Connecting to Creativity

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Connecting to Creativity

This “food for thought” blog has turned into a “food for thought” blook! So, thanks to those who make it to the end. :-D.

Science is still a long way off being able to fully understand what makes someone creative or how strong levels of creativity can be accessed at will, if indeed they even can.
We can all be creative to a point and can take steps to maximise our creativity by understanding the basic principles of how creativity works.

Belief Systems

As a musician who is largely self-taught, I have always been enthralled by the mechanics of greatness – what are the processes involved? Greatness in this context can relate to a brilliant composition, a wonderfully emotive rendition of musical repertoire, a truly imaginative improvisation, or anything else that one might personally deem to be of sparkling quality.
I have experienced moments of absolute exultation whilst composing or improvising and also utter despair where the combustion in my head, or wherever else one imagines creativity to ignite, seems to be incombustible.
I have in the past suffered from a sense of paralysis when having to improvise creatively at my best when it really mattered (this is a familiar scenario for many musicians). Why did this happen? I let negative psychological conditioning affect me in a profound way. Well, I didn’t let it, it just seemed to be too powerful to prevent.

We all have questions that require answers, and in some respects I am still looking for answers to certain music related conundrums, but through understanding certain personal behavioural traits and core beliefs, with each question I now pose myself, I am experiencing breakthroughs in my psychological conditioning which benefit my playing and creative skills.
Some questions are beyond answer for now, so we as individuals can only presume our own ideologies. But what interests me the most, is the stuff that can’t be explained, only hypothesised.
What I do know is that we are capable of manufacturing very powerful belief systems. Regardless of our genetic traits, these belief systems massively affect our performance and how we handle certain situations. I have experienced the feeling of greatness through improvised performance as a result of my belief at that moment, and I have also experienced the contrary. Self belief is only one part of the creative puzzle, but a very important part.


My own research has incorporated a lot of personal experimentation in relation to improvisation, not laboratory based MRI stuff, just good old emotional evaluation. I have used different environments from which to carry out tests which affect both the mental and physical aspects of performance. Obviously the tests have been based on my “personal profile” i.e. my own experiences and my own strengths and weaknesses.
I have also scoured various media outlets and read different medical research papers. I know I have only scratched the surface of what is a fascinating subject, and one of which I will continue scratching. It’s a nice kind of itch!!

I must clarify that I am not professing to be a doctor of psychology or a neuroscientist and what I include here is based on my own perceptions, which I am not declaring to be definitive, and also the opinions of respected scientists and academics.

The following observations where relevant are:

  • scientifically factual in terms of brain activity i.e. where it happens and when it happens (facts compiled as a result of monitoring the processes in the brain)
  • theoretical in terms of why it happens and how
How are you wired?

According to Dr Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist of the University of New Mexico, creativity and intellect overlap but they are not measured as being the same – they do not appear to be isomorphic (similar in form or in relation). Different things go on in the brain with people who are acting intelligently compared to those who are acting creatively.

  • Intelligence is about the fast and efficient firing of neurons in the grey matter of the brain. This requires short and fast superhighways for information to travel and be analysed and then processed.
    • Creative people appear to have a different brain structure. Their creative pathways are longer and more meandering which results in “slower firing”. This doesn’t necessarily make for inferior intelligence; the wiring mechanism will just produce different results. Creativity needs freer interplay between the different networks in the brain.
    • Does this explain why concert musicians, who can read and memorise extremely complex pieces, are generally very intelligent? Their short pathways enable the fast processing of information whilst learning a new piece. They are also generally great sight readers – they possess the ability to translate at sight the symbols of a score immediately to the real-estate of a piano or other instrument.
    • This wiring concept makes sense to me when I think back to my own music learning. The aspects that I found easy or difficult relate well to this theory and also to the generic brain analogy of the left and right hemispheres, with the right hemisphere being labelled as the creative one (it so happens that 11 different areas within all four hemispheres of the brain work together to enable creativity to take place).
      • This wiring concept also leads me to think about two forms of thinking; convergent and divergent. Again, this has nothing to do with intellect, more to do with one’s personal trait. These terms are normally associated with problem solving, but I can see a correlation here, whether factual or not, to peoples’ relationship with music and music learning. People generally have a natural alliance with one form of thinking over the other. In relation to music, I would categorise the “thinking” as follows:
      • Convergent thinking, the attributes of which are speed, accuracy, logic and non-ambiguity, focuses on recognizing the familiar through linear thinking. It is essentially what lies behind most education systems. It is very useful for sight reading and analysing a music score, working out notation values and for producing music by numbers.
      • Divergent thinking is not linear and is very non conformist and typically formulates ideas from random data in a free flowing manner. For me, this very much corresponds to improvisation.
      • The art of composition can relate to both forms as the process of composition can be very mathematical and calculated or it can grow from the seeds of unstructured doodling.
      • Improvisation can also be a re-computation of practised musical devices, but true improvisation, whilst recalling certain aspects of musical language, should involve the ignition of the imagination to create an “off the cuff” statement or story.
    • Also when I reflect on the people I have come into contact with through music, a pattern does seem to unravel. Albeit looking at it in a rather black and white fashion, people do seem to fit one particular box more than the other i.e. some musicians are more akin to “authoring” their own work (generally divergent thinking, but also convergent) whilst others are more suited primarily to “reading” the work of others i.e. translating what they see onto the instrument (convergent thinking). There are of course those who can comfortably jump in and out of either box.
Temporary Sleep Mode

