Think of creativity like riding a bike


Our subconscious brains are more aware than “we” are.

It’s been found that our brains see details that we don’t, and filters through those details before we can consciously become aware. This makes sense, as our brains function this way for efficiency. Filtering out things that aren’t relevant in order for higher levels of thinking to focus on the things that (seemingly) really matter.

For example: hearing someone shout your name from the back of a crowded room can be important, so our brains are trained to recognize the sound of our name and call it to our attention no matter how rowdy and loud the rest of the room may be.

On the other end of the spectrum, a car horn sounding far off in the distance may not mean anything to us if we’re walking through a bustling city, so our brain naturally blocks it out. We aren’t made aware of the car horn sound because our brain doesn’t let the sound reach our consciousness. But the sound is still heard by our ears and our brain still processes the sound.

This is all in reference to what is known as “selective attention,” as demonstrated in the timeless dribbling ball video.

A surprising thing happens as a result of our brains tendency to rely on being so choice with attention like this.

We have processes of thinking called implicit and declarative memory, both working to interpret information and sort or store it in ways that make recognizing objects or performing tasks mostly effortless for our conscious mind.

Have you seen a musician who is first learning to play the piano struggle with placing their fingers on the appropriate keys? Now compare that concept of a novice player to that of a professional pianist, who can effortlessly play a series of songs without any hesitation.

The professional musician, playing their instrument, is an example implicit memory in action. There is very little – or, debatably, absolutely no – thinking going on in the professional’s mind in regards to where they should place which finger, how hard to press, when to press, and so on. The musician has trained their brain to perform a song simply by placing their hands above the proper keys and giving their mind a little “association,” or starting point, in the form consciously deciding what song to play or looking at sheet music before them.

That’s all it takes to invoke the memory and actions required to play the song, or songs.

Our brains work with implicit (and declarative) memory to process information without us being entirely aware of it. For example, our brain takes in sensory information (such as the sound of our name being called or of a car horn blaring in the distance) and then uses low-level processes to determine what to do with that information. If the information can be processed without conscious attention (because it’s seemingly unimportant, and to save energy and attention) then we don’t become aware of the sensory input and processing at all!

In effect, the sounds and sensations that seemingly don’t matter to our subconscious are never made evident to us. But there our brain is, processing all of it.

The result is our ability to ignore the hundreds of thousands of different sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations on a busy city street. It’s why the musician can play a song from memory quite fluidly.

How does implicit memory affect creative work?

When it comes to creativity there is much debate around whether or not we can “train” our brains to act creatively in a low-level, memory-powered way too; to store creative-inducing actions in implicit memory.

If a writer trains herself to sit down and write (without regard to exactly what she writes, or the quality of the writing) every day at a specific time, essentially forming a daily ritual, the argument says that after some time the writer should be able to write effortlessly simply by following that ritual.

Twyla Tharp, a celebrated choreographer and creative savant, has written a book in-favor of this argument, aptly titled The Creative Habit, where she writes:

It’s vital to establish some rituals–automatic but decisive patterns of behavior–at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

Neuroscientists, like Yohan John of Boston University, tend to agree with Tharp’s statement. Particularly when you’re first attempting to establish a creative habit or learn something new. Yohan writes on Quora:

“It may be that conscious processing is needed in the early stages of learning…Once a suitably accurate procedural memory is formed, conscious resources can be freed up to deal with problems that do not (yet) have habitual or purely procedural solutions….Learning to ride a bike [for example.] Initially, you have to consciously keep track of what you’re doing. Eventually your body figures out how to pedal and balance. At no stage can you consciously describe what your muscles are doing while riding a bike. ”

It might be wise, then, to setup a type of creative thinking ritual or form a ritualistic habit whenever you find yourself wanting to do something creative.

Whether you’re hoping to be a prolific writer, turn yourself into a part-time designer, become a professional musician, or just have worthwhile creative ideas every day, give your brain the subtle hints it needs to know what the end-goal is.

Even the simplest of things can influence your outcome, from the ritual you use to “prep” yourself to the environment you work in. Any impact you can have will go a long way on your subconscious.

Ultimately: think of being creative like riding a bike. At first you might struggle, but after a while it will come naturally, just like that.