Switching Brains

My day job is kicking my butt. Or rather, it is kicking the right side of my brain. After hours filled with schedules and multi-tasking and spreadsheets — oh, the spreadsheets — my creativity is bruised and submerged. I make time to write but the stories won’t come. I walk to free my mind and end up solving budget problems. I start to write, anything just to be writing, but the words are all surface babble, self-conscious, and not creative at all. I go to bed in hopes the characters will break free in my dreams, but I fall asleep with visions of spreadsheets lying flat.

The left brain is a big bully, and I’d like to shut it off and bring back my right brain from exile, but the truth is, both sides are always talking to each other. Research from Australia (Pettigrew, 2004) shows that the human brain naturally switches dominance from left to right and back (or logical to sensory, detailed to holistic) about eight or ten times every minute. For mathematicians, this switch rate can be as low as two times per minute, giving their logical brain near full dominance. On the flip side (get it?), Buddhist monks who have spent years practicing meditation can sustain dominance of the sensory brain for several minutes at a time — something most mere mortals cannot do.

Writers don’t have the luxury of submitting to one side or the other. The techniques of language are processed by the “left”, or logical brain, while flow, voice, and emotion are mainly holistic and sensory (“right” brain). Tapping into flow is a holy grail for writers but we almost have to trick ourselves to do it, to leave the words on the surface while we burrow underneath. Professional musicians and dancers also have a balancing act to do, and research shows that their brain switch rates are twice as frequent as the average person’s. Which got me to thinkin’: Most of us know that moving around can sometimes get our creative juices flowing, but what if we can make that trigger more reliable?

What if the equation to writer’s flow is art minus the burden of language plus the focus of a monk or mathematician?

I am only a social dancer and an amateur musician at best, but still, there has been evidence in my personal past that lends some credence to this formula. For example, I used to swing dance twice a week, and that period of time was also when I started writing stories in earnest. I had never put the two together before, but now it makes sense. Partner dancing, at least for the follower, is a perfect combination of focus and holistic awareness. After you learn the basic steps and are no longer counting (left-brain trigger!), you just sense the music and jive with it. But you also have to concentrate on the leader’s touch and where it is telling you to go. There are no words involved.

So I put this formula to an a priori test. I picked a piano piece I have played a hundred times (so I didn’t have to think too hard about the notes, a left-brain trigger) and I just let my fingers go, focusing on the dynamics and the emotion I put in and hearing the music that came out. As soon as I felt refreshed and a happy kind of tired, instead of doing something “productive”, I immediately read the IU flash fiction prompt and went for a walk to think about it. The characters appeared in my head and started to interact, and I went home and wrote a three-thousand word story, my first one in two months. Bing, bam, boom.

Needless to say, I definitely intend to try this formula again. How about you?

– You say you’re too self-conscious to dance in public? Okay, learn a routine from YouTube, then when you have it down pretty well, whenever you are stuck in editor mode or other left-brain bullying, put on some different music and perform the routine in your kitchen. Don’t just dance around willy-nilly, though; there has to be focus involved!

– You say you can’t play an instrument? Okay, then just listen to music (preferably without lyrics, a left-brain trigger) and zoom into each instrument by itself, hearing it more loudly than all the others. There are a thousand indie musicians who share instrumentals free all over the Internet.

– What about art? You say your repertoire consists of stick figures and smiley faces? Well, in the book entitled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (a book I have known about since the third grade but have only just now realized its significance!), one piece of advice is to draw the shadows not the lines. It is not easy to do because your left brain bully prefers lines, and that is exactly what consumes your focus. If you’re doing it right, you will lose track of time. (But don’t look at the clock; it has numbers on it!)

– None of the above appeal to you? Then pick something from L.A. Lewandowski’s article on freeing up your mind. Find one that you basically already know how to do (learning something new requires left brain involvement), then decide how you will focus your attention, trying to stay away from detail, logic, numbers, and linearity.

If all else fails, laugh. You don’t have to find something funny, just smile while you huff out deep breaths and contract your stomach muscles in quick succession. You don’t have to be coordinated, either; in fact it’s better to let your body take over and laugh for real. Let your shoulders join in, and I dare you not to feel good.

But now we’re getting dangerously close to yoga and meditation, or possibly hyperventilation, so it is time to end this article.

