How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

Flickr Commons photo by J Stimp

Everyone used to read Samuel Johnson. Now it seems hardly anyone does. That’s a shame. Johnson understood the human mind, its sadly amusing frailties and its double-blind alleys. He understood the nature of that mysterious act we casually refer to as “creativity." It is not the kind of thing one lucks into or masters after a seminar or lecture series. It requires discipline and a mind free of distraction. “My dear friend,” said Johnson in 1783, according to his biographer and secretary Boswell, “clear your mind of cant.”

There’s no missing apostrophe in his advice. Inspiring as it may sound, Johnson did not mean to say “you can do it!” He meant “cant,” an old word for cheap deception, bias, hypocrisy, insincere expression. “It is a mode of talking in Society,” he conceded, “but don’t think foolishly.” Johnson’s injunction resonated through a couple centuries, became garbled into a banal affirmation, and was lost in a graveyard of image macros. Let us endeavor to retrieve it, and ruminate on its wisdom.

We may even do so with our favorite modern brief in hand, the scientific study. There are many we could turn to. For example, notes Derek Beres, in a 2014 book, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin brought his research to bear in arguing that “information overload keeps us mired in noise.... This saps us of not only willpower (of which we have a limited store) but creativity as well.” "We sure think we're accomplishing a lot," Levitin told Susan Page on The Diane Rehm Show in 2015, "but that's an illusion... as a neuroscientist, I can tell you one thing the brain is very good at is self-delusion."

Johnson’s age had its own version of information overload, as did that of another curmudgeonly voice from the past, T.S. Eliot, who wondered, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The question leaves Eliot’s readers asking whether what we take for knowledge or information really are such? Maybe they’re just as often forms of needless busyness, distraction, and overthinking. Stanford researcher Emma Seppälä suggests as much in her work on “the science of happiness.” At Quartz, she writes,

We need to find ways to give our brains a break.... At work, we’re intensely analyzing problems, organizing data, writing—all activities that require focus. During downtime, we immerse ourselves in our phones while standing in line at the store or lose ourselves in Netflix after hours.

Seppälä exhorts us to relax and let go of the constant need for stimulation, to take longs walks without the phone, get out of our comfort zones, make time for fun and games, and generally build in time for leisure. How does this work? Let's look at some additional research. Bar-Ilan University’s Moshe Bar and Shira Baror undertook a study to measure the effects of distraction, or what they call “mental load,” the “stray thoughts” and “obsessive ruminations” that clutter the mind with information and loose ends. Our “capacity for original and creative thinking,” Bar writes at The New York Times, “is markedly stymied” by a busy mind. "The cluttered mind," writes Jessica Stillman, "is a creativity killer."

In a paper published in Psychological Science, Bar and Baror describe how “conditions of high load” foster unoriginal thinking. Participants in their experiment were asked to remember strings of arbitrary numbers, then to play word association games. “Participants with seven digits to recall resorted to the most statistically common responses,” writes Bar, “(e.g., white/black), whereas participants with two digits gave less typical, more varied pairings (e.g. white/cloud).” Our brains have limited resources. When constrained and overwhelmed with thoughts, they pursue well-trod paths of least resistance, trying to efficiently bring order to chaos.

“Imagination," on the other had, wrote Dr. Johnson elsewhere, “a licentious and vagrant faculty, unsusceptible of limitations and impatient of restraint, has always endeavored to baffle the logician, to perplex the confines of distinction, and burst the enclosures of regularity.” Bar describes the contrast between the imaginative mind and the information processing mind as “a tension in our brains between exploration and exploitation.” Gorging on information makes our brains “’exploit’ what we already know," or think we know, "leaning on our expectation, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment.” When our minds are “unloaded,” on the other hand, such as can occur during a hike or a long, relaxing shower, we can shed fixed patterns of thinking, and explore creative insights that might otherwise get buried or discarded.

