“The creative virtues of grogginess” and “The creative upside of brain damage”

(Those are direct quotes, by the way)

I have spent more time on the computer these last few days than I had ever thought possible. My brain is mush. But according to neuroscientist and extraordinary writer Jonah Lehrer, maybe that’s not such a bad thing!

I have been devouring his blog since I discovered it this morning, and have delved into a number of his extended articles on different issues. I have even preordered his book on “Imagination” from Amazon. You could say I have the beginnings of an intellectual crush. Anyway, I highly recommend reading the post linked to above, and anything else of his you can get your hands on. The dude sure can think!

I could probably just repost his words and be done with it, but I thought I’d try to relate his insights from this article to what we do as potters and as artists.

His thesis is this:

When we are problem solving we can actually be hindered by the active habits and normal assumptions of our minds. So, to step outside these constraints can sometimes have a positive effect. For instance, working on a sleep deficit can actually open doors of perception, and some patients with brain damage can make intuitive leaps that others find difficult. “Of course, this doesn’t mean you should take a hammer to your frontal lobes. Being able to direct the spotlight of attention is a crucial talent. However, the creative upside of brain damage — the unexpected benefits of not being able to focus — does reveal something important about the imagination. Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain. We are more likely to find the answer because we have less control over where we look.”

In a sense this relates to what I was going on about concerning how beginning students can sometimes sabotage their appreciation by only seeing their work in terms of unrealistic standards. We can think we know something, or operate under an assumption, when what we are really doing is thinking ourselves into a corner. The control we imagine we have is sometimes just the choke-hold we put on our problem solving ability. Imagining there is only one right way to make or appreciate a pot can sometimes be like that. A presumption of correctness. But if we can unbind ourselves from that prejudice we can learn to see things from a new, different, and possibly more useful perspective.

And beginners are especially victims of this because they don’t yet know enough to realize how little they actually do know. They cling to their small lifeline of understanding when if they only stopped focusing on it and looked around they might realize there are lifeboats floating nearby.

So of course this has tremendous importance for teaching. The less we admit we know, the more open we are to learning something new. I think…. In some cases? Maybe?

Its possibly something like the old Buddhist wisdom about a full container having no more room to put things into it. If we know enough, are full of our knowledge, then we are inflexible and bound by the limitation of our fullness. If we are open to the possibility of new discovery we are not yet full of the world. We have other possibilities. We acknowledge the mystery that is still out there. And this is sometimes what problem solving requires: A new perspective.

In other words, knowing ‘too much’ can sometimes interfere with curiosity. And curiosity is what helps us sometimes look outside the box. But when curiosity fails, or can’t do the job on its own, sometimes we just need to get outside the box by any means necessary. And if it takes a hammer, so be it…. (Of course that wasn’t serious!)

Sometimes in the frustration of not knowing a solution it only looks bad because we don’t yet know how little we really understand. The solution may actually be within our reach. But our attention is too tightly focused. We are not fully open to the possibility of different and unexpected solutions. We can’t see the true smallness of our wisdom because all our attention is on what we’ve already got a handle on. We become too attached to it.

And so, sometimes we have to crush the precious blossom of our knowledge so we can move on to greater understanding. We have to hide it away so that it doesn’t distract us. Drape a cover over it or plant it in the ground. Sometimes the corpse of that body is the only thing that will fertilize our new growth.

So if it takes a nudge off the throne of your caffeine addiction, an early alarm setting, a beer bong or other mind altering consumption, or even a head plant into the pavement, sometimes seeing outside the box and creative problem solving can only be achieved by a departure from normal perception.

So lets all raise a toast and a hammer! (just kidding!!!!!) Poke yourself in the eye if that’s what it takes. Don’t be afraid to shake it up, and put ourselves on unfamiliar ground. That is, IF it suits us. Or if we feel a blockage in our work. Maybe not always, and maybe not unless our imagination grinds to a halt. Its probably not a good life direction. But perhaps when we get frustrated. Perhaps when our normal way of proceeding can’t solve our problems for us.

Sometimes when we trip over the same old obstacles or repeatedly bang our head against the wall we may just not be slamming hard enough to get out of the comfort zone. Our frustration can sometimes only be circumvented at the same time as our comfort and self satisfaction with our ignorance. Ignorance wearing the appearance of conviction, that is….

The bright glare from the spotlight of our attention puts everything in a particular context. And because its the lens we are observing through we have a hard time seeing the shadows behind the objects. We are stuck in daylight surveillance, but we don’t do as good a job with infra-red. The glare only gives one view. If we turn down the bulb we get to see things differently, sometimes even new things.

Its just a thought, but maybe it can help us. And its interesting that Neuroscience and Psychology backs this up.

That’s all for today! Have a great rest of the weekend!

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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