Ten Habits of Highly Creative People, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

Adapted from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire (Perigee Books, 2015)

Neuroscientists have discovered that solitary, inwardly focused reflection employs a different brain network than outwardly focused attention.

by Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. in The Greater Good

unnamedWhat exactly is creativity? So many of us assume that creativity is something we had as a child but we lost, or something allocated to rarified individuals that we can only admire from afar.

But science has shown that, in many ways, we are all wired to create. The key is recognizing that creativity is multifaceted—on the level of the brain, personality, and the creative process—and can be displayed in many different ways, from the deeply personal experience of uncovering a new idea or experience to expressing ourselves through words, photos, fashion, and other everyday creations, to the work of renowned artists that transcends the ages.

Neuroscientists who study creativity have found that creativity does not involve a single brain region or even a single side of the brain, as the “right brain” myth of creativity suggests; instead, it draws on the whole brain. This complex process consists of many interacting cognitive systems (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions, with different brain regions recruited to handle each task and to work together as a team to get the job done.

The discovery of the “default network” of the brain—the part of the brain at work when we are not purposefully engaged in other tasks—is one of the most important recent discoveries in neuroscience. The default network enables us to construct personal meaning from our experiences, imagine other perspectives and scenarios, comprehend stories, and reflect on mental and emotional states—both our own and those of others.  It should come as no surprise then that the activity of this network—as we like to call it, the “imagination network”—also informs our most creative ideas.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

The “executive attention” network of the brain is also crucial to creativity, however. Executive control processes support creative thinking by helping us deliberately plan future actions, remember to use various creative tactics, keep track of which strategies we’ve already tried, and reject the most obvious ideas. They also help us focus our imagination, blocking out external distractions and allowing us to tune into our inner experiences.

When we generate new ideas, these networks—along with the salience network, which is responsible for motivation—engage in a complex dance. Researchers have observed this cognitive tango in action through the brain scans of people engaged in their personal creative processes. Initially, their brain states resemble a state of flow or complete absorption in the task. The imagination and salience networks are highly active, while the more focused executive domain is relatively quiet. However, as creative people further hone and refine their work, the executive attention network becomes increasingly more active.

Creative people are particularly good at exercising flexibility in activating and deactivating these brain networks that in most people tend to be at odds with each other. In doing so, they’re able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought—cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous. Even on a neurological level, creativity is messy.

So, what can we do to augment this cognitive flexibility? In our book, Wired to Create, we explore how to develop creativity as a habit, a way of life, and a style of engaging with the world. We present many paradoxes—mindfulness and mind wandering, openness and sensitivity, solitude and collaboration, play and seriousness, and intuition and reason—that contribute to the creative process. We encourage people to embrace their paradoxes and complexities and open up to a deeper level of self-understanding and self-expression. It is precisely this ability to hold the self in all of its dimensional beauty that is the very core of creative achievement and creative fulfillment.

Here are the some of the habits of mind we recommend to foster more creativity in your life.

1. Imaginative play

Observing children in imaginative play reveals a wellspring of natural-born creativity. When engaged in pretend play, children take on multiple perspectives and playfully manipulate emotions and ideas.

As adults, cultivating a childlike sense of play can revolutionize the way we work.

Research shows that hybrid forms of work and play may actually provide the most optimal context for learning and creativity, for both children and adults, and that play and intrinsic joy are intimately connected, creating a synergy that naturally leads to greater inspiration, effort, and creative growth.

2. Passion

Passion often stems from an experience or a relationship that moved us somehow and can lead to inspiration. It is often the emotional fuel that starts one down a creative path, but it’s only a start. People who fulfill their creative dreams over the long haul balance the excitement about the future with realistic strategies for getting closer to their goals; inspiration with hard work; and dreaming with doing.

When someone advises you to “Follow your passion,” use caution: aside from being one of the most common clichés out there, it’s not very helpful advice. You must look for passion that is in harmony with your authentic self and is compatible with your other activities. Passion to prove yourself to others will probably not result in creativity, as it relies on your avoiding challenges that would otherwise lead to growth. So, while you should be open to what inspires you, don’t follow passion blindly. Make sure it truly resonates with you and your skills.