As Drake Baer succinctly puts in at New York Magazine’s Science of Us, “When you have nothing to think about, you can do your best thinking.” Getting to that state in a climate of perpetual, unsleeping distraction, opinion, and alarm, requires another kind of discipline: the discipline to unplug, wander off, and clear your mind.

For another angle on this, you might want to check out Cal Newport's 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

Composer and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, above, feels music profoundly. For her, there is no question that listening should be a whole body experience:

Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel.

It’s a philosophy born of necessity—her hearing began to deteriorate when she was 8, and by the age of 12, she was profoundly deaf. Music lessons at that time included touching the wall of the practice room to feel the vibrations as her teacher played.

While she acknowledges that her disability is a publicity hook, it’s not her preferred lede, a conundrum she explores in her "Hearing Essay." Rather than be celebrated as a deaf musician, she’d like to be known as the musician who is teaching the world to listen.

In her TED Talk, How To Truly Listen, she differentiates between the ability to translate notations on a musical score and the subtler, more soulful skill of interpretation. This involves connecting to the instrument with every part of her physical being. Others may listen with ears alone. Dame Evelyn encourages everyone to listen with fingers, arms, stomach, heart, cheekbones… a phenomenon many teenagers experience organically, no matter what their earbuds are plugging.

And while the vibrations may be subtler, her philosophy could cause us to listen more attentively to both our loved ones and our adversaries, by staying attuned to visual and emotional pitches, as well as slight variations in volume and tone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  She’ll is appearing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Artists May Have Different Brains (More Grey Matter) Than the Rest of Us, According to a Recent Scientific Study

Image Photo courtesy of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA.

Sometimes—as in the case of neuroscience—scientists and researchers seem to be saying several contradictory things at once. Yes, opposing claims can both be true, given different context and levels of description. But which is it, Neuroscientists? Do we have “neuroplasticity”—the ability to change our brains, and therefore our behavior? Or are we “hard-wired” to be a certain way by innate structures.

The debate long predates the field of neuroscience. It figured prominently in the work, for example, of John Locke and other early modern theorists of cognition—which is why Locke is best known as the theorist of tabula rasa. In “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” Locke mostly denies that we are able to change much at all in adulthood.

Personality, he reasoned, is determined not by biology, but in the “cradle” by “little, almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies.” Such imprints “have very important and lasting consequences.” Sorry, parents. Not only did your kid get wait-listed for that elite preschool, but their future will also be determined by millions of sights and sounds that happened around them before they could walk.

It’s an extreme, and unscientific, contention, fascinating as it may be from a cultural standpoint. Now we have psychedelic-looking brain scans popping up in our news feeds all the time, promising to reveal the true origins of consciousness and personality. But the conclusions drawn from such research are tentative and often highly contested.

So what does science say about the eternally mysterious act of artistic creation? The abilities of artists have long seemed to us godlike, drawn from supernatural sources, or channeled from other dimensions. Many neuroscientists, you may not be surprised to hear, believe that such abilities reside in the brain. Moreover, some think that artists’ brains are superior to those of mediocre ability.

Or at least that artists’ brains have more gray and white matter than “right-brained” thinkers in the areas of “visual perception, spatial navigation and fine motor skills.” So writes Katherine Brooks in a Huffington Post summary of “Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing.” The 2014 study, published at NeuroImage, involved a very small sampling of graduate students, 21 of whom were artists, 23 of whom were not. All 44 students were asked to complete drawing tasks, which were then scored and compared to images of their brain taken by a method called “voxel-based morphometry.”

“The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory,” the study’s lead author, Rebecca Chamberlain of Belgium’s KU Leuven University, told the BBC. (Hear her segment on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science here.) Does this mean, as Artnet News claims in their quick take, that “artists’ brains are more fully developed?”

It’s a juicy headline, but the findings of this limited study, while “intriguing,” are “far from conclusive.” Nonetheless, it marks an important first step. “No studies” thus far, Chamberlain says, “have assessed the structural differences associated with representational skills in visual arts.” Would a dozen such studies resolve questions about causality--nature or nurture? As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in-between.

