Creativity: An Eye for Detail

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. The founder of American psychology William James provides this simple experiment on how to improve your ability to pay attention. First, make a dot on a piece of paper or a wall, then try to stay focused on it. In short order, your mind will wander. Next, start asking yourself questions about the dot: its size, shape, color, and so on. Make associations with it: its existential pathos, perhaps, or the dot as yang to the paper’s yin. Once you’re engaged in such elaboration, you’ll find that you can focus on the negligible mark for quite a while. Observing that this ability to attend to and develop even the humblest subject is a cornerstone of creativity, James says. “This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows.”

On the more immediate level, creativity also involves focusing on you target that turns a spark of inspiration into a burst of fireworks. In a fortuitous circular dynamic, whenever you engage in a creative activity, you boost your level of positive emotion, which in turn literally widens your attentional range, giving you more material to work with. James says, the generative mind is “full of copious and original associations,” so that attending to the germ of an idea soon leads to “all sorts of fascinating consequences.”

The Johns Hopkins Hospital ear, nose, and throat specialist Charles Lamb is also an amateur jazz saxophonist. He asked six pianists to play a keyboard while undergoing fMRI scanning. When they improvised on their own, which is keystone of all kinds of creativity, the musicians’ brains went into a “dissociated frontal activity state, a.k.a.”being in the zone.” Neurological activity associated with self-monitoring and inhibition decreased, which increased their ability to process new stimuli and ideas. When they played a standard tune, however, the musicians brains didn’t respond in this way. Lamb suspects that other forms of improvisation, even conversation, involve the same type of brain activity as playing jazz, and plans to investigate the possibility with subjects who aren’t artists.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer says that the term mindfulness wouldn’t be necessary if most people didn’t have an impoverished, static understanding of what “paying attention” means. She has asked children and instructors in very different kinds of schools a simple by telling question: “What does it mean when a teacher asks students to pay attention, focus, concentrate on something?” Invariably, the answer is something like “To hold that thing still.” In other words, most people think of attention as a kind of mental camera that you keep regally, narrowly focused on a particular subject or object. This realization led Langer to two important conclusions: “When students have trouble paying attention, they’re doing what their teachers say they should do. The problem is it’s the wrong instruction.”

In contrast to this fixed, tunnel-vision mode of focusing, the creative, mindful attention described in James’s dot exercise is an active probing exploration of a target that becomes more interesting as you search for new facets to consider. Mindful attention helps you work more efficiently and creatively, and also makes life more fun.

The tyranny of evaluation can be a major road block on the intertwined paths of mindful attention and creativity. Instead of focusing on the creative activity you can get sandbagged by the fears that the result might not be perfect or appreciated. Flaws and mistakes are neither bad nor good, but “just things you do.” Because it also focuses on assessment rather than experience, praise is as bad as blame.

The concluding sentence in this chapter is, “When you pay rapt attention, your spirits lift, expanding your cognitive range and creative potential, and perhaps even poising you for that personal renaissance.

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