3. Daydreaming

Creative people know, despite what their parents and teachers might have told them, that daydreaming is anything but a waste of time. A review of the latest science of daydreaming has shown that mind wandering offers very personal rewards, including creative incubation, self-awareness, future planning, reflection on the meaning of one’s experiences, and even compassion.

Idle though it may seem, the act of mind wandering is often anything but mindless; it can lead to improvements in creative thinking. So, the next time you’re working hard on a creative project or work assignment that requires intense focus and creative chops, try taking a five-minute daydreaming break every hour. Try engaging in a simple activity that will allow your mind to wander, like walking, doodling, or cleaning, and see how it affects your ideas and thinking.

4. Solitude

The metaphorical “room of one’s own” is a basic need for many creative people. Now, science has reinforced what the work habits of countless artists have demonstrated: Time for solitary reflection truly feeds the creative mind.

Neuroscientists have discovered that solitary, inwardly focused reflection employs a different brain network than outwardly focused attention. When our mental focus is directed towards the outside world, the executive attention network is activated, while the imagination network is typically suppressed. This is why our best ideas don’t tend to arise when our attention is fully engaged on the outside world.

It’s important to make time for solitude, to give yourself space to reflect, make new connections, and find meaning. Unfortunately, solitude is widely undervalued in society, leading many people to shy away from alone time. We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted or as an indication of an antisocial or melancholy personality. But the ability to enjoy and make productive use of our own company can trigger creativity by helping us tap into our thoughts and our own inner worlds. So, don’t avoid it…embrace it!

5. Intuition

Intuition arises from unconscious, or spontaneous, information-processing systems, and it plays an important role in how we think, reason, create, and behave socially. Over the past thirty years, cognitive scientists have made huge strides in demystifying the power of the unconscious mind, leading to the recognition of a dual-process theory of human cognition—or the “fast and slow brain” theory. Intuition is part of the fast brain system.

The fast brain is structurally more sophisticated than the slow brain. It helps us assimilate new information into our existing knowledge structures, and aids us in complex pattern recognition and in making unconventional connections that lead to more original ideas and solutions. The fast brain plays the largest role when generating creative ideas, while the more deliberate slow brain play a larger role when exploring those ideas and playing around with them, to determine their uses and applications. Both the fast brain and slow brain have a role to play.

6. Openness to experience

Openness to experience—the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds—is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement. Openness can be intellectual, characterized by a searching for truth and the drive to engage with ideas; aesthetic, characterized by the drive to explore fantasy and art and experience emotional absorption in beauty; or affective, characterized by exploring the depths of human emotion.

Research has found that the desire to learn and discover seems to have significantly more bearing on the quality of creative work than intellect alone. So, if you want to boost your creativity, try out a new creative outlet or a totally different medium of expression, or take a new route home from work, or seek out a new group of people with different interests or values that you might learn from. Openness to new experiences can help increase your integrative complexity—the capacity to recognize new patterns and find links among seemingly unrelated pieces of information.

7. Mindfulness

While the capacity to observe the present moment without distraction or judgment is a vital skill for anyone who seeks joy and fulfillment in life, it’s particularly important for creative thinkers.

A large body of research has associated mindfulness—both as a practice and as a personality trait—with many cognitive and psychological benefits like improved task concentration and sustained attention, empathy and compassion, introspection, self-regulation, enhanced memory and improved learning, and positive affect and emotional wellbeing. Many of these are central to creativity.

However, for optimum cognitive flexibility and creativity, it’s best to achieve a balance of mindfulness and mind wandering. Some forms of mindfulness may actually work against creativity—specifically, those that encourage one to let go of thinking rather than accepting thoughts in a more open manner. Interestingly, open-monitoring meditation, which emphasizes tuning into one’s subjective experience, has been found to increase both the activation and the functional connectivity of the imagination network. So, try practicing an open-monitoring or nondirective form of meditation, and allow for constructive mind-wandering while also boosting attention.