There appears to be a neurological basis behind divergent thinking and thus creativity itself, but brain structure is not solely responsible for making someone creative; one’s approach to finding creativity is also influential.

  • Dr Rex Jung has observed that during creativity there is a distinct change in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain right above the eyes. He calls this change “transient hypofrontality” (temporary sleep mode). It’s as if a “brake” is being slightly applied to the frontal lobe which causes a reduction of activity and which allows subconscious ideas to flow more freely and percolate into the conscious brain.
  • As a musician, my perception of this when seated at the piano, and especially when improvising, is when the “intellectual and highly critical brain chatter”, that is a constant companion in one’s head, ceases to be heard. Whether it actually stops or is just concealed is something that is better answered by an expert.
    • The analytical chatter of “where shall I go next? – no not there”, or “what scale or mode shall I use?”, or “should I change time signature?” or “Noooo….that sounds awful” comes to a halt. This real-time question /diatribe only serves to slow down the spontaneity of the performance – a bit like putting your thumb on the end of a garden hose; it stops the water flowing out in one smooth jet.
      • This chatter increases my self-awareness and I get consumed by conformity. The more risqué vocabulary is too intimidated to come forward.
    • However, when the “brakes are applied”, there is an amazing sense of freedom; there are no questions, or indeed answers, just raw energy – an enhanced sensibility pertaining to contrast, whether through harmonic and melodic colour, or through rhythmic deviation. Internalisation becomes externalisation and one feels (or at least I do) a kind of spiritual connection – there are no wrong notes or other falsehoods. Everything compliments everything else. Even the hands know where they need to go.
    • I recognise when I am in this “state” because I feel an extra lightness and effortlessness of touch. Yet as soon as I acknowledge it, I have to fight to stay in the zone and not let the internal chatter commence, because if it does, then the chain of connectivity and creativity rapidly weakens, or evens gets broken altogether.

Being conscious of what I am doing, where I am doing it and in front of whom, has had a restrictive effect on my improvisational form when playing solo. This is something I have been working on through understanding CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and by reading as many books as I can get my hands on regarding “freedom in performance”.
I have proven to myself that what prevents accomplishment in any particular discipline is one’s own state of mind.

Letting Go

Dr Charles Limb of the Johns Hopkins University is both a surgeon and a musician and has carried out experiments on measuring the activity in the brain during the process of improvisation.
He observed that during an improvisation, there is a shutdown of the prefrontal cortex in the brain (what he calls the gate keeper) – the part that is consciously self monitoring what we do and what we say – it is judgemental and will respond differently to formal and informal situations as it works rather like a “risk management system” – minimizing the chance of saying the wrong thing or making a mistake.

  • I know from personal experience that if during an improvised performance, I am constantly worrying about making mistakes and playing the wrong thing, then the performance will be flat.
  • Risks have to be taken in the hope that by being free, something magical will happen.
  • The shutdown of the gate keeper disengages the risk management system.
  • In the real world, this means having the confidence to “let go”. To be able to let go, one must a) have a strong belief in one’s own ability and b), have absolutely no concern about one’s own perception through the eyes of others.
  • Letting go will help give creativity its liberty. Reason should be replaced by Imagination.

We can all let go of our “risk management system” if no one is watching or listening; think about the silly things you have done in the past whilst only in the company of yourself! You don’t care what you do, or how you act, because no one is there to see you. But do the same thing in front of an audience – the “risk management system” will be on high alert.
To abate the reluctance of letting go in relation to a sensible activity, one must feel prepared. How do we feel prepared if we are going to improvise? We are not supposed to know what we are going to play!!

