Write to better understand your creative potential

Writing changes how we think. To write is to invoke new ways of exploring ideas, expressing thoughts, and uncovering creative possibilities.

When we write, our brains begin to think in terms of prose and narrative, structure and meaning, not merely patterns and dynamic connections between invisible forces. Writing can unlock entire new patterns of thinking for us, similar to how exposing ourselves to new languages, cultures, or even tools, influence our thinking.

When an architect looks at a room, they see everything behind the aesthetic: the way the walls are constructed, how everything is supported and frames, the subtle details most everyone else will overlook. Similarly, when a writer looks at a room, they think of the details nobody else can see. The story the room tells. The characters and their stories, how it all relates to interweaving moments and narratives.

Writing is not merely a way to turn our thoughts into tangible constructs, but it’s also a way to change how we think what we do. You can think of writing as a cognitive technology we use to think in ways other than how we typically do. In our brains, thoughts are presented as networks between many different concepts. When we write, thoughts have to mutate into something we can put onto the page in a more structured and transferable way.

The same goes for drawing, dancing, designing, coding, playing music, and speaking in other languages. When we do these things they require ideas to transform from intangible, ill-defined networks of relationships into more structured representations of themselves. It’s through this transformation that our thinking itself changes. When we conduct these things, not only do we need to have the ideas behind hem, we must find also ways to transfer and communicate them through written formats, spoken words, or other tangible means.

The tools we use to conduct this work influences our thinking as well. The architect who relies on mathematical formulas and software to conduct her business is more likely to think in terms of equations and structure. The artist who expresses himself in cubism is likely to see things from more abstract vantage points. It’s the writer who sees the connections amongst things and the invisible spaces between them.

As Michael Nielsen explains: “You begin to think with the interface, learning patterns of thought that would formerly have seemed strange, but which become second nature…[these] make it easy to have insights or make discoveries that were formerly difficult or impossible.”

The power of writing is that it enables us to, as Michael explains, have insights and think in ways that were previously difficult or impossible to have. Any activity is beneficial in this regard, but it’s writing which enables us to quickly capture thoughts as they occur, to reflect on them in such a manipulatable way. Writing captures these fleeting concepts we call “ideas” and puts them bare in front of us, to explore and manipulate and better understand.

If you want to better understand your creative potential, try writing. A few words a day can go a long way.

Creative ideas in the here and now

We often think of creativity as being about what comes next, what’s just around the corner.

In actuality, creativity isn’t about the future at all. It’s about what’s around us here and now, then being able to take that awareness and turn it into something actionable.

You can imagine what the world may look like 10 years from now, but that won’t do you any good if what you imagine requires leaps and bounds between technology, resources, and execution.

The alternative is to look around you right now to see what might be changed in order to actually create a future world.

This awareness of the present exposes us to what’s known as the adjacent possible: all the different ways the present can realistically change here and now.

It’s the adjacent possible which allows creative ideas to come to fruition, by uncovering what small, incremental, steps can be realistically taken. A carriage with a combustable or even steam-powered engine attached couldn’t have come before the horse-drawn carraige, it was simply unfathomable. By creating the carriage for horses to pull and the engine, it became feasible that attaching the enginge to the carraige might be a good idea.

What creative ideas are hiding just barely out of sight, waiting for you to merely notice them?

To discover the adjacent possible in any given moment there are two ways: by paying attention, or by getting lucky.

You can spend your entire life waiting to get lucky and never have a good idea. Hope for luck, but put in some of the work to pay better attention to the world around you too.

One way to do that? Mindfulness meditation, something that has scientifically been shown to improve creative output.

It’s not the act of meditation itself that is causing people to be more creative, it’s the point that meditation forces us to sit still for long enough to pay attention to what’s going on around us in the here and now.

The ways writing helps improve your thinking

A pen and paper, or a digital notepad, are undoubtedly some of the absolute most powerful tools a creative worker can have.

Actually, writing tools are some of the most valuable tools anyone can have.

The reason why writing matters for creativity is simple enough to understand. When you go about your day-to-day your brain is automatically consuming, filtering, and sorting through information. Most of the thoughts you have throughout the day are ignored by your lower level consciousness. i.e. You have thoughts you don’t even realize you have.

Unfortunately the value of those missed thoughts is lost. Again: without us even realizing it.

We’re unable to solve a problem or come up with an original idea because the information that could feed our solution is being filtered out, mentally ignored. That means creative insights are less likely to occur as a result of day-to-day thinking, when we’re not aware of the thoughts running through our own mind.

One way to combat this automatic filtering and sorting process in the brain is to work around it through free writing exercises.

Free writing allows you to capture your stream of thinking without first filtering all of the information.

During free writing, your brain is occupied with the act of writing itself – moving the pen across the page or your fingers over the keyboard – as well as the objective of creating at least somewhat of a flow to what you’re writing. So much so that there isn’t much energy or room for the standard filtering process to take place.

