I’ve always been a fan of creativity. I probably own and have read more than 100 books on the subject. I am familiar with most of the creativity gurus, know tons of creativity warmups and exercises, and even know what parts of the brain are mostly involved in the creative process thanks to University of Iowa neuropsychiatrist and creativity researcher Nancy Andreasen. It’s her research that is primarily responsible for making the links that frequently show up between creativity and madness.
University of Connecticut education professor Jonathan Plucker reviewed over 90 academic papers about human creativity and synthesized the following definition: “Creativity is the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or a group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context.” Pretty dry academic-speak, right?
Of course, reading about and studying creativity academically is very different than being and doing creativity – in other words, actually making something, something novel and useful in our time. One requirement for creating such things seems to be developing the ability to think “unthinkable thoughts.” Many such thoughts are often lurking in The Unthought Known where zombie memories live.
Before I provide you with an instruction set for thinking unthinkable thoughts, let me provide you with some guidance to ponder (wrongly attributed to Lao Tzu): “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” It’s hard to be truly creative, to think unthinkable thoughts when I’m anxious or depressed. One reason: reduced neural network activity making insufficient network connections. A depressed or anxious brain is like a Christmas tree with many of the lights not working.
The Energy of Peace
Being at peace in the present, doesn’t mean that we don’t have a lot of furious thinking and the high energy of neural network activity flowing, however. Often we do. It can be like the quiet energy of the sun or a nuclear power plant. Especially when the thoughts we are thinking have previously been unthinkable. Ask any artist who’s been paid an unexpected visit from their muse.
Because of how the brain has evolved, many of the unthinkable thoughts most of us are walking around with live buried in the implicit memory networks of our right brain. The cells and connections in the human brain develop in sine wave fashion, with the right side growing and connecting first. And much of what it devotes that beginning attention to is … threat. Anything that shows up early – excessive stress in utero, malnutrition, maternal grief – our knowledge of the threats a child’s neurobiology is sensitive to in utero and records regularly is growing daily. And we know boys are much more susceptible to early threats than girls are (I could have told doctors, parents and researchers that!).
Here Be Monsters
Reproductive biologist, David Bainbridge is quite familiar with the threat-memories that live in our right brain’s implicit memory networks: “The modern geography of the brain has a deliciously antiquated feel to it – rather like a medieval map with the known world encircled by terra incognita where monsters roam.” So the challenge becomes, how does a creative artist begin exploring this unknown territory where monsters roam, begin thinking the unthinkable thoughts that are necessary to make contact with such monsters, and emerge with something novel and useful for our times? Not to mention remaining sane and healthy while we do it.
We probably are well-served to recruit a little help. It’s a bad idea to go crazy solo. When I decided I wanted to try my hand at novel-writing, I took advice from writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg to heart: “Write about what disturbs you.” Following that directive inevitably put me deep into the terra incognita of my own trauma-riddled right brain. I needed four friends and three therapists to help me surface and process the unthinkable thoughts contained in my first fictional work that became the prize-winning novel March Madness. Without their help I’m pretty sure I never would have found the energy to confront the painful memories that surfaced week after week, unearthed by the writing.
An Explorer’s Guidelines
So, where does that leave us in terms of taking on the task of thinking unthinkable thoughts? First off, you might want to consider: is this something you really want to do? Is it something you actually have time and space for in your life? If the answer is yes, here are three brief guidelines: 1. Recognize that you’ll be taking on Shadow Work. Shadow Work can often be very painful; 2. Recognize that Shadow Work is very hard to engage in skillfully without help; Shadow Work often contains elements of The Heroine’s Journey; 3. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel; the Common World is a place we can return to. But we will be forever changed by our travels.