Novels, J.D. Salinger wrote, grow in the dark. By that, he meant that true creativity comes from the subconscious mind, from allowing ideas time to percolate below our conscious awareness. It’s not just novels, though, that spring forth from the subconscious mind. So do all great ideas, innovations and insights.
Creative ideas don’t come from sitting in a boardroom, at a desk or staring at a computer. These activities – or non-activities – signal our thinking minds to activate, and the thinking mind can’t innovate or create; it can only analyze, strategize and replicate old ideas. We humans are creatures of habit: If we sit in the same place (literally or figuratively), we’ll come up with the same old ideas.
True creativity and innovation come from looking at things differently – and that can only happen when the thinking mind is out of the way, when the subconscious can bubble up and offer its contributions.
The subconscious takes in 20 million bits of information per second – and this is a conservative estimate, from biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton (I’ve heard numbers up to 40 billion bits per second). The conscious mind takes in 2,000 bits per second and can process a maximum 40 bits of information in the same time. We know so, so, so much more than we are aware of knowing. The subconscious, not the intellect (which comes from our limited conscious minds), is the key to innovation.
Ever wonder why you get great ideas in the shower, in the washroom (she said, delicately), while you’re daydreaming, walking, driving or falling asleep (hopefully, not the latter two at the same time)?
These activities signal the thinking mind to take a break, and the subconscious – where ideas percolate – finally has a chance to speak up. A glass of wine or beer has a similar effect, though it’s less a signal to the subconscious and more a dulling of the intellect, including that pesky mental firewall that constantly says, “No, that idea can’t work.”
The trick to getting the most out of your subconscious is to relax, yet remain aware enough to notice what comes up. You can’t just space out and hope to remember ideas later (just ask anyone who’s half-awoken with a great idea at 3am and thought, “Oh, I’ll totally remember this in the morning.”).
That’s where mindfulness – the ability to observe one’s thoughts – comes in.
Neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., author of Brainstorm and Mindsight, among other books, talks about the difference between “directed thinking” and “purposeful daydreaming.”
Directed thinking is what we do at a desk. It’s focus-time, heads-down work – the execution of ideas.
Purposeful daydreaming – allowing the mind to wander and make spontaneous connections – requires mindfulness. If your subconscious is percolating new ideas into your conscious mind, and you don’t know how to notice your thoughts as they arise, the ideas get trampled under the rush of mind activity (that you’re not aware of having).
People who practice mindfulness learn to watch their thoughts with curiosity, not judgment. They develop what Siegel (and others) call the “observing circuit” in the brain, whereas most people are only aware of the “experiencing circuit.” They’re aware of where their bodies are, but not what their minds are doing.
Mindfulness takes, well, practice. The human default is mindless action. But the brain can be trained, thanks to neuroplasticity (the phenomenon that “neurons that fire together, wire together”). The more you train your mind to observe your thoughts, the easier it will become to observe. And with that, creativity grows.
Studies have proven this: Participants who practiced mindfulness experienced increases in creativity while daydreaming; those who didn’t practice mindfulness experienced no gains.
The key to developing creativity, therefore, is developing the observing circuit. We all have it, but most of us don’t know we have it, because our thoughts and intellect obliterate it. It’s only through practicing mindful awareness, training the observer neurons to wire together, that true creativity can emerge and increase.
So mindfulness makes for more effective work. It’s not working harder; it’s working smarter, leveraging the intelligence of the whole brain.
Intellect informs my writing – it’s what allows me to understand, for example, rocket science documents, so I can transform the information into clear, compelling narrative; it helps me organize my thoughts and insights; it helps me write strategically. But evocative writing doesn’t come from thinking harder, better or faster. It comes from getting the thinking mind out of the way.
Mindfulness is an essential part of a creative’s toolkit. We need it in order to be innovative, not only to generate creative solutions, but also to notice them. Taking the time to slow down, to quiet the thinking mind, to notice what comes up – these are the keys to true creativity and innovation.