Free writing steps over our mental filtering processes to unveil our more basic thoughts. Of course, at some magnification this isn’t true (or at all possible), but on the face of things the argument stands.

It’s through this overcoming mental filtering that writing helps us to clarify our thoughts and explore possibilities too. When we free write, we control our focus in a way that allows the brain to look just outside of our scope without the burden of staying too-focused.

If you find yourself creatively stuck or digging for new ideas, free writing may be all you need to move forward.

In addition to getting unstuck, writing can help us feel grounded to a situation or event. Seeing written thoughts on a page allows us to manipulate them in a more tangible way than merely thinking can. Rather than trying to imagine how a situation might play out, for example, we can write the words down and then expand on them with additional words (or by erasing or deleting words). This act is ideal for capturing ideas as well as exploring them in depth.

A daily journal, for example, allows us to sort through feelings and situations in a way we otherwise could not. When we write down a problem we’re having or a victory we have achieved, we are able to explore those feelings without the mental filtering process and without the burden of having to sort through so many varied thoughts. In this way, writing allows us to relieve our minds of those situations and make room for newer ones.

Similarly, when we use the likes of sticky notes or a moleskin journal for capturing ideas, that frees up room in our mind for other ideas without risking the loss of previous ones.

I created an app to help this process along, it’s called Prompts.

Even the best ideas must be sorted and stored in the recesses of the mind. No matter how great we think our ideas may be – no matter how hard we believe “I’ll remember this later“ – the brain is a machine that makes the calls, and ideas are regularly shuffled away into places both dark and distant.

If you’re hoping to sort through your thoughts, solve a problem, or have more ideas, try writing.


This is your brain on writing

Unloading mental debt to make room for creative ideas

You should free-write, even if you’re not a writer

Photo by Jeffrey Pacres.

Improve your cognitive thinking with meditation

Want to improve your cognitive thinking? Do you have 20 minutes a day to dedicate to improving it? You’ll be interested to know that new research has shown how easy, mindful meditation for a few minutes every day can improve cognitive abilities.

Fadel Zeidan, a researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and former doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, along with Susan K. Johnson, Zhanna David, Paula Goolkasian, and Bruce J. Diamond, have conducted a study that tested students on their cognitive abilities before and after a week of meditation.

For this study, 63 student volunteers ‒ 49 of which completed the study ‒ were randomly split into two groups. The first group received basic meditation training using Buddhist techniques, while the second group listened to a vocal reading of “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkein.

Before the study began the students were tested on several levels, including mood and cognitive abilities. At the end of the study researchers discovered that both the meditation group and the reading group had increased moods, however the meditation group performed as much as ten times better on cognitive thinking and attention tests.

From the featured article in ScienceDaily: “Findings like these suggest that meditation’s benefits may not require extensive training to be realized, and that meditation’s first benefits may be associated with increasing the ability to sustain attention,” Zeidan said.

The meditation and cognitive thinking study appears in the April 2nd issue of Consciousness and Cognition journal.

If you are looking for a way to improve your cognitive ability ‒ the way your mind thinks and sorts through knowledge ‒ try this meditation technique for at least 20 minutes a day. After a week, if you don’t feel like you are more creative than before, at least you’ll have a better mood about it. Give it a try.

Zen and the art of creative moments

One idea comes after another, and another, and another. Simply trying is out of the question, and everything seems to be flowing naturally. The best part? Almost all of the ideas are the kind that make you say “Ah hah!”

It’s a creative Zen moment.

The moment where your thoughts and realizations, your actions and presentations, all seem to be flowing perfectly in synchronization.

A creative Zen moment typically happens unexpectedly, but there are a few things you can do to stimulate the same creative Zen-like feelings.

Here’s how to trigger your creative Zen…

When you are having a creative Zen moment your mind is completely synchronized. The creative parts of your brain are working fluidly with the processing parts of your brain (left vs right, if you will). So, what do you do to cause your brain to be in-sync?

You write, a lot.

Writing is the beginning of synchronization between both parts of your brain, and as such is the perfect way to induce creative Zen. Writing as much as possible means that the creative parts of your brain have to work to come up with interesting things to write about and interesting, creative ways to write them, while the processing and rational part of your brain has to figure out the right words to use and how to put them down onto paper (or onto your blog).

Before starting a project at work, or at school, or for any other reason, take a few minutes to write. You don’t have to write anything pertaining to your project, and you don’t have to take yourself seriously. Just write.

What you write doesn’t have to make sense. It just needs to be something that you can think about and physically write or type.

After writing for about 15 minutes, both parts of your brain will begin to work together, almost seamlessly. All that’s left to do now is get creative, and produce some great ideas while you are in creative Zen mode.

Try it out for yourself. Write for a few minutes before trying to get creative. The process will empower a creative Zen-like moment and your creativity will flow like water droplets from a leaf.