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What's the big idea, brain

· psychology,Creativity

More on Hamlet next week. But first, this:

In 2014, I signed up for my first half marathon. At the time, I was not much of a runner. But 13.1 miles is no joke, so I vowed to put in the time out on the trail. I found an online training program, I bought a technicolor pair of sneakers, and I got to work.

What I found was that the muscle that was hardest to train was the one between my ears. Before every training session, my brain came up with all kinds of reasons why we shouldn't run that day. And during the run, that same brain kept griping and criticizing. There was no reasoning with it; all I could do was ignore it. It was like putting a baby in the stroller and grimly running errands while it complained the whole way.

That brain of mine was one of the reasons I had signed up for the race in the first place. I was going through a rough time, and I needed to find my mental Off switch. Exercise did the trick: if I ran long enough, I would be too tired to think. By the end of my long Sunday runs, it was just quiet upstairs. So nice.

But sometimes you need your brain. Like when you tackle creative projects -- writing a script, composing a song, living a life. That’s when the brain can really get to work, and that’s not always a good thing. The inner critic is right there, ready to find fault with everything (and then some).

Creatives have struggled with the inner critic for a long time. There are a couple of ways to silence it. One is to never do anything, say anything, or try anything. :/ You could also start drinking heavily. That shuts the brain up for a while! But that’s not a great long-term solution - or short-term solution, either, for that matter.

So let’s say you want to pursue your creative passions without developing a drinking problem or drug habit along the way. What do you do?

I don’t know if I have found the answer - but I found a couple of clues that seem to point in the right direction.

I recently watched an amazing online class, called The Neuroscience of Self-Compassion, from Kelly McGonigal (twin sister of Jane). I cannot recommend it highly enough. I am going to share some of what I learned, but please check out the entire course. It’s worth it.

Over the past fifteen years, there have been huge breakthroughs in our understanding of how the mind works. Put simply, our brains are little fuckers. But it turns out that ALL of our brains are little fuckers in exactly the same ways.

(There it is in action - the connectome, a wiring diagram of all the neural connections in the brain. Looks like my running shoes:)

When our minds are not engaged in a task - when our brains are just hanging out - they become active. Very active. They go into a default state, and everybody’s default state turns out to be EXACTLY the same. 

What happens is that the mind wanders. It leaves the present moment. It starts fretting about the past or worrying about the future. It leaves the now.

Our default mode is to be dissatisfied.

You can test this theory the next time you are in public. Look at the people around you, hanging out, waiting for the train or whatnot. Do they look like contented monkeys? Probably not, unless you happen to be in a Buddhist monastery.

It turns out that the part of the brain that thinks about the self is right next to the part of the brain that looks for errors and problems - known as the “oh shit” circuit of the brain. THOSE parts are deeply connected.

When left to its own devices, here’s what the mind does. It projects things that aren't true or happening now, it thinks about other people (usually finding fault with them) and it thinks about the self - looking for errors and problems. Criticizing itself, in other words.

This is what EVERYBODY’S mind does when we aren’t paying attention. It isn’t just you. It’s everyone. This is how we are wired.

The mind’s default mode increases suffering.

As McGonigal says so well: “Many of us want to believe that our default state is happiness and that somehow we are just doing it wrong - if we just did it right, we would always be happy.” But as you can see, that's not the case.

(There is, however, a way to be happy. More on that in a minute.)

Later in the course, she asks students in the class to write down what their inner critic says. The responses are depressingly similar - “I am not lovable,” “something is wrong with me” -- you know how the tape plays. (It made me want to go and hug everybody in that room.)

Here's a thought:

“There is something wonderful when you realize that the inner critic doesn't say something unique about you. [It says the same thing to everybody.] It's not personal.”


Later, McGonigal says something surprising and magical, something that feels like the key that opens the prison door:

“There is some truth in the inner voice and that self-hate. It's not that they're right about what an awful person you are. It's showing you what and who you care about. The voice hurts because it's saying something true, but what's true is who and what you care about.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything that has ever amazed me more. I felt this sudden rush of tenderness towards that inner critic of mine. I could flip all those cruel words and see the truth hidden inside. I suddenly saw how much I care about being an athlete, doing work that matters, opening my heart to other people. Maybe the same trick could work for you and your cute little inner demon.

And this, from Brianna Wiest on Medium, speaks more to the question of how to be happy. It is so good that I’m just going to quote it at length:

Our brains are designed to worry, and they’re good at it.

They’re built to determine the next big thing to “fix.” This is a great thing. It is because of this cognitive feature that we have evolved the way we have...The part of the brain that controls rumination also controls creativity. There is no coincidence in this

So if you feel like you can’t stop’s not because there’s something wrong with you. There is only something wrong with your understanding of the human brain and happiness.

We weren’t built to be “happy” in the way that we think of happiness — carefree, grateful, excited.

We were born to survive, which is to create.

Suffering dissolves when we focus on creating rather than feeling. Instead of being at the whim of how the world makes us feel, we focus on how we can create what we want from what exists.

Good and bad become irrelevant when the focus isn’t “what can I enjoy” but “what can I create?”

Suffering is what happens when you stop creating.

When our focus is on creating, pain becomes an integral part of the process. It’s “worth it.” We’re no longer dividing our emotional experiences between “things that feel good to the senses,” and “things that don’t.” We’re dividing it into “things that are worthwhile” and “things that aren’t.” We’re being discerning about discomfort. We’re evolving and growing. We’re expanding our capacity to cope, think, love, be.

So, my lovable fellow monkey, get out there and make something. It’s what you were born to do. <3 Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

P.S. Yes, I ran that half-marathon. I ran the whole damn thing.

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