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There's a Science to Finding Your Creative Flow

Your subconscious brain can help you work through a block.

Nick Keppler

Nick Keppler

MirageC/Getty Images

Dave Depper had been working on his album for four years and it still didn't feel like an album.
A multi-instrumentalist, Depper was once known "one of those guys in Portland who was in four bands at once all the time." He was swept away from that life through a string of gigs as a touring musician for the likes of Jolie Holland, Ray LaMontagne, and Death Cab for Cutie.

When Depper started working on his own material again in 2012, "It had been so long since I wrote songs on my own that I didn't know what I sounded like anymore," he says. Between other commitments, he plugged away at synth-driven pop songs on home recording equipment. "I treated it as a job, on the days I could. I would force myself to sit and write," he says. But by April of 2016, there wasn't the obvious single or centerpiece to the album he'd wanted.

Through those years, Depper joined Death Cab for Cutie, replacing the band's original guitarist, and he went through a divorce. "My musical career went bonkers and I lost an idea of what romance or love should be," he says. "I had a series of disastrous relationships." The last short-term girlfriend, on her way out, asked, "What do you really want? Do you want love?"

And there it was: The lead song on Depper's album, Emotional Freedom Technique, due out in June, and the one he says works as its thematic statement. "Do You Want Love?" is a seven-minute track buoyed by a mellow bass groove. "Do you want love?" Depper coos. "I don't know what that means anymore." He admits his inspiration was cliché—as anyone familiar with Fleetwood Mac's Rumours or Adele's 21 or countless country ballads can attest. His process also demonstrates how researchers are beginning to understand creative breakthroughs.

Science is still grappling with the fundamentals of where ideas come from. "Creativity is a cornerstone of what makes us human, and yet the neural mechanisms underlying creative thinking are poorly understood," wrote neuroscientists Arne Dietrich and Riam Kanso of the American University of Beirut in an assessment of the field of creativity studies. "A recent surge of interest into the neural underpinnings of creative behavior has produced a banquet of data that is tantalizing but, considered as a whole, deeply self-contradictory."


Using the Sun to Make Music:


Still, there is now a framework and some well-accepted theories that draw a light on creative blockage and breakthroughs. Researchers understand creativity as a process of decision making. When a satisfactory option isn't within view—causing creative frustration—the unconscious brain keeps working on it, sometimes leading to a eureka moment. The brain can also move into a state of flow where creative blockage—and normal sensory input—breaks down to allow an influx of ideas.

"When you try to solve a problem, what you stand in front of is called the solution space," Dietrich explains. The "solution space" is a menu of choices. Within the solution space are the bit-by-bit elements of a creative work: colors on painter's palette, ingredients in a chef's kitchen, keys on a composer's piano. The space also contains overarching choices, like the genre or format of the work.

"When a solution is not in the solutions space, if a solution requires an unconventional approach, then it goes into incubation," Dietrich says. "You give up on it, but your brain does not." Within Depper's solution space were the facets of the pop-song format, of which he is an admirer. (He's a fan of Paul McCartney and once intricately recreated McCartney's 1971 album Ram on his home recording tools to learn the process of making an album.)

He also had in his solutions space the instruments he plays and the options of his recording software. Through conscious decision-making, he used these options to solve most of his creative problems. But there was a problem whose solution was outside Depper's solution space: that big, mood-setting, theme-encapsulating song.

Such problems seep deeper into the brain the more one thinks about them, Dietrich says. "When you concern yourself with the problem for five or ten minutes, it doesn't leave much of a residual impression. When you think about it for weeks and weeks, it stays there." When his latest flame exited with a memorable question, Depper's brain honed in on it as the solution to the problem that had been with it unconsciously for four years.

Creative blockage is often caused by moving from familiar tasks to new ones. "The consensus is that creativity is domain-specific in the brain," says Baptiste Bardot, an assistant professor of psychology at Pace University. "Creative fiction uses different mental resources than poetry."

Pittsburgh-based writer Damon Young isn't a fiction writer or a poet. As a contributor to GQ and Ebony and editor-in-chief of his own VerySmartBrothas.com, he often takes the stance of a guy explaining news and pop culture to an imagined audience of semi-well-intentioned, half-informed white people. ("Kanye, unfortunately, is what an unchecked and unfettered need to be validated by Whiteness looks like—quite literally, actually," he wrote about West's post-election appearance at Trump Tower.)

