Oshin Vartanian, a Toronto based neuroscientist, puts willing subjects into a brain scanner and asks a standard question, “What can you do with a brick?” He wants to see what happens in the brain when people shift from thinking about the standard responses to imagining the brick as an earring for a Giantess or a tombstone for a small creature.
His American counterpart, Dr. Charles Limb, goes one step further by placing subjects in a brain scanner with a keyboard. While acknowledging that being in a brain scanner may not be the most freeing place, their studies have revealed two essential facts having to do with creativity and the brain.
One is that contrary to popular belief, we do not rely on the right side of the brain for creative processes. And according to Rex Jung, a brain scientist from the University of New Mexico, “The consensus is creativity is a big muddled mess.” In other words, neuroscientists do not know how the brain collaborates within its various centres of activity to release creative juices. Dr. Limb suggests that there may be a mechanism by which inhibitory impulses are shut off.
The neural circuitry of the brain reveals that when one has managed to move away from the Judge within, improvising musically or composing a piece of writing in prose or poetry or creative problem solving flows more easily.
That fact, the inner critic powering down while self expression ramps up was seen in the brain scans.
Yogis and meditators have known this for a long time. It does not take very long to see that part of our mind is constantly comparing one experience with another and holding it up against expectations and standards we have also created. It is our way to soften fear.
We fear that good things may not last, that only we know some things, or only we do not know some things, that bad things will never end, that people might hurt us, that we are not good enough or smart enough and we might not get our own way!
When we sit in meditation, the inner Judge can come through like a foghorn. It blasts through the enjoyment of sitting quietly with pronouncements about all manner of things, inner and outer.
Thich Naht Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and author-teacher points out that our minds have both a conscious and unconscious aspect. In the unconscious reside the obstacles to spiritual awakening: anger, fear, greed, jealousy and so forth, what Patanjali names the kleshas.
When one such inner demon is aroused, we have a choice. We can bring our conscious mind to observe the seed-demon and thus have two conscious tracks working simultaneously. We can sit and observe the anger or fear, paying close attention to the body response to feeling. Sometimes root causes which have been triggered are exposed and the conscious mind can process and release the inhibitory feeling.
John Kabat-Zinn writes: “While thinking colours all our experience, more often than not our thoughts tend to be less than completely accurate. Usually they are uninformed opinions, reactions and prejudices based on limited knowledge and past conditioning.”
Kabat-Zinn puts the Judge in her place. She projects onto the inner and outer worlds and sets off a hairline trigger. We have to stay alert to her voice. She can become a toxic virus obscuring our true potential.
However, since we have a choice, we can replace her chiding with a positive message. And in that safe space we have crafted, we can noodle away on the keyboard, make a picture, design a garden, write a poem or explore a yoga pose outside our current level of practice.
Kelly Murphy is owner of a yoga studio in Nanaimo.