Creativity and the brain: neurons that fire together, wire together
Why do we feel so connected when we take up a new hobby or skill? What is it that keeps us so engrossed that time seems to fly, yet we can be so drained when doing tasks that aren’t as fulfilling?
As part of my work as a mentor for young people, I began to delve into this phenomenon, to help better motivate and inspire them through art. As a textile artist and illustrator, I have always had a sense of awe when I am in the studio planning out my next project. Observing my thinking and emotions, I notice that when planning a new scarf design or drawing, I feel a range of emotions from excitement to a deep contentment. It’s very exciting for me.
On the contrary, ask me to do repetitive design tasks such as the weekly accounts and I’m bored and fidgety, exhausted after a two hour stint.
Mastering a new artistic technique or completing a drawing to my satisfaction, I notice the hours have just flown by, the activity absorbing me totally. Instead of feeling drained, I feel uplifted. And when I go to sleep, I work things out in my visual cortex, drifting off in a euphoric state. That’s when I know I am really in touch with inner ‘grace’ as I call it, that place where my spirit is activated. It’s a wonderful feeling.
What causes this euphoria, this sense of wholeness?
This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity and new studies are now revealing that brain plasticity is enhanced when one takes up a hobby—and it need not be just crafty things: building model ships, aircraft, railroads, or rockets, gardening, sewing, cooking, music, soap making, woodworking, photography, stained glass or glass blowing, jewellery making, felting, quilling, origami—these types of activities call on the parts of the brain that increase dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good chemicals that give us a sense of well-being.
Experiment to find your passion
The key to this plasticity is fourfold. It must:
- hold your attention;
- be important to you;
- be meaningful; and
- be interesting
When you love doing something, you are fully invested in it, hence you will keep returning to it.
That is why admin tasks exhausts me, or rote learning: it is not creating new neural pathways and thus I experience mental fatigue. Conversely, when I am learning new ways to combine wool colours together, for example, I am rewarded with amazing results and want to keep learning. The earnestness with which I approach each scarf or drawing, means that my neurons are fired up and I am fully present. I am creating things because I enjoy it, not to please others. Once I start creating for others, I lose my focus and my vision. I have always subscribed to the notion of attraction, rather than promotion, so even if I stuff something up, it’s more about the process than the outcome for me.
This desire to learn coupled with hyper-focus, helps the brain fight degeneration by providing stimulus to sort out details and problem-solve. Let’s face it, by the time one is 40 or so, one is pretty much on auto-pilot for a lot of your life: you’ve learned your job; how to function in society and for manual tasks like driving a car or bike, you have become unconsciously competent, you can almost do them in your sleep (not the driving bit, though, please). However, this is a problem for the ageing brain. “If you don’t use it, ya lose it”, so the saying goes. We need to keep challenging the brain to create new pathways and that is why arts, crafts and hobbies are so important.
Let’s talk about ‘flow’
‘Going with the flow’ is an old axiom and has an element of truth to it. Try going against the flow, and boy, you’ll know the pain it causes! Flow for me happens when I am immersed, occupied; I seem to float above what I am doing in a state of meditation, but with a bit more energy. I will sing, or listen to music while I am felting, but also observe what I am thinking: I subconsciously work through issues in my mind, talking with myself, stepping back, observing both the piece I am working on and my attitude to it. My self-talk will go something like “Is this colour scheme appealing? Is the scarf the right length and proportion? Have I added too much of something here or there?” I watch for self-critical and sabotaging dialogue because, well, it serves no purpose.
“I subconsciously work through issues in my mind, talking with myself, stepping back, observing both the piece I am working on and my attitude toward it.”
The greatest benefit for me overall is the deep sense of contentment that I feel during and after working on an art project. I feel so complete, so buoyant. I know from science that what has really happened is that I have undergone fundamental and very healing changes to my physical and emotional being, not the least of which is my responses to stress: I’ve decreased my heart rate, my blood pressure, my rate of breathing, and my muscle tension. And underlying this, is the fact that when creating or crafting, I have actually entered a state of meditation, which is a type of “mental exercise” that regulates attention and emotions, while improving well-being. I know that I feel better about myself and my place in the world, and this ripples out to all areas and people in my life. In fact, there is evidence that on cellular levels, changes to gene expression have been revealed as a result of the relaxation response. That’s deep!
Most importantly, after a particularly satisfying session in the studio or sitting on the beach drawing, I always have the best sleeps. I put this down to fulfilling my life’s destiny to create; and by not bottling up things or denying myself creative expression, I am living my life’s purpose.
Engaging in cognitive activities, aging, and mild cognitive impairment: a population-based study. Geda YE1, Topazian HM, Roberts LA, Roberts RO, Knopman DS, Pankratz VS, Christianson TJ, Boeve BF, Tangalos EG, Ivnik RJ, Petersen RC., J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2011 Spring;23(2):149-54. doi: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.23.2.149.
Clave-Brule M, Mazloum A, Park RJ, Harbottle EJ, Birmingham CL, Eating and weight disorders: EWD 14:1 2009 Mar pg e1-5
Barron, C. (2013) The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands, SCRIBER, NY
Textile designer Marta Madison studied psychology and art therapy. Her exploration of silk painting and a keen interest in wool felting and their calming affects on the brain, has led her to using her skills to help students work through challenges and build self-esteem as a mentor with Max Potential.
PO Box 491 Crows Nest NSW 1585.