8. Sensitivity

If we think of creativity as “connecting the dots” in some way, then sensitive people—those who have a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and also an intensified experience of sensory input, like for sound, lighting, and scent—experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection.

Sensitivity can be both a blessing and a curse—leading to a greater intensity of experience as well as emotional overwhelm. Journalist Andrea Bartz wrote in Psychology Today that “those who learn to dial down the relentless swooping and cresting of emotion that is the almost invariable accompaniment to extreme sensitivity are able to transform raw perception into keen perceptiveness.”

So, rather than trying to harden yourself, you may want to harness your sensitivity into artistic expression.

9. Turning adversity to advantage

Experiences of loss, struggle, suffering, and defeat can be powerful catalysts for personal growth, creativity, and deep transformation. It is often through suffering that we learn compassion, from loss that we learn understanding, and from overcoming struggles that we come to discover our own strength and beauty.

Adverse events can force us to reexamine our beliefs and life projects, and therein lie their power and creative potential. After the experience of adversity, the mind is actively dismantling old belief systems that no longer hold up and creating new structures of meaning and identity. To make meaning of difficult experiences, try expressive writing, which research has found can lessen symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression, while improving some cognitive functions, like working memory.

Interestingly, research has also found that extreme positive events—in particular, those that evoke feelings of awe, wonder, inspiration, and connection to something greater than the self—can also encourage creativity. Positive emotions build a person’s psychological resources, broadening attention, inspiring new thoughts and behaviors, and stimulating creative thinking. So, if you’re looking for a creative boost, treat all of life’s meaningful moments—the good and the bad—as potential sources of inspiration and motivation.

10. Thinking differently

Creative people are united by their unwillingness to abide by conventional ways of thinking and doing things. In choosing to do things differently, they accept the possibility of uncertainty and failure—but it is precisely this risk that opens up the possibility of true innovation.

The secret to creative greatness appears to be doing things differently even when that means failing. Especially during idea-generation phases, trial-and-error is essential for innovation. Dean Keith Simonton, who studies creativity, found that the quality of creative ideas is a positive function of quantity: The more ideas creators generate, the greater chances they will produce an eventual masterpiece. Doing things differently means you will probably do things badly or wrong; so expect that and don’t let caution get in the way of creativity.

Will following all of these routes to creativity mean you will become a creative genius? Not necessarily. But, when the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. If we learn to embrace our own messy, creative selves, we give others permission to do the same. We help create a world that is more welcoming of the creative spirit, and we make it possible to find a greater connection with others and with ourselves in the process.

 

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Carolyn Gregoire is a Senior Writer at the Huffington Post, where she reports on psychology, neuroscience and mental health.

The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

by Maria Popova in Brainpickings

Martha C. Nussbaum
Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, who holds appointments in both the philosophy department and the law school.

“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect. To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.

The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Nussbaum writes:

A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.

[…]

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

One of Nussbaum’s central points is that the complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form — that is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality, which of course is the great psychological function of literature and the reason why art can function as a form of therapy. What emerges is an intelligent manifesto for including the storytelling arts in moral philosophy.

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The Science of Stress and How Our Emotions Affect Our Susceptibility to Burnout and Disease, by Maria Popova

Memory, it turns out, is one of the major factors mediating the dialogue between sensation and emotional experience

How your memories impact your immune system, why moving is one of the most stressful life-events, and what your parents have to do with your predisposition to PTSD

by  • Brainpickings

neurocomic7I had lived thirty good years before enduring my first food poisoning — odds quite fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but miserably unfortunate in the immediate experience of it. I found myself completely incapacitated to erect the pillars of my daily life — too cognitively foggy to read and write, too physically weak to work out or even meditate. The temporary disability soon elevated the assault on my mind and body to a new height of anguish: an intense experience of stress. Even as I consoled myself with Nabokov’s exceptionally florid account of food poisoning, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming malaise that had engulfed me — somehow, a physical illness had completely colored my psychoemotional reality.