At Smithsonian, Randy Rieland quotes several critics of the neuroscience of art, which has previously focused on what happens in the brain when we look at a Van Gogh or read Jane Austen. The problem with such studies, writes Philip Ball at Nature, is that they can lead to “creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it.” But such criteria may already be predetermined by culturally-conditioned responses to art.

The science is fascinating and may lead to numerous discoveries. It does not, as the Creators Project writes hyperbolically, suggest that "artists actually are different creatures from everyone else on the planet." As University of California philosopher professor Alva Noe states succinctly, one problem with making sweeping generalizations about brains that view or create art is that “there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is.”

Emerging fields of “neuroaesthetics” and “neurohumanities” may muddy the waters between quantitative and qualitative distinctions, and may not really answer questions about where art comes from and what it does to us. But then again, given enough time, they just might.

via The Creators Project

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Sigmund Freud, Father of Psychoanalysis, Introduced in a Monty Python-Style Animation

Pity the hedgehog. The freezing temperatures of winter compel them to cozy up to others of its kind, but the prickly spines covering their bodies prevent them from sustaining the easy, ongoing intimacy they so crave.

It's a hell of a metaphor for human relationships, compliments of 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. It certainly spoke to Sigmund Freud, who devoted his life trying to figure out why so many of us resort to petty behaviors, spurning those we love, and sabotaging ourselves at every turn.

Popular representations would have us believe that the father of psychoanalysis was a detached sort of know-it-all, emotionally superior to the basket cases sniveling on his couch. Not so. As he noted in 1897:

I have been through some kind of neurotic experience, curious states… twilight thoughts, veiled doubts… The chief patient I am preoccupied with is myself… my little hysteria… the analysis is more difficult than any other. Something from the deepest depths of my own neurosis sets itself against any advance in understanding neuroses…

We feel ya', doc, and so does The School of Life, the London-based organization for developing emotional intelligence, co-founded by philosophical essayist, Alain de Botton:

… consulting a psychotherapist should be as accessible and as normal as developing your career, getting help for a physical problem, or going to the gym to get healthy. Just as we take care of our bodies and physical health, a vital element of self-care is devoting focused time and energy to exploring and understanding our thoughts and feelings.

The school puts your money where its mouth is by retaining a roster of licensed psychotherapists who can be booked for in-person or Skype sessions.

It's not for everyone. There are those who are determined to pursue the path to contentment and self-knowledge solo, impervious to Freud’s belief that “No one who disdains the key will ever be able to unlock the door.”

The therapy-averse can still learn something from the video above. Narrator de Botton charms his way through an easily digested overview of Freud’s personal and professional life, and the resulting tenets of psychoanalysis.

And filmmaker Mad Adam ensures that this brief trip through the infant phases---oral, anal, phallic---will be a jolly one, replete with droll, mostly vintage images.

Release more monsters of the id with the School of Life’s psychotherapy playlist.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Oliver Sacks’ Final Interview: A First Look

It’s been nearly a year since the poet laureate of medicine, author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, took his final bow as a sentient being on this beautiful planet, succumbing, at 82, to metastases of ocular melanoma which spread to his liver.

The New Yorker marks the occasion by publishing Sacks’ fellow neurologist and author Dr. Orrin Devinsky’s recollection of their longstanding friendship. Devinsky paints a vivid picture of an exceptionally compassionate man, who felt a kinship not only with starfish, jellyfish, and octopi, but also humans in both financial and emotional need.

The piece becomes even more powerful in light of Sacks’ final interview, above, part of filmmaker Ric Burns’ upcoming documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life.

Sacks peppers his remarks with astonishing biological tidbits, a compulsion that delighted his friend Devinsky on their frequent early morning bike rides along New York City’s west side.

(Palatal myoclonus---or rhythmic pulsing---in the palate, eardrum and strap muscles are vestigial evidence that humans once had gills!)

