Which of your three creative centers–head, heart or gut–are you being negative to?
The secret to creativity might be summed up in a cheesy neuroscience joke: “The neurons that fire together, wire together.” When we disrespect what one of our intelligence centers is saying to us by automatically responding negatively to it, we are shutting that source of creativity down:
“My gut is always wrong, I never listen to it.”
“Listening to my heart will only cause severe pain and bleeding.”
“I think too much, I shouldn’t listen to my head but only act.”
“It’s a classic saying, and it’s widely accepted because it’s very true,” says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson. “We’ve got this negativity bias that’s a kind of bug in the stone-age brain in the 21st century,” he says. “It makes it hard for us to learn from our positive experiences, even though learning from your positive experiences is the primary way to grow inner strength.”
There are consequences of our highly interconnected head/heart and gut intelligence centers. Scientists believe our brains have a built-in “negativity bias.” The reason is pretty simple. Since we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots (rewards), it was more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots. It was a tough environment for our ancestors. If they missed out on a carrot, it likely would not kill them; but if they failed to avoid a stick, such as a predator, a poisonous plant, a natural hazard, or overly aggressive fellow caveman, then BAM!, fat chance to pass on their genes.
Our negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found in a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one. People will work much harder to avoid losing 100 dollars than they will work to gain the same amount of money. Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones.
The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. It is said approximately 80 percent of our (up to) 70,000 thoughts per day are negative. This is good and bad news for creativity. Our brains are tilted against lasting contentment and fulfillment. This means our memory banks are full of underlying expectations, assumptions, beliefs, and especially our moods—which automatically move in a negative direction. Mother Nature only cares about passing on genes; she doesn’t care if this means painful suffering in the process. Suffering includes subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow, worthlessness, or anger and creating suffering for others. Naturally being wired to acquire negative experiences over positive ones, can make us more anxious, irritable, and blue. But these “sticky” emotions also create a deep well for us to draw upon and funnel into creative outlets. Such lack of contentment can result in a felt need and a motivation to create.
“I have the memory of an elephant. I can forgive, but I cannot forget. It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Eleanor Roosevelt
Perhaps the Velcro theory is why Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous elephant quote about her philandering husband makes sense. We are wired to hold onto the negative experience, even if we willfully (from our gut center) try not to. Mrs. Roosevelt exemplifies our need to take the negative and create something new. This is exactly what she did after discovering FDR’s first affair with her own private secretary. Her personal journals expose from this point forward, any remaining intimacy left their relationship. Up to this point she was willing to be a traditional wife, mother of their five children, and homemaker. After this very painful breach of trust, Eleanor established a separate house, and increasingly devoted herself to becoming a human rights and social justice entrepreneur. This included being a pioneer in the womens’ suffrage and African American Civil Rights movements. She was no ordinary first lady–I believe the most entrepreneurial one of all!
Eleanor knew how to make lemonade from potent lemons in her life
Perhaps an even more severe example of “making lemonade” is shown in the video below. This one will blow your mind for sure!
However, on a day to day basis, many of us don’t stay with our positive experiences long enough for them to be encoded into neural structure (meaning there’s not enough wiring and firing going on). On the other hand, we naturally tend to fixate on negative experiences. Positive and negative emotions use different memory systems in the brain, according to Hanson, and positive emotions don’t transfer as easily to long-term memory.
So we easily filter to see the tough parts of life. We can learn to bear negativity by intentionally tilting towards healthy creative outlets. This will lift our energy and spirits and use our resources. But we have to intentionally fill up our cups because positive experiences will wash through us like sieves. Please see a previous post on how to fight ANTS (automatic negative thoughts).
The more we get our neurons firing on positive facts, the more we’ll be wiring up positive neural structures. Intentionally focusing on “taking in the good” is a brain-science savvy and psychologically skillful way to improve how we feel, get things done creatively, and treat others consistently. By taking the positive in–from our head, heart and gut centers–and filling ourselves up with them, we will increasingly feel less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on external supplies.
How good are you at creatively making lemonade from all the negative lemons in your life? Please share your insights on this, we all have “ANTS,” (mine can build huge mounds in my mind if left untended!)
Thank you for reading my post (excerpts from my recent book). My core message of everyone is creative resonates with people of all ages and walks of life. I invite all to become the best version of themselves in my book and at my website and find true meaning by pursing long term creative quests.
Your blog made me think Betsy. I’ve been retired 2.5 years now, and I find that I tend to worry more, even about little things. More anxious when I think of what can go wrong. Perhaps its age, but for example I drive more defensively because I imagine what it would be like to be rammed by another vehicle. And I don’t think this “negative” thinking is all bad.
On the other hand, yesterday I listened to an NPR radio broadcast in which they were discussing fracking and earthquakes. And I realized I could add to the conversation. My heart beat faster because I was nervous and out of my comfort zone, but I overcame that and called in. They accepted my call and I made a comment, albeit I lost my train of thought (embarrassing). Then the MC said we have to go to break, but she brought me back after the break, and I said what I had planned to say. I learned (1) to be brief with my points, (2) to jot down a word that would prevent me from losing my train of thought. This is a small example of believing in myself (thinking positive outcome), enough to propel me out of my comfort zone to do the call-in. The two learnings are valuable, and I now have greater confidence for future interviews on radio or maybe even TV. We all can be creative!
This is such a wonderful example Ian, thank you so much for sharing it! I don’t think its a little thing either to “stretch” yourself this way. Having your voice be heard on radio or TV is a game changer. We are only here a short while, may we all be brave enough to speak what is deep in our hearts! I also think the work we have done here is sacred. Your work is sacred and to be shared with others. All my best Ian!