I want to start by doing a little experiment. It’s just an exercise. Everybody should have in their hands a card and a pencil, okay?
So what we’re going to do — I would like you to try to draw this portrait. But we’re going to do it a little bit different, okay?
If you are right-handed, I want you to use your left hand. If you are left-handed, I want you to use your right hand. If you are ambidextrous, I want you to use your mouth.
We’re going to do this for about a minute, and then we’re going to talk about it. We can start now. It’s going to be ugly, I know. It’s not an art exercise; it’s not a drawing exercise, but I want you to try your best. Try to capture the details, the texture.
I know you will be surprised with the result.
Yeah, it’s supposed to be difficult. If you didn’t recognize this guy, this is Leonardo da Vinci. He’s one of the most creative and ingenious persons that ever lived. I also happen to be an artist. Of course, not like Leonardo da Vinci.
But I have to create ideas everyday; I have to come up with new ideas everyday. But sometimes it’s just, you know, my brain, it stops working. Just for some reason, it stops working.
Some of my friends would say it’s because I’m old. But I cannot afford to have all these brain blockages, you know, I have to deliver work. So this is a terrible thing for me because I have to keep working, okay?
So trying to prevent this from happening again, I started researching about creativity and how creativity works and how creativity relates to psychology and neuroscience.
And I found the work of Professor Alan Snyder of the University of Sydney very, very fascinating for a very specific reason. The research from Alan Snyder is showing that there is evidence that the very same organ that is responsible for creating new ideas, our brain, it is also the organ responsible for creating the inhibitions and the blockages in our creative process.
Our brain, or one of our most basic functions in our brain, is to help us adapt to our environment. And we do this by learning from this environment. Every time we do an action, any kind of action, any activity, our brain starts sparking with communication signals all over.
Our neurons start communicating. And they start communicating in different areas of the brain. The more repetitive these activities, the more these signals get inside of our brain, and they become automatic responses, they become habits, they become responses, they become reflexes, and that is the reason why sometimes when you leave home, you don’t remember if you flushed the toilet, you don’t remember if you turned off the lights, or you don’t remember if you locked the doors.
This happens because these are activities that we do so often that we don’t have to think about them anymore. You see, the brain, he wants to save energy and save time for you.
Actually, our brain is very lazy. He wants to do his work quickly, economically and go to rest. Thus, that is how you can wear your shoes, and you don’t have to learn once again how to tie your shoes, and you don’t have to learn again how to drive your car, or you don’t have to learn again your way back home.
So this is all very convenient and very easy for our life. Yes, we have a computer there that takes care of all the details for us, all our work every day.
But this is also bad; this also has consequences for us. One of the most important consequences is that the brain starts losing one of the most important abilities. That is, we start losing neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is basically the ability that the brain has to adapt itself, to learn, to modify itself. Going back to the drawings that we were making before, these are some examples that I do with my students of creativity, and these are high school students.
And every time we do this exercise, they admit that they are not very good at drawing although we can see that we get some really amazing results. And I’m sure that some of yours are really, really, really good. Something happened in our brain when we were doing this exercise.
One, your brain, right now, started making connections, new connections. Your brain said, “Hmm, what are you doing? This is not the right hand to write. You’re using the wrong hand. Guys, we have to figure this out, okay? He’s using the wrong hand, the stupid one. Let’s make new connections. Let’s bring the people who can help us figure out the position, the texture of the paper, the texture of the pencil, the weight of them in the hand. Let’s try to make this work.”
So, you have awakened new pathways or neural pathways in your brain. But you have also incremented a little bit of neuroplasticity in your brain. And that is very important.
There are studies that say that around the age of 25, the brain says, “I’m done. This is all the work that I need to do,” and it just settles down.
You have to challenge your brain every day.
HOW DO YOU DO THIS?
When you learn a new language, you challenge your brain. When you try to learn how to play an instrument, you challenge your brain. When you try to write, when you try to paint, when you try to recite poetry, when you dance, you challenge your brain.
You’re telling your brain to do different things or the same things in different ways. That’s how you keep your brain alive. You’re going to notice that a lot of artists, they live a very long life and they die very old, but they have a very lucid brain because they have lived a life of activity, the brain activity.
So, do whatever you have to do to keep your brain busy, to keep your brain active. You do it because — not because you want to be an artist or not because you want to be a writer — you do it because it’s good for you. You do it like you brush your teeth, like you take showers or like you sleep. It’s beneficial for you.
So, I beg you, don’t settle. Challenge your brain everyday. Even if you have to take a walk backwards, not right now down the stairs — don’t do that. But take a walk backwards once in a while or … You can make a little dance.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Neil MacGregor: 2600 Years of History In One Object (Transcript)
- What the World Can Learn From Ukraine’s Fight for Democracy: Olesya Khromeychuk (Transcript)
- The War-Torn History of Crimea—My Home: Emine Dzhaparova (Transcript)
- How Literature Can Help Us Develop Empathy: Beth Ann Fennelly (Transcript)
- The Human Skills We Need In An Unpredictable World: Margaret Heffernan (Transcript)