Alice Flaherty’s own research I find fascinating,…..’so in the process of creating’…, ‘it is the frontal lobe in action. Meanwhile the temporal lobe is judging it.’ I guess the challenge is to get into the right zone that allows thoughts to flow freely and creatively.

  42. Harold Bloom has written about this kind of anxiety in his book called ‘Anxiety of Influence”. it is about poets who are inspired to write poetry because they read and love past great poets/poems, but are then debilitated by the feeling that their work is not original but a derivative of their inspiration. A much less scientific approach but anything that shuts up that inner censor!

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