Last year, Young and his literary agent sold his proposal for a memoir, about his years as a high school and college basketball player (and more), to an imprint of HarperCollins. "It looks back and asks if what happened happened because I'm black," Young says, "It's not just about 'Did this white person do this thing because I'm black?' It's about me dealing with the expectation of who I believed I was expected to be as a young black male athlete." The title is N*gger Neuroses. (The asterisk is intentional.)

The project has meant a challenging change in formats. "For stuff like VSB or GQ, I tend to have a collection of templates," Young says. "Once I figure out an angle, it's not terribly difficult. I have literally done this thousands of times. With the book, the difficulty comes with writing longer. Each chapter is 3,500 to 7,000 words and I have to connect each chapter and create a narrative theme."

Working on the memoir, "I can write 4- or 5,000 words at one time and then nothing for a week," Young says. "There are days when I want to write more but the words just don't come out." He's switched up his routine, writing at the bar of a hotel. The activity and noise helps him get lost in the work.

It's not uncommon for artists to experience creative blockage when working in a less stringent format, as Young is moving from columns to memoir. The more decisions a creator confronts, the more likely he will be to get caught up trying to make one of those decisions. "Often, what blocks is a lack of constraints," Bardot says. "If you have a starting point or an ending point or x, y and z elements, you will get through a project quicker if you have just a [blank] page."

This is one reason genre authors produce more than literary authors, Bardot says. Famously prolific horror authors, like Stephen King and Anne Rice, deal with limited choices as to themes, tone, settings, and plot structure. Genre standards cut down their options. Literary authors like Jeffrey Eugenides and Thomas Pynchon, who produce a book every decade or so, face a myriad of more difficult, potentially blocking choices. The less formatted works call for more solutions outside usual solutions spaces.

This muscle for creative decision making can be exercised, reducing chances of blockage, Bardot says. "Try divergent thinking," he says. "Come up with as many solutions to a problem as you can. Skip the easiest solution and try for another one." Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Brian LaRue, lead singer of the Shelter Dogs, has had some success with a version of this exercise. "I adopted the 'content spew method' in maybe 2014, after a long period of feeling like I just didn't have anything worthwhile to say anymore," he says.

"I write lyrics more quickly now, overall, than I used to," he says, "because I'll try to put down six verses for a three-verse song, rather than trying to cram all my thoughts into just three verses, which takes a ton of effort and concentration. The good parts will reveal themselves." He was inspired by the supposed 80 verses Leonard Cohen wrote for his now-ubiquitous "Hallelujah," trying to break through writer's block.

Beyond this conscious wrestling with productivity is a state of "flow," where all doubt and distraction disappear and one effortlessly moves from one task to another, often tuning out the outside world. Depper says he experienced it during hours-long sessions where he had to keep a bag of almonds on his amplifier to remember to eat. LaRue says he felt it when he started bedroom recording with a Casio keyboard and '80s-era drum machine and would go "over three- or four-chord patterns, without worrying what I was trying to 'communicate,'" producing his first side-project album. Young says on his most productive days, when he feels it coming on, he sets a stopwatch so he remembers to stop and check for texts from his wife.

Dietrich said it's common to writers and jazz musicians, but surgeons and chess players also get into the "flow." This freedom from creative repression baffles scientists, because complicated tasks are usually mixed up in parts of the brain that process analytics and worry. "From a neuroscientific point of view, one would expect such tasks, which must undoubtedly count among the pinnacles of human achievement, to require the engagement of the most zenithal higher-order brain structure, the prefrontal cortex," Dietrich wrote. "However, the fact that people report automatic processing during flow and feel they operate without conscious thinking suggests that the prefrontal cortex is not required for the successful execution of these tasks."

Dietrich says he'd "be a very rich man" if he understood how to instigate this ultimate freedom from creative blockage. Inability to create might be costlier than ever. "Society is evolving very quickly and we have new challenges that require us to be flexible," Bardot says. This includes both personal challenges and society ones. Because of automation, fewer jobs—and very few sustainable or well-paying ones—will consist of repetitive actions. Even office and sales jobs require creativity. Also, challenges like climate change require more than lateral thinking or solutions based on past problems. "Creativity is more than art," Bardot says. "It's problem solving."

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