Author: Krista Tibbs

Krista Tibbs studied neuroscience at MIT. She once had a job that involved transplanting pig cells into live human brains. She had another job that gave her clearance to the White House. Her books, The Neurology of Angels and Reflections and Tails, are mostly not about those things. Learn more about Krista from her blog, and her Amazon author page.

25 thoughts on “Switching Brains”

  1. The idea that the right brain is creative and the left brain logical has been pretty solidly shut down over the last decade or so. MRI studies have shown that both sides of the brain are involved in both rational and emotional activities.

    So.. While a lot of the advice about trying to get into a creative mindset is as valid as it ever was, the left brain/right brain stuff is mostly just bad science at this point.

    1. Kevin – It’s true, “left” and “right” don’t refer to the actual physical hemisphers as they once did; they are now just symbolistic terms for the concepts of logical/linear processing versus sensory/wholistic processing.

  2. Yep, “left” and “right” don’t refer to the actual physical hemispheres as they once did; they are now just symbols for the concepts of logical/linear processing versus sensory/wholistic processing.

  3. I’ve been using music to kick my creativity into gear for the longest time (I don’t stick with instruments, personally. Often the stories in the songs offer some sort of inspiration.) Another of my ‘triggers’ is playing Rock Band. I never considered dance. Something to consider. 🙂

  4. What a brilliant post Krista! You’ve answered questions I didn’t even know I had – like why do I write better after an hour of digging in the garden? Or, more recently, why do I get so incredibly tired after a day spent doing what amounts to all left brain type work?

    I’ve used music to get me into the zone [and keep me there] for a while now, but I certainly didn’t know /why/ it worked. Now that I do I’m going to try some of your other strategies as well. THANK YOU!

  5. Symbolic or real, this is great food for thought. Sometimes we don’t need hard science to help us find the tricks we need to get ourselves (or our brains) in the right frame for the task we want it to perform.

  6. Krista maybe your knowledge of spreadsheets is an asset to your writing.
    I put my random thoughts for a novel into a spreadsheet (list). Then I add a classification to those entries/thoughts. Once I sort on those classifications more of the story comes to life.

  7. Krista thanks for the shout-out. 🙂
    There is one suggestion I will add to the list. Soaking in the bathtub is an effective way to encourage the “busy” brain to relax enough so the unconscious can deliver the solution.
    Your reference to monks who can meditate and exercise brain control is an important point. In yoga class the most difficult position for me is shavasana. Lying down and being in the moment – quieting the brain is incredibly challenging. It is, however, as important an accomplishment as any advanced balance pose.
    Sometimes just before I doze off to sleep I think of something brilliant. I keep a pad by the bed to jot down just enough of these ideas so I can pull them back out of my brain in the morning.

  8. Great post, Krista. Our brains are so fascinating, and they’re often smarter than we think they are. I used to tell myself, “No, I can’t write in the evening; I’m a morning writer!” Until I chucked that out the window one night and just gave in. Words flowed out of me. Guess I was in one of those alternate-side-of-the-brain parking areas. Now I try not to give myself the message that I can “only” write a certain way at a certain time.

  9. Intriguing post, Krista. I have always ‘needed’ quiet time to write, but who knows? Maybe if I tried using music more often, I’d unlock as-yet untapped creativity. Worth a try. Thanks for this.

    1. I was never able to study or write or concentrate when there was music on because I couldn’t tune it out. But just that flip of tuning in to it really intensely can have some interesting results.

  10. What an excellent post, Krista; left brain vs right brain, symbolic or not, works for me. Meditation, tai chi or karate kata has always been my key; basically, silence or an unobtrusive, gentle, repetitive sound or piece of music would generally be the rule in any of those. However getting my head in the right place to do my monthly and quarterly returns is not so easy; I guess my brain is not numbers or graphs friendly.

  11. Thank you for reminding me to return to my paints, Krista. Painting works for me and lately I’ve abandoned it due to heavy editing and marketing commitments.

    As for empty hours sitting in a car: I find that driving the long distance from my home to the city is one of the times I can best resolve a writing glitch. Auto-pilot thinking works, so I always have a notebook and pen beside me and pull over to the side of the road to jot down my ideas. Trouble is after one idea primes the pump, the rest flow out and it’s impossible to get anywhere on time.

    It’s ironic that keeping my mind on the road actually enables my creative mind to roam elsewhere. Quantum driving? Time-travel?

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