This experience, of course, is far from uncommon. Long before scientists began shedding light on how our minds and bodies actually affect one another, an intuitive understanding of this dialogue between the body and the emotions, or feelings, emerged and permeated our very language: We use “feeling sick” as a grab-bag term for both the sensory symptoms — fever, fatigue, nausea — and the psychological malaise, woven of emotions like sadness and apathy.

thebalancewithin_sternberg

Pre-modern medicine, in fact, has recognized this link between disease and emotion for millennia. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian Ayurvedic physicians all enlisted the theory of the four humors — blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm — in their healing practices, believing that imbalances in these four visible secretions of the body caused disease and were themselves often caused by the emotions. These beliefs are fossilized in our present language —melancholy comes from the Latin words for “black” (melan) and “bitter bile” (choler), and we think of a melancholic person as gloomy or embittered; a phlegmatic person is languid and impassive, for phlegm makes one lethargic.

And then French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes came along in the seventeenth century, taking it upon himself to eradicate the superstitions that fueled the religious wars of the era by planting the seed of rationalism. But the very tenets that laid the foundation of modern science — the idea that truth comes only from what can be visibly ascertained and proven beyond doubt — severed this link between the physical body and the emotions; those mysterious and fleeting forces, the biological basis of which the tools of modern neuroscience are only just beginning to understand, seemed to exist entirely outside the realm of what could be examined with the tools of rationalism.

For nearly three centuries, the idea that our emotions could impact our physical health remained scientific taboo — setting out to fight one type of dogma, Descartes had inadvertently created another, which we’re only just beginning to shake off…

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Stress Curve

See Also:

Honeymoon from Hell: Micro-Worldviews and the Volcano in Your Backyard, by Gary David Stratton

Gut-Level Knowledge: Micro-Worldviews, Attachment Theory and the Enneagram, by Gary David Stratton

Psychology Backs the Power of Developing a Positive Worldview, by Todd W. Hall, PhD

Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections, by Gary David Stratton

Why Spiritual Transformation has a lot to do with the Brain, by Rob Moll

Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

This is your Brain on Beethoven! Daniel J. Levitin and Understanding the Neuroscience of Music

The relationship between music and science is more complicated (and beautiful) than you ever imagined

I love the interplay between art and science, because it often demonstrates my conviction that we have more than one set of “senses” by which we interpret reality. While our five physical senses–touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell–are critical for apprehending the physical universe, it is our “spiritual senses”–what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refer to as the “eyes of the heart”–that enable us to comprehend the spiritual universe. Music is but one place where the interaction between the two is so evident… and so beautiful. We’ve reposted Pam Belluck’s excellent introduction to Levitin’s work and Cory Turner’s report on a practical application of it for those less interested in the technical jargon.  -GDS

To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons

By Pam Belluck • The New York Times

Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University in Montreal researches the effects of music on listeners. (Photo: Yannick Grandmont)

The other day, Paul Simon was rehearsing a favorite song: his own “Darling Lorraine,” about a love that starts hot but turns very cold. He found himself thinking about a three-note rhythmic pattern near the end, where Lorraine (spoiler alert) gets sick and dies.

The song has that triplet going on underneath that pushes it along, and at a certain point I wanted it to stop because the story suddenly turns very serious,” Mr. Simon said in an interview. “The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.

The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.

Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians.

And what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns…

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What Does It Mean to Be Musical?

by Daniel J. Levitin • McGill University

Musical ability is popularly regarded to be innate: one either is or is not born with musical talent. Increasingly, neuroscientists are collaborating with geneticists to understand the links between genes, brain development, cognition, and behavior (Ebstein et al., 2010; Posner et al., 2011). Music can be seen as a model system for understanding what genes can accomplish and how they relate to experience. On the practical side, identifying genetic components that underlie musical ability can also help us to predict who will succeed or, more interestingly, what types of instruction will be most successful for individuals according to their geneticcognitive profiles. In all domains, successful genotyping requires an accurately described phenotype. Unfortunately, the latter has not yet been accomplished for music, creating a significant hurdle to further progress. Part of the difficulty in describing the musical phenotype is its heterogeneity, the wide variety of ways in which musicality presents itself (Sloboda, 2008). My goal in this article is to review those factors that might be associated with the phenotype and to discuss definitions, measurement, and accuracy, three common obstacles in understanding the genetics of complex behavioral phenomena (Ebstein et al., 2010), with the hope that this may stimulate discussion and future work on the topic.

