Jewish Journal

Dogs, The Amygdala, and Marv

by Peter Himmelman

January 31, 2013 | 3:09 pm

Creativity isn't a skill. It isn't a tool to be marketed or capitalized upon, although it's often highly prized. Think of it like breathing or blood pumping through your veins. It's more like the movement of planets or waves on the ocean then something peripheral to our collective human experience. It exists in all of us, it is a part of all of us. Of course if creativity is so native to human experience why is it in evidence in some much more than others and why does it often feel so distant?

From a neurological point of view the brain is an apparatus that's way more of a filter than a open door. Rather then take in information, it's main function is to be selective about where we focus our attention. In doing so, there is far more sensory input that is deselected or left behind than is absorbed. How else would we function if we were bombarded with the millions of sense perceptions we were given at any moment? That said, in order to foster a greater grasp of our own native creativity, we need a method to decrease the over-active filtration system that the brain provides us. We need techniques that allow a greater degree of willingness on the part of the brain to admit stimuli it might normally reject.

For instance, if you're sitting at your computer trying to write a business proposal and you've come up against a wall, and you're drawing a blank, it might be helpful to focus momentarily on things that the brain had deselected. The sound of the rain outside. The smell of the coffee in your cup. A glint of sunlight hitting your desk from a nearby window. It's not that there's any direct correlation to what you're working on. That's not the important thing. What is important, and you can consider this whole slightly odd way of looking at problem solving as an exercise, is that for a fleeting moment, by noticing things your mind has filtered out, you allow your brain to relax its propensity to stop the flow of information, to decrease its natural selective tendency and provide a brief window of increased acceptance of ideas. That's why so many of us have our most powerful revelations in the shower. The warm water on our naked skin, the smell of the soap and the sound of the water cause our analytical minds to take a break and our sensory perceptions become predominant.

The Inner Critic

The brain has another astounding function. The limbic brain, (specifically the amygdala) which has been called the primitive brain or the emotional brain is on a constant lookout for life threatening danger. If we were walking down the street and a angry dog suddenly growled at us from behind a fence, the amygdala would cause us to breathe in involuntarily. That inhalation would provide a quick burst of oxygen so we could run like hell. Interestingly, the limbic brain, reacts in a similar way to non- physical threats as well, such as criticism of our ideas or even the perception of criticism, because it perceives criticism as another life threatening danger. Here's why:

As infants and young children our capacity for absorbing knowledge and information was arguably at its peak. No one could say that our native intelligence as adults has increased since infancy and let's not confuse the accumulation of information - of which we surely have more than we did as children - as intelligence. Given that we were highly intelligent even as infants, we must have been cognizant in some way of our own fragility, our need to be taken care of, nurtured, and guarded.  If there were a suspicion or a sense that we would somehow be rejected by our parents, that suspicion would lead to increased anxiety because rejection at that early stage in our lives meant death. Now whether we as infants had this reason systematicaly thought out is highly unlikely, but what is likely is that the amygdala had (and still does have) a way of intuiting this kind of danger; no different from the reaction it would have at the growling of the angry dog; both are instinctual, primal, mortal fear.

This fear of rejection is another way the brain deselects options. Out of fear, (note: as adults, this fear has refined itself into concepts of shame, humiliation, ignominy) but its all the same; there is a limiting factor which occurs when we feel we are going to be judged.

1.  Judgement means possible rejection,

2.  Rejection means abandonment and...

3.  Abandonment means death

4.  Fearing death, we limit our innate capacity toward creativity as a life saving mechanism.

Even when the actual threat of abandonment is in no way present (we'll feel embarrassment perhaps, but be sure of this - embarrassment will never lead to death) we continue to harbor the same primitive fears. So goes our limbic brain. It's there to help us but it just doesn't know when to shut up.

We at Big Muse never tell the limbic brain to shut up. We've even given it a name: Marv, and we treat it with respect. After all, Marv is our protector. We show Marv great respect. We give him a cup of coffee and a New York Times and tell him to take a break. While he's away, comfortably sipping his coffee and reading the paper, we can do our best work.

1. We express vulnerability

2. That expression creates stronger teams

3. Stronger teams create more acceptance

4. More acceptance creates less fear

5. Less fear allows natural creativity to be unleashed

I had a discussion with a friend of mine yesterday. I presented him with what I felt might be (in its most ideal sense) an axiom:  Creativity is freedom -  Freedom is abundance

He didn't believe that creative freedom necessarily brought about abundance. I disagreed and not only being I was being slightly disagreeable. I feel strongly that creativity surrounds us like air and it's only fear that prevents us from accessing it. The freedom I am expressing is freedom from our own perceived limitations, our own Marvs if you will. I believe (I didn't say "know" that type of certainty is annoying)  that our ability to create is commensurate with our ability to overcome our fear. Once we become fully "creative" that is, in our personal lives, our spiritual lives and our occupational lives, we will naturallyl find unbounded abundance.

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In addition to being a Grammy and Emmy nominated songwriter and composer, Peter Himmelman is a visual artist, writer and founder of Big Muse—an organization dedicated to...

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