“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
What if you could taste a number or hear a color? Synesthesia is the taking in of neurological information through one sensory modality while experiencing it through another. Only about 4% of the general population experiences this ability naturally. However by exploring ways to hold different sensory information simultaneously, we foster novelty and promote our creative Flow.
Seeking novelty is a behavior catalyst for Flow. Finding new experiences that open us to more curiosity, seeing differently and expanding possibilities, all stimulate Flow. Extreme athletes (rock climbers, race car drivers, mountaineers, base jumpers, skiers, etc.) create Flow states by placing themselves in situations where each decision can truly mean life or death. As thrilling as these highly adrenalized and dopamine-energized states may be, most of us mere mortals will not access Flow in these ways.
We can kindle Flow through pursuing novel experiences. Novelty causes our brains to reach towards the new and compelling. Something catches our eye and we are pulled in for a closer look. Advertisers are, hands-down, the novelty-enticing experts. Known for continually making subtle changes within popular ads, they create novelty. Unbeknownst to us, they force us to look again and again.
Most Won’t Bother
Being a board-certified art therapist for almost four decades taught me that when you ask a group of adults to get out art supplies the vast majority get nervous. For the sake of novelty and Flow cultivation, I’m going to ask you to not make art, but instead make marks. In a few moments, I’m going to explain a basic flow activation exercise that will charge your brain. However, most people who are reading this article won’t do it. Their excuses will be logical and rational. Here are some of the things they will miss:
- Brain and body dancing
- Deep listening
- The colors of sounds: synesthesia
- Novelty pump up
- Cultivating flow
- Personal internal flexibility
- Brain stretching
- Getting un-stuck
Some will wonder what that might be like. For those of you who truly choose to engage, who really want more Flow and are willing to challenge yourself for some interesting rewards, it’s time. Let’s cultivate some creative Flow.
The term neuroplasticity is used to explain the brain’s ability to change, adapt and reorganize itself when confronted with new stimuli.
Saddle Up (as we say in Texas)
First, you’ll need to gather the following items:
- 20-25 sheets of blank copy paper or 5 sheets of large inexpensive drawing or flip chart paper
- 8-12 inexpensive broad tip colored markers
- Music: a selection of one or more pieces lasting about 20 minutes, something you know and like that has a variety of moods and rhythm changes (for me, nothing beats Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, but I can be a classical nerd sometimes). Perhaps you’re into jazz, hip hop, indie rock, or anything that literally moves your soul. Load up this music and plug in those ear buds or headphones. If you have a sound system you’d rather blast your music on, please feel free to turn up the music.
Read through all the instructions in this section before you proceed with the experience.
> Take 5 minutes to write quickly on a piece of paper a current challenge or project that you’d like to explore in a different manner. Write as fast as you can, recording as many facts and concerns of the situation as possible.
> Put your writing to one side and start playing your music. As you listen, begin to imagine what colors go with the music. What are the colors of the sounds? You can’t guess incorrectly, because there is no right answer to this question. Select two markers, one for each hand. Begin to make marks on your paper. You are scribbling. You are not drawing a picture of anything. You are moving with the sounds and rhythms of the music. Literally, go with the flow. Change markers when the music’s mood changes. You might move both markers together or one marker may go out on lead with the other following. Perhaps each marker creates their own individual scribble, following different instruments, simultaneously.
> Experiment with a variety of marks, dots and lines. Fill up a page and move on to another. See the colors and sounds layer-up one on the next. Enjoy the pure moment and keep moving, keep listening deeper and deeper into the piece.
When the music is over, lay out your work all together and take a few minutes to review your experience. Consider the following:
- What qualities would you use to describe your scribbles (flowing, smooth, jagged, rough, etc.)?
- What do your color choices mean to you (hot, cool, multicolored, more monochromatic, etc.)?
- Is there one particular scribble that pulls your attention? If so, describe it to yourself in the following manner: “This is me, I am_____.” (For example: This is me, I am open and flowing, making connections. Yet, in places I seem tighter, more contained).
- What do you notice about your energy level now? Has it increased, decreased or about the same compared to before you began this exercise?
- What is happening in your body right now?
Return now to the situation you wrote about earlier. Play your music softly in the background and write again about your challenge. This time, take your time to reflect, exploring at length any new openings, understandings and surprises you may be experiencing. You may also record any additional random thoughts that may have emerged while scribbling. These seemingly unconnected ideas may later evolve into new realizations and solutions with your current project.
Why This Works
Opening to novel experiences like choosing colors for the sounds we’re hearing while moving in tune with the music allow other areas of our brains to come online. When we pre-load the brain with an important issue (quickly writing our problem) the left brain, known for its logical and analytical thinking, is activated.
Next, we shifted into the more expressive right brain experience of movement, color and sound. When the brain finally returned to the original written challenge after this brain stretching workout, our internal thinking and experience of the issue shifted. The challenge continues yet the manner in which we perceive it is different. By pairing our challenge with the novelty of art supplies, movement and music, the brain’s neural networks expanded and formed different connections across the brain hemispheres.
The term neuroplasticity is used to explain the brain’s ability to change, adapt and reorganize itself when confronted with new stimuli. Neuroscientists today have ample research confirming the above quote made by Justice Holmes during the early part of the last century.
Expanding Our Thinking
We broaden the field of solution possibilities when we step outside our usual thinking style. Too often we stifle our thinking by concentrating, breath holding and muscle tightening ourselves into a tight body knot. This type of physical constriction is the antithesis of creative Flow. Too often we believe that the answers are locked up in our heads. Wherever they are imprisoned, the keys to unleash them may very well be located in our bodies.
Interviews with creatives from all disciplines agree that time spent walking, swimming, dancing or cloud gazing allows the body and brain to open to new pathways of interconnections and understandings. By intentionally pairing novel experiences with complex issues we force our minds and bodies into new territory. Scribbling is not fine art and yet it may transport you into new frames of reference and exciting discoveries.
Next time you listen to music, imagine hearing the colors of the melody and seeing the movement of the sounds. What rich imagery and tastes sensations arise? Feel the brain and body stretch, hold it and then relax. New connections and neural pathways are forming and flowing.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Pablo Picasso