Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How Fear Blocks Your Creativity

Hidden in Dave and Tom Kelley's presentation at the MIT Media Lab in July of 2013 was something which is easy to miss. Seventeen minutes into the session, Dave dropped a diamond.  Once you trim out the hems, haws, parallel thought paths and false starts, the implication becomes clear.

"We only have to remove the fear of being judged by other people."

Some may argue that it oversimplifies things.  It certainly challenges the idea that creativity has to be taught, but the concept is still very powerful, for reasons we'll see shortly.

Let's start with some background on the neuro-biology of fear.

Fear is a perfectly normal, healthy emotion. When something unexpected happens, like a loud noise, a flash of bright light or a sudden physical or electrical shock, our nervous system transmits the electro-chemical signals to the thalamus, which sends them on to both the sensory cortex, where it is interpreted for meaning, and the amygdala, which tells the hypothalamus to immediately initiate your "fight-or-flight" response.  Looking at the image below, you'll note that the sensory cortex is on the outside of the brain, the hippocampus is in the middle and the thalamus, hypothalamus and amygdala are in the core, "primitive" or "autonomous" area.

The sensory cortex determines if there is more than one possible interpretation of the stimuli and passes that along to the hippocampus, which checks to see if it has experienced anything like it before. If so, it pulls memories of what it meant the last time.

The hippocampus considers all the inputs which might give clues as to what is going on. Taking that into account, it determines an appropriate response and, if there is no danger, sends a message back to the amygdala, which tells tells the hypothalamus to shut down the fight-or-flight response.

Just looking at all the arrows makes me a little dizzy. This dual path processing creates confusion in all of us.  The signals' side trip thru the cortex takes longer and our higher brain functions have to override the primitive brain, which has already primed us to argue, run, or hide under the covers.

All this sub-conscious brain activity also releases a flood of over two dozen hormones, which have some predictable results:
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase. 
  • Pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible. 
  • Veins in skin constrict to send more blood to major muscle groups (responsible for the "chill" sometimes associated with fear -- less blood in the skin to keep it warm).
  • Blood-glucose level increases.
  • Muscles tense up, energized by adrenaline and glucose (responsible for goose bumps -- when tiny muscles attached to each hair on surface of skin tense up, the hairs are forced upright, pulling skin with them). 
  • Smooth muscle relaxes in order to allow more oxygen into the lungs.
  • Nonessential systems, like digestion and the immune system, shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions. 
  • Trouble focusing on small, detailed tasks, as the brain is directed to focus on the big picture to determine where the threat is coming from.
It's this last one that has the biggest effect on creativity. The frontal lobes are essentially off line. Long range planning and "daydreaming" is put off in anticipation of the need for imminent action. It also takes a while for the hormone flood to subside and return to normal after the order is issued to stand down. In cases of severe PTSD, the Fight or Flight response becomes chronic.

Note that the first part of the fear response is completely automatic and uncontrollable. Charles Darwin told of an experiment he did on himself in the reptile house at the London Zoological Gardens. While trying to remain perfectly calm, he stood as close to the glass as possible, while a puff adder lunged toward him on the other side of the glass. Every time it happened, he grimaced and jumped back.  In his diary, he wrote, 

"My will and reason were powerless against the imagination of a danger which had never been experienced.

Now, Dave's statement raises an interesting question; Why do the students he's referring to have a fear of being judged by other people?  When did they loose their innocent joy of being creative and what makes anyone think they can get it back?

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