The Double-Decker Couch – Part Six, Busting through Creative Blocks

Busting through Creative Blocks

Some days I don’t want to practice creativity. I’m not a quality-er or a quantity-er—I’m just stuck. Usually, this happens when I start to compare my creative work to the work of others. This piece of music, I think, is just the worst. In such moments, it feels like other people are naturally more creative than me. After all, isn’t there a line where listening, informed decision-making, and practice bow before superior genius, gifts, and circumstance?

Sometimes I get stuck behind doubts. For example, I worry that I have the wrong brain-side preference. You’ve probably heard the idea that left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people. The reasoning behind this idea is that left-handed people use their right brain (the side of the brain some people link to language and abstract thought) more than right-handed people. From a brain science perspective, this view of creativity amounts to bogus phrenology and cultural labeling. Phrenology is the idea that a person’s strengths and weaknesses can be ascertained by studying the anatomy of the brain. Around the year 1800, Franz Joseph Gall originated and began to perpetuate the idea of phrenology, claiming that the bumps on a person’s skull indicate locations of increased or decreased mental capability.[1] Not quite as powerful as The Lego Movie technique of magically entering a person’s brain with them, but still entertaining.

While the belief in skull-bump phrenology has long since died away, popular culture still clings to the idea that different parts of the brain have exclusive control over various cognitive activities. The truth is that the brain is much more complicated than that. The brain operates as a tangle of parallel processes—only one of which is your conscious perception of the world—constantly sorting through hundreds of inputs and outputs and issuing commands so quickly and automatically that most commands never breach the level of consciousness. I really like the way one brain scientist explained this concept:

At any one time, [the brain] must track a massive amount of information and perform a multitude of choices, trivial and complicated. It can carry out these computations in parallel because it delegates each task to one of a vast number of specialized and independent modules, often branded hordes of demons, that has evolved specifically to handle that task.[2]

I love the imagery of hordes of demons drawing on resources from all parts of the brain to perform tasks. But beyond the imagery, modern neuroscience is clear on the point that crediting creative thought to one part of the brain is akin to saying that the flavor of chocolate cake is due to chocolate alone. It’s a tempting idea if you like chocolate, but useless in practice if you want to collect ingredients to bake a cake.

I’ve heard (and sometimes believed) a similarly erroneous idea that creative people are mentally unstable. Or I flip the causal formula and wonder whether people who pursue creativity push themselves towards mental instability. While some individuals have garnered extra attention in social or historical contexts for their psychological “deviation” (think of Vincent Van Gogh, the impressionist painter who cut off his own ear due to depression),[3] creativity is just as likely to come from a “healthy” or “normal” person as from a “crazy” or “odd” person.[4] One writer explained it this way, “There is no simple, linear causal relationship according to which mental illness would make a person creative (the more serious the illness the greater the creativity) or creativity make a person mentally ill (the more creative the person, the more acute the illness).”[5] If there is anything to be said about insanity and its connections with creativity, it is how insanely popular the romanticized idea of the tortured genius or the fall of the brilliant savant has become in popular culture.

When I’m not stuck on cultural myths, my most frequent mental block is the idea that I don’t have enough time to be creative. If only, I think to myself, I had more free time to invest in creativity. Then I could be a creative master! If I am honest with myself, the real issue is not free time, but risk management. Choosing to do something creative carries with it an inherent risk. The reason that I don’t choose to spend more of my time on creative projects is the fear that I will neglect more “important”, “practical”, and “predictable” aspects of my life. How can I afford to spend time writing music, when my engineering homework is due on Friday?

What I am really saying when I say that I don’t feel like I have enough time for creativity is that I don’t feel like I am doing well enough in the rest of my life to sacrifice time on a creative risk. One book explains relationship between time and creative risk this way: “In their daily lives, successful people do the same things [that investors do] with risks, balancing them out in a portfolio. When [they] embrace danger in one domain, [they] offset [their] overall level of risk by exercising caution in another domain.”[6] While I am prone to rationalize that artists, writers, designers, or musicians live a charmed life with time to spend on creativity, I have to admit that those people have made purposeful choices to get where they are by taking the risks I am afraid of taking.

Ideas like brain-sided-ness, the mad genius, and creative leisure originated and are perpetuated not because they are true, but because they are easier to deal with than facing risks. It is easier for me to label myself as ‘left-brained’, ‘too normal’, or ‘too busy’ than it is to confront the possibility that I am shying away from creative choices. It is easier to pretend that I have no responsibility for the microphone in my hand than it is to engage with the torrent of voices pounding from society’s loudspeakers. I’m not proud of the fact, but I believe there is a way to acknowledge my misconceptions and overcome them. We don’t have to be stuck thinking our creative ideas are “just the worst.”

This is part six of a seven-part essay series on the creative process. Click here for part seven. To return to the beginning, click here.


[1] Dietrich, How Creativity Happens in the Brain, 15.

[2] Dietrich, How Creativity Happens in the Brain, 47.

[3] “Vincent Van Gogh.”

[4] Cropley, The Dark Side of Creativity, 8.

[5] Cropley, The Dark Side of Creativity, 8.

[6] Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World, 19.


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