  • Positive Self belief – this is formed over a period of time through acquiring a very good knowledge of music vocabulary and developing a sufficient technique to articulate it.
  • Part of being prepared is to possess the willingness to let go – the willingness to accept a performance that is less than perfect. This releases pressure.
  • I realise that I used to unconsciously embrace the following statement as a kind of dictum. “Procrastination is there to protect me from the risk of imperfection”.
    • I would avoid certain situations where I might not be at my best, where a combination of pressure and brittle nerves would get the better of me. I had the knowledge and technique but was too fearful of what might happen if it went wrong. This negativity relates back to the conditioning created as a result of my early tutoring. (see the Falsehoods blog)
    • Overcoming this sort of hurdle involves confronting it head on by:
      • Altering the “vision of assumed outcomes”. If you know you can do something well whilst on your own, there is no reason why you can’t also do it well in front of an audience.
      • You need to “manufacture” your psychological state by gradually bridging the gap between the two different situations. The environment may change, but the knowledge base and skill will not. These ingredients are under ownership and cannot be bought. They are accessible at all times.
      • The risk management systems kicks in on different levels according to the environment we are in, and who chooses how we view the environment? We do. So we are actually in control! We have to trust our own ability, just like we trust ourselves to ride a bicycle. Once you have mastered how to balance, you don’t forget. It becomes programmed.
    • Performing without the pressure of perfection is in itself very liberating. A greater performance will be the result.
  • Being prepared creates confidence.

Our confidence can be affected if we possess certain core beliefs or falsehoods. Our own character traits can influence this also. Some people are naturally more timid than others.
Let’s look at a scenario whereby the situation, and not the skill, has an effect.

Person A versus Person B

  • Person A can’t ad lib in Portuguese no matter how willing he is to try because he doesn’t know any Portuguese words. He could try reading some text, but the text would be unfamiliar, so his performance would stutter and his pronunciation would probably be difficult to understand!!
    • He has the willingness, but lacks knowledge and technique.
  • Person B is fluent in Portuguese but hates speaking in front of a large audience – she could subsequently become tongue-tied. Again, she could read some text and her efforts would undoubtedly be much better than those of Person A.
    • She has the knowledge and technique, but is fearful of the environment. This results in a lack of willing. Why? Because of the fear of making a mistake, of being judged negatively. “It is fear of being perceived to be at a lower level than she actually is – she has a fragile ego.
    • Habitual reinforcement of either a positive or negative belief can have a drastic effect either way.
    • Confidence can be bred as a consequence of familiarity to a situation – as a result of a habitual process – doing it often.
  • Then the acquisition of music vocabulary and the practice of its execution (via good technique) whilst being comfortable in the environment in which one has to play enables a greater chance of the brakes being applied to the “frontal lobe”. Why? Because the combination of the above elements increases the chances of not sounding bad!

Dr Limb also compared a memorised practised non creative component, such as performing a well rehearsed piece of repertoire with that of a non memorised generative improvised creative component, such as a musically improvised piece. What were the differences?

  • Rehearsed piece = a functioning prefrontal cortex
  • Improvised piece = decrease in the functioning of components in the prefrontal cortex

It is also widely accepted that we are all guilty of creating our own mental blockages and “stuck in a rut” thinking. Much of this goes back to our habitual pattern programming in school, our programming according to social values adopted by our families, and cultural values both related to geographic regions and religion; let’s also not forget the “mightily powerful” media. These influences also shape who we grow up to be. One can almost predict some eventualities.


Without getting into deep introspection to evaluate our habitual pattern influences, just by looking at our everyday lives we can see predictability and routine everywhere, and to a certain extent, we can’t avoid it.

  • If you work, it is generally somewhere between the hours of 7am and 6pm
  • If you have kids, they go to school – school also operates on fixed hour timetables.
  • The evenings (after 6pm) are generally for family catch-ups, leisure activities and for relaxing………….
  • You will generally see the same people, use the same modes of transport, have the same conversations, witness the same behaviour etc. etc.
  • This sort of routine is generally not good for inducing creativity, unless your work time involves having to be creative and provides a suitable environment for it to happen.

So how then can we maximise our chances of being creative?

Creative Insight?

Creative breakthroughs are often reported to emerge spontaneously, when the mind is distracted and not focusing on the task (or problem) at hand. To be in our most receptive state, scientists have said that sleep (at least 8 hours of it), humour (good 😉 ) and relaxation are three factors that can determine the potency of creativity.