(The dandelion’s name evolved from dent de lion, French for lion’s tooth, a structure the spikes on its serrated leaves could be said to resemble. Also, certain dandelion species reproduce asexually, and Sacks had no fear about eating an unwashed specimen he plucked from the questionably sanitary grounds of Riverside Park!)

The musings that warrant the melancholy piano and strings accompanying Burns' excerpt are of a more personal nature. Sacks’ was totally immersed in his chosen subject. His mother was a comparative anatomist and surgeon, and his boyish interest in the hard sciences is what led him to biology. A lifetime of scientific observation and clinical interaction only add to the poetry of his thoughts on death:

My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be nobody like us when we are gone, but then there is nobody like anybody ever. When people die they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled. It is the fate, the genetic and neural fate of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. Even so, I am shocked and saddened at the sentence of death, and I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and this in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest comic contrasts the birth of her second child with the uncensored gore of Game of Thrones. Follow her @AyunHalliday

The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Procrastination is a skill, an art, a slight-of-hand technique. I’m procrastinating right now, but you’d never know it. How many tabs do I have open in my multiple browser windows? Pick a number, any number. How many tasks have I put off today? How many dreams have I deferred? I’ll never tell. The unskilled procrastinators stick out, they’re easy to spot. They talk a lot about what they’re not doing. They run around in circles of bewilderment like the troubled hero of Dr. Seuss's Hunches in Bunches. The skilled practitioner makes it look easy.

But no matter how much Facebook time you get in before lunch and still manage to ace those performance reviews, you’re really only cheating yourself, am I right? You wanted to finish that novel/symphony/improv class/physics theorem. But something stopped you. Something in your brain perhaps. That’s where these things usually happen. When Stuart Langfield asked a neuroscientist about the neuroscience of procrastination, he got the following answer: “People think that you can turn on an MRI and see where something’s happening in the brain, but the truth is that’s not so. This stuff is vastly more complicated, so we have theories.”

There are theories aplenty that tell us, says Langfield, “what’s probably happening” in the brain. Langfield explains his own: the primitive, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding limbic system acts too quickly for our more deliberative, rational prefrontal cortex to catch up, rendering us stupefied by distractions. Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Calgary and a procrastination expert, shares this view. You can see him explain it in the short video below. The evolutionary “design flaw," says Langfield, might make the situation seem hopeless, were it not for “neuroplasticity,” a fancy buzzword that means we have the ability to change our brains.

Langfield’s purpose in his short video is not only to understand the biology of procrastination, but to overcome it. He asks psychologist Tim Pychyl, whose answers we see and hear as an incomprehensible jumble of ideas. But then Pychyl reduces the complicated theories to a simple solution. You guessed it, mindfulness meditation---to “downregulate the limbic system.” Really, that’s it? Just meditate? It is a proven way to reduce anxiety and improve concentration.

But Pychyl and his research team at Carleton University have a few more very practical suggestions, based on experimental data gathered by Steel and others. The Wall Street Journal offers this condensed list of tips:

Break a long-term project down into specific sub-goals. State the exact start time and how long (not just “tomorrow”) you plan to work on the task.

Just get started. It isn’t necessary to write a long list of tasks, or each intermediate step.

Remind yourself that finishing the task now helps you in the future. Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoyable.

Implement “microcosts,” or mini-delays, that require you to make a small effort to procrastinate, such as having to log on to a separate computer account for games.

Reward yourself not only for completing the entire project but also the sub-goals.

A Stockholm University study tested these strategies, assigning a group of 150 self-reported “high procrastinators” several of the self-help instructions over 10 weeks, and employing a reward system and varying levels of guidance. “The results,” WSJ reports, “showed that after intervention with both guided and unguided self-help, people improved their procrastination, though the guided therapy seemed to show greater benefit.”

