You can’t pop the hood for an inspection. There’s no starting switch, no pedals to pump and no brakes. Your brain just goes. And goes. And the more it goes the sharper it becomes.
You can’t feel it, and you can’t see it. But it is consuming glucose and energy faster than any other part of the body. (There are no sensory nerves in the brain. Headaches occur outside the brain in the dura. The brain interprets the sensations of the rest of the body, but feels nothing itself.)
Through the brain, we command our legs and arms to move, we control our hands and fingers. We can wiggle our toes, nose and ears, all pinnacles of human achievement. But, do we control the brain?
Our thoughts do influence the brain. Mental activities affect brain structure by increasing gray matter in certain regions. (While the neurons are increased in one area, is another area of the brain decreasing?) Practice improves thinking skills.
We can direct our thoughts, focus our attention, but not indefinitely. We tire.
And, sometimes, it may seem that the brain has a mind of its own. It’s an age-old question: what is consciousness? Who or what is the self, the “I” that you believe in throughout your life?
A key part of that “I”—the self that distinguishes you from every other homo sapiens—is your imagination. No two imaginations are alike. Even twins with identical genomes have distinctly different imaginations.
We spend a lifetime figuring out how best to use our imaginations. But, we need metaphors and aphorisms to think and talk about it. How do you use an organ that you can’t see, feel, or touch?
Spilled paint is a common image for imagination and creativity. You see it in logos, advertisements, and brochures: a splattered rainbow of colors stands for human imagination. You know that the imagination is at work because there is multi-colored paint all over the floor. We haven’t had this much fun since finger painting in Kindergarten. Is that what spilled paint says to us: we’re having so much fun being original that paint should fly everywhere? Or, is spilled paint the antidote to all those admonitions to keep your coloring crayon between the lines?
The spilled paint image is over used. But, maybe it has meaning: don’t worry about mistakes, it’s all part of the chaotic process of the imagination, out of the mess of spillage comes order and vision. Or, Jackson Pollack.
Mostly we fall back on aphorisms, external metaphors to stimulate the engines of imagination.
For example, we say “I got to get the creative juices flowing.” Or, we promise to “unlock creativity.” These metaphors (which we hardly acknowledge as metaphors) provide insight into what we believe about imagination and creativity.
“Unlock creativity” Where is the lock? What do you use for a key? Is our innate creativity peering at us from behind bars just waiting to get out? “Unlock creativity” implies that our imagination is embedded like a shiny pearl in a sealed shell somewhere deep within our brain. If only we were deep sea divers, descending into the murky neural depth, we could return with the sunken treasures.
“Get the juices flowing.” As a metaphor, “get the juices flowing” may not be far off: neural messages do cross the fluid of the synaptic gap. The electrical impulse of the neuron incites a chemical reaction that transfers to the dendrite of the next cell. But, how do you physically start the flow? Is there a spigot in the brain that can open a garden hose spray of ideas? Or, is it more like a Jack La Lane juicer: smushing a chunk of brain fruit to let the juice run everywhere?
“Unlock” and “get the juices flowing” suggest a start and stop to your imagination, like putting on your thinking cap in second grade. But, there is no start and stop in the brain. The brain is always going about its business. Our only control is the focus of our attention. We choose what to think about. We also choose what our senses recognize. Out of the millions of packets of information flowing into the brain from all five senses, we impose “limits” to what we see, hear, taste, and feel. (Sadly, we are unable to block smells, though we can become inured.)
There is a time to focus your imagination with laser-like precision; and there is a time to unmoor your imagination and let your attention float away. Sometimes linear steps are needed; other times your attention should drift, absorbing random thoughts and reacting to whatever you may encounter.
How do you know when to shift your attention? I don’t know what works best for you. But, I urge you to trust your instincts: when you focus intently, making progress, stay the course. When you feel stuck, shift your attention, change the way you are looking at the problem or situation.
Shift your attention by asking new questions, such as “What if?” “How did?” “Who else?” and “Where now?” These approaches are working within the problem by adjusting your perspective within the framework—what else can I see as I think this through.
But, you can also change your view by not thinking. Walk away. Step outside for a leisurely stroll (or a frenetic run). Empty your brain of all the grit and detail you have been probing. Take a nap, sleep on it. It’s almost as if you can throw all the pieces of a picture puzzle up into the air, have a lovely cup of tea and, when you return, the pieces fall back into place. (It is more likely—if you are lucky—that one piece will fall into place.)
Another image of imagination is the cartoon character trying to think of something to write. The cat (or pig, dog or mouse) looks up towards the ceiling and licks the pencil. Or, we see a photograph of someone hand on her chin, pencil in her mouth, gazing up. It is a profoundly human gesture: looking up for inspiration, as if an idea will fall from the sky. It’s as if we can evoke ideas by the external movement of our eyes, hands and mouth. Sometimes it works. Like stepping away, it changes our view—if we don’t find our idea on the paper at hand, maybe it’s on the ceiling. Or, maybe looking away allows us to visualize potential solutions.
But, these are suggestions, not rules. Many successful creators never seem to take a break. In some cases, we know their methods; more often we don’t. But, what difference does it make? You’re not Einstein, Marie Curie or Willa Cather. Why would you try to think like them?
You should observe how you think, how your imagination works. Experiment to find the best tactics for you. If you can steal a thinking strategy from an Einstein or Curie, steal away. Go for it. But, you can’t replicate their imagination. And, why bother? You have your own.