Thoughts About Creativity, Technical Work, and the Brain – [1/2]

I’ve been writing about the creative process, which is a significant part of my own work. Although I don’t have formal certification or credentials in this area, I consider myself to be knowledgeable in matters of creativity and the workings of the human brain; I may not be an “expert” but I am certainly a well informed amateur. Part of my education in these matters is that I notice things in the world around me; and I do a lot of writing. Writing helps me to sort out the things I’ve noticed and make sense of them. It helps me to discover things I didn’t know that I knew, or connections that were there to be made but that I hadn’t made yet. I think you might enjoy some of my mental meanderings as regards creativity.

We can start with the fact that I am a guitar maker. And, as a guitar maker, I want my instruments to “look right”.

“Well, of course,” one can say. “Who doesn’t? But what does that actually mean?” Well, it means one of two things. Either someone is completing a project whose parameters and details have been decided from the outset, or one is doing something personal and winging it on a creative impulse. In the first case the project is “done” when the recipe has been fulfilled; the thing “looks right” because that means the same thing as having followed the recipe. Alternately, when one is approaching a “creative” project in a mechanical way, and the project has to be delivered by a certain deadline, the place to stop is when the time allotted has expired; the project is done, by definition. In the second case there is no recipe or fixed deadline to rely on; the project is “completed” and the thing looks “right” when it “feels” right and one “knows” that nothing else remains to be done. Thus, the right look actually has two distinct meanings. To illustrate them one can imagine a project that entails engaging with an enemy. When the project is done in the army way it is completed when the enemy is dead. When the project is done in the creative or personal way, it may be completed when one has won the enemy over and befriended him, or negotiated a peace with him.

One interesting way to get a handle on these distinct aspects of “the right look” has been through studies of the brain – about which some interesting research has been done lately. Some of this research has focused on certain unfortunate individuals who had, for one medical reason or another, needed to have the entire right or left lobe of their brains surgically removed. This horrible circumstance presented a unique opportunity for studying such subjects after they returned to “normal post-surgical life”. Except that their lives were not “normal” any longer.

The Right half of the brain, the scientists have told us, is responsible for imagination, emotion, lateral thinking, creativity, intuitive connectivity, and capacity to appreciate beauty. The Left half is the critical mind: it carries out the functions of linear thinking, logic, assessment, planning, and calculation. And the surgical recoverees were observed to have new deficits in their mental lives that were, unsurprisingly, a direct function of which half of their brains they’d lost.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: the concept of strict division of right-brain/left-brain functions has taken some hits lately as the scientific community has published studies on the plasticity of the brain and how one half of it can learn to take over some of the functions of the other half. Still, if one really only has one half of a brain, I think we can be given a bit of slack in being categorical about how the brain works; if there is only one half a brain, there is no other half to share plasticity with. Also, even though having only half a brain is an extreme circumstance, it can be useful to push something to an extreme in order to make a point about, or to get insights into, that thing. Extreme doesn’t necessarily invalidate.]

Individuals who lost the emotional part of their brains were found to retain memory as well as verbal, computational, and mechanical skills. But they lost the ability to make personal on-the-spot decisions based in personal preference — such as we all make a thousand times a day without even stopping to think about it. Such people would be completely stymied, for example, in trying to figure out where to go for the weekend, or even which breakfast cereal they’d most enjoy eating — without making long lists of these choices’ various pros and cons. If Mr. Spock had lost his right brain just before the Klingons attacked the Enterprise then he’d have to make lists of every possible scenario involved in responding to the attack, and they would have taken over the Enterprise before he got halfway through with that list.

On the other hand, individuals who’d lost the left halves of their brains couldn’t plan their way out of a paper bag. They couldn’t hold thoughts together. Their lives were dominated by impulse. They’d lost the ability to engage in calculation and goal-oriented, systematic (first-this-then-that), exploratory (what if), critical (i.e., if-this-then-that type), or even ordinary sorting-this-out-from-that thinking. Most terribly, they had lost the capacity to feel personally invested in anything, in the moment – which has everything to do with getting the normal internal cues to any sense of “rightness” or “wrongness” of anything. These people became incapable of making assessments. Their “thinking” also lacked any sense of complexity, comparative significance, consequences, depth, flexibility, or carry-over. They really were stuck in the realm of impulse. And, needless to say, they were as incapable of meaningful personal attachments as they were unable to engage in disciplined behavior.

Ecce Donald Trump who, as I write this in 2017, gives every sign of being genuinely brain damaged in this way. He seems equally upset by being given a bad tweet by a nine-year-old as he is by a criticism from a head of state. He has no sense of proportion or carry-over; he doesn’t remember what he said last week; he spends time insisting that Mexico to pay for a wall instead of appointing the ambassadors, officials, and functionaries who would be making the government function. With Trump the dial is always set at the same number and the oven is always set at the same temperature regardless of what’s being baked. Please, re-read the previous paragraph.

An ability to sense the “rightness” or “wrongness” of things, just mentioned above, brings us to the doorstep of art and design — in which the dominant mindset is the striving to arrive at the internal cues that signal “it’s right and it’s done and I can stop now.” The striving can be endlessly modified by training and experience all life long; but the artist (or cook, athlete, gardener, fisherman, etc.) stops only when he knows it’s time to stop; short of that, he keeps on working, expressing, and seeking. There is otherwise no calculation, statistic, timer, rule book, syllabus, recipe, blueprint, or deadline to otherwise tell him that his task is complete. Those are all left-brain tools. The artist simply stops when he “knows” that it’s time to stop.