The Functional Neuroanatomy of Music

We now know that music activates regions throughout the brain, not just a single ‘‘music center.’’ As with vision, music is processed component by component, with specific neural circuits handling pitch, duration, loudness, and timbre. Higher brain centers bring this information together, binding it into representations of contour, melody, rhythm, tempo, meter, and, ultimately, phrases and whole compositions. The idea that music processing can be broken down into component operations was first proposed as a conceptual tool by cognitive theorists and has been confirmed by neuroimaging studies (Levitin and Tirovolas, 2009). The early distinction that music processing is right hemisphere lateralized and that language is left hemisphere lateralized has been modified by a more nuanced understanding. Pitch is represented by tonotopic maps, virtual piano keyboards stretched across the cortex that represent pitches in a low-to-high spatial arrangement. The sounds of different musical instruments (timbres) are processed in well-defined regions of posterior Heschl’s gyrus and superior temporal sulcus (extending into the circular insular sulcus). Tempo and rhythm are believed to invoke hierarchical oscillators in the cerebellum and basal ganglia. Loudness is processed in a network of neural circuits beginning at the brain stem and inferior colliculus and extending to the temporal lobes. The localization of sounds and the perception of distance cues are handled by a network that attends to (among other cues) differences in interaural time of arrival, changes in frequency spectrum, and changes in the temporal spectrum, such as are caused by reverberation. One can attain worldclass expertise in one of these component operations without necessarily attaining world-class expertise in others

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Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids' ability to process speech. (Annie Tritt for NPR)
Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids’ ability to process speech. (Annie Tritt for NPR)

This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music

by Cory Turner • NPR

Musical training doesn’t just improve your ear for music — it also helps your ear for speech. That’s the takeaway from an unusual new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found that kids who took music lessons for two years didn’t just get better at playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also helped kids’ brains process language.

And here’s something else unusual about the study: where it took place. It wasn’t a laboratory, but in the offices of Harmony Project in Los Angeles. It’s a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities.

Two nights a week, neuroscience and musical learning meet at Harmony’s Hollywood headquarters, where some two-dozen children gather to learn how to play flutes, oboes, trombones and trumpets. The program also includes on-site instruction at many public schools across Los Angeles County.

Harmony Project is the brainchild of Margaret Martin, whose life path includes parenting two kids while homeless before earning a doctorate in public health. A few years ago, she noticed something remarkable about the kids who had gone through her program.

“Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU,” Martin says, “despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our programs.”

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See also

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, by Paul J. Zak, PhD

Madness and the Muse: The Secrets of the Creative Brain, by Tom Bartlett

The Power of Perseverance: Advice to Young Artists from Jazz Legend McCoy Tyner of John Coltrane Quartet

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

Why Spiritual Transformation has a lot to do with the Brain, by Rob Moll

Heavenly Minded and Earthly Good

Many experiments have shown that neurons changed in an inattentive experience–surfing the Internet, flipping stations, or checking Facebook, etc.–revert to their original state shortly thereafter. Lasting change requires the kind of attention that many of us find difficult.

by Rob Moll • The Behemoth

Brain 2The brain is commonly said to contain around 100 billion neurons (though some recent research suggests it may be only 84 billion). Each neuron—or nerve cell—is connected to a thousand of its fellow neurons. So this gives the brain about 84–100 trillion connections between neurons. If neurons were the size of dollar bills, 100 trillion of them sewn together would make a carpet covering Texas and California combined. That’s a lot of neurons in a relatively small space.