  • Being in a relaxed state allows the cortex to search out more remote associations of distantly related concepts in the right hemisphere to provide insight.
  • Good humour and positivity is inclined to enhance divergent thinking and promote broader and more creative thought patterns.
  • Sleep aids our mental and physical states and helps to diminish levels of anxiety.
  • Downtime is very important also. Taking a relaxing bath, a long hot shower, going for a walk, doing some gardening etc.
    • Yoga and meditation are extremely beneficial for aiding creativity.
  • Being Inspired definitely ignites creativity for me.
    • For Performance: I find watching a great musical performance (live in concert or via youtube) to be very uplifting, regardless of the genre. It’s as if the evocative language and technique of the player(s) reverberates in me which I then project through my own expression onto the keyboard.
    • For Composition: Listening to great musical works in a style similar to that of which I am working on subsequently triggers an effervescent stream of ideas.
      • It’s rather like hearing a powerful speech. It drives you to take action. It stirs emotion which you can then express using your own vocabulary.
    • Music is the fuel of music.
  • Distraction, by breaking routine and habitual patterns, is another great insight inducer. A solution to break routine is to look for unexpected experiences, or even purposefully create them, because these help to disable creative blockages – they disrupt the normal patterns of thought and can improve your creative ability by 10-15%.
  • Changing your routine affects your brain – well travelled neural pathways are abandoned forcing new connections to be made between brain cells which promotes new and original ideas.
    • For example, changing your immediate environment to complete a mundane undemanding task, like hanging out the washing or loading the dishwasher, allows the searching of the right hemisphere to be more insightful. This kind of straightforward “activity” naturally promotes “mind wandering” (day dreaming) – part of our consciousness is on the task at hand, but there is another part that is free to roam as the “mundane task” does not require 100% brain computation!
    • A task, say loading a dishwasher, requires some kind of physical autonomy and sense of order (where to place the utensils). Scientists believe that this activity will keep interrupting the mind wandering (task, mind wandering, task, mind wandering….) which causes the brain to be stirred and formulate unconscious re-combinations of processing which leads to creative thought.
    • Tests have shown that during problem solving exercises, groups that took a 2 minute break and undertook a mundane task performed better on their return than those who were either given nothing to do, or those who were given another type of mentally challenging task.


  • Change your daily routine – reorder what you would normally do – when and how you shower, dress, eat, plan your working day etc. Change the order on a regular basis.
  • Do things you wouldn’t normally do………….
  • Forcing ourselves to think differently will form new connections in the brain.

Creativity is reliant on one’s imaginative powers. I have found that visualising “imaginary scenarios which do not exist” to be great for stimulating creativity. This surreal kind of storytelling can use dramatic imagery – how dramatic will depend on your ability to “let go” of the brain chatter that will surely commence to remind you of your folly!!

  • Using our ability to recollect the notions or sensations involving touch, sight, sound and smell can be good entry points into this “imaginary world”.
  • You can bring an element of this concept into a musical context. When sitting in front of piano/keyboard, ask yourself questions – What does rain sound like? What does a sunny day sound like? How would you depict movement? What frequencies correspond to certain emotions? What has to happen to create the sensations of joy, anger, beauty, confusion, sadness? etc. etc. Try and let your imagination loose without worrying about notes (pitch), just working with intention and sensation.
  • These sorts of exercises are beneficial when reconditioning the mind for “Letting Go” – for building the performance bridge between playing on your own and in front of an audience.

The more you indulge in this kind of mind play, the more elasticised your imagination will become. I am not saying you will instantly see the benefit musically, but with persistence you will see a reduced “inner critic” and a return to the sort of playground you perhaps first witnessed as a child. This is most certainly the type of playground where ideas can float freely.

A Neurological Product or “something else”?

Creativity is said to be the interplay between the novel and the useful – the pooling of different concepts in your mental locker to create something that is socially relevant.
Are there secrets to creativity that are embedded into the fabric of the universe and are yet to be unravelled by science? Or can we influence creativity by following an agenda? I would like to think that both scenarios are plausible. One is a romantic belief that we connect to a higher awareness and from this enlightened space we can access very potent creative powers. The other is purely an acceptance of “brain wiring” and how it can be altered to affect change. This suggests creativity is a means of reorganising and stringing together what we already know, but in new ways and can thus be viewed as a neurological product.

Whilst this blog is not a prognosis or some kind of personality differentiator, it does point to the fact that whatever your inherent characteristics, creativity is a force to which you can connect. How you connect depends on your internal wiring, but whether it’s a natural “plug ‘n’ play” system or whether it requires a more complex connection of processes, it is available to all who seek it. Learning how is part of the fascination and is what makes the creative challenge so powerful. If our desires were so easily achieved, their value would not be so cherished.

  • Creativity needs a wide field of view. Narrow tunnel like vision is not conducive