Other times, adding self-help tasks to get us to the tasks we're putting off doesn’t work so well. We can all take comfort in the fact that procrastination has a long history, dating back to ancient Egypt, Rome, and 18th century England. The wisdom of the ages could not defeat it, or as Samuel Johnson wrote, “even they who most steadily withstand it find it, if not the most violent, the most pertinacious of their passions, always renewing its attacks, and, though often vanquished, never destroyed.”

But there are people who procrastinate, beset by its pertinacity, and then there are chronic procrastinators. “If you’re an occasional procrastinator, says Pychyl, “quit thinking about your feelings and get to the next task.” Suck it up, in other words, and walk it off—maybe after a short course of self-help. For all the conflicting neuroscientific theory, “there is a quiet science behind procrastination,” writes Big Think, and “according to recent studies, procrastination is a learned habit.” Most research agrees it’s one we can unlearn through meditation and/or patient retraining of ourselves.

However if you’re of the chronic subset, say Pychyl, “you might need therapy to better understand your emotions and how you’re coping with them through avoidance.” Psychologist Joseph Ferrari at DePaul University agrees. Citing a figure of “20 percent of U.S. men and women” who “make procrastination their way of life,” he adds, “it is the person who does that habitually, always with plausible ‘excuses’ that has issues to address.” Only you can determine whether your trouble relates to bad habits or deeper psychological issues.

Whatever the causes, what might motivate us to meditate or seek therapy are the effects. Chronic procrastination is “not a time management issue,” says Ferrari, “it is a maladaptive lifestyle.” Habitual procrastinators, the WSJ writes, “have higher rates of depression and anxiety and poorer well-being.” We may think, writes Eric Jaffe at the Association for Psychological Science’s journal, of procrastination as “an innocuous habit at worst, and maybe even a helpful one at best,” a strategy Stanford philosophy professor John Perry argued for in The Art of Procrastination. Instead, Jaffe says, in a sobering summary of Pychyl’s research, “procrastination is really a self-inflicted wound that gradually chips away at the most valuable resource in the world: time.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Oliver Sacks Explains the Biology of Hallucinations: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

We all understand that hallucination involves seeing things that aren't really there, but what are hallucinations themselves? "They don't seem to be of our creation. They don't seem to be under our control. They seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception." Those words come from Oliver Sacks, who would know. We featured a short clip of him discussing what he learned from his personal experience with LSD and amphetamines back in 2012, when his book Hallucinations had just come out. He died almost exactly three years later — and therefore just under a year ago — leaving behind a body of work from which we all stand to gain much understanding of the workings of the brain, as illuminated by both its normal and abnormal states.

In this 2009 TED Talk on what hallucinations reveal about our minds, Sacks tells of his experiences with one patient, elderly and blind, who kept "seeing" visions of "people in Eastern dress, in drapes, walking up and down stairs." Another, with limited eyesight, " said she saw a man in a striped shirt in a restaurant. And he turned around. And then he divided into six figures in striped shirts, who started walking towards her. And then the six figures came together again, like a concertina." Another, with a small tumor on the occipital cortex, "would see cartoons. These cartoons would be transparent and would cover half the visual field, like a screen. And especially she saw cartoons of Kermit the Frog."

Sacks connects all this to something called Charles Bonnet syndrome, first described by the naturalist of that name in 1760. Bonnet's grandfather, who'd had cataract surgery (and 18th-century cataract surgery at that), said he saw things like handkerchiefs and wheels floating in midair. These hallucinations work differently than psychotic ones, which "address you. They accuse you. They seduce you. They humiliate you. They jeer at you." But Charles Bonnet syndrome produces an experience more like watching a film — a term Sacks' patients could use to describe it, though obviously nobody could have in Bonnet's day.

Bonnet, Sacks concludes, "wondered how, thinking about these hallucinations, as he put it, the theater of the mind could be generated by the machinery of the brain. Now, 250 years later, I think we're beginning to glimpse how this is done." Thanks to Sacks' inspiration of succeeding generations of neuroscientific researchers, that glimpse of how we "see with the eyes, but with the brain as well" will only widen.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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