Now consider this: Each of the trillions of connections between neurons can have various states. Computers have binary signals, ones and zeroes, on and off, as their basic signaling device. Neural connections may have ten or more possible states at just one of the 84–100 trillion junctures. This is why the brain is considered by many to be the most complex thing in existence. Fully understanding how the brain processes vision—with some neurons dedicated to processing movement, others to color, others to shapes, others to faces—is a task well beyond current science. But what we do know gives us a window into how God may use the brain to transform us.

How the Brain Works

Neurons communicate through a mix of electrical and chemical signals. Those signals can change, increase and decrease in strength, or develop from scratch. One neuron receives signals from another through its dendrites, which have a branch-like structure. They send an electrical impulse up their branches into the body of the neuron and then out through one or more of their many axons, which also look like branches. At the tip of the axon is the synapse, a gap between two nerve cells. Here the electrical signal in the cell changes to a chemical one, with chemicals being released at the tip of the axon to be received into “ports” in the dendrite of the next neuron.

Much of the growth and development in the brain occurs in our synapses as we learn. Most medications that affect mood and behavior change the strength of the chemical signal passing through the synapses. This is where brain chemicals such as dopamine or endorphins come into play.

Using these neurotransmitters (the chemicals that jump across synapses), neurons communicate, and their ability to communicate increases the more they work together. The chemical signals sent from one side of the synapse become stronger, and the receptors on the other side become more sensitive, better able to pick up signals. As we learn a new activity, new information, or even a new dance step, neurons are strengthening these signals between existing nerve cells, and creating new connections with other nerve cells.

The brain does more than passively wait for input from the body and process it. The brain is always on alert, searching for new information and improving how it processes information, learning—and learning how to learn. Our brains will employ a host of neurons to help us learn, but as we gain proficiency, we need fewer nerve cells, which become specialized and fuse more tightly. They create neural pathways, a kind of high-speed internet cable in the brain.

Experience is constantly changing our brains. The cerebral cortex—the wrinkled outer layer of the brain involved in high-level thinking—gets heavier as it learns. It is 5 percent heavier in laboratory mammals raised in learning-enriched environments. Rats that are trained to solve mental problems have higher levels of acetylcholine, a chemical necessary for learning, in their brains. Neurons in those stimulated regions grow larger, developing 25 percent more branches to connect to other neurons. This extra work demands more blood supply. Examinations of human brains after death show that people with more education tend to have larger brains, because of these extra connections. So if the average brain has up to 100 trillion connections, a highly educated one will have many more. This physical learning process means that learning something new doesn’t necessarily require forgetting something old. By increasing the brain’s synaptic connections, we can also increase its capacity.

The brain is in many ways like a muscle, growing stronger the more it’s used. It has a basic structure or mode of operation, but within that framework it’s surprisingly flexible—even into old age and even after diseases hamper its function. While the extreme but necessary neural nimbleness of youth is lost shortly after adolescence, the ability of the brain to change and grow throughout life is only now being understood.

Building Neural Compassion

All this should encourage us; we are not set in stone. We can and do change dramatically. In addition to the change that occurs naturally over time, we can also choose to pursue other changes. Researchers in fact have been looking at how to create the brain changes that lead to other changes we desire.

And yet the brain is a conservative organ. Despite its capacity for change, it only changes significantly under certain conditions. For example, we must monitor closely what we are doing. We do not improve our brains while surfing the Internet, flipping stations, or checking Facebook. Many experiments have shown that neurons changed in an inattentive experience revert to their original state shortly thereafter. Lasting change requires the kind of attention that many of us find difficult.

The attention required in spiritual practices like deep prayer, contemplation, study, and worship is what the brain needs to grow in lasting ways…

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Rob Moll is a Christianity Today editor at large. This article is adapted from his book What Your Body Knows About God (Intervarsity, 2014). 

See also

How Stories Change the Brain [Video], by Paul J. Zak, PhD

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, by Paul J. Zak, PhD

What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

Gut-Level Knowledge: Micro-worldviews, Attachment Theory and the Enneagram, by Gary David Stratton

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories Students Live By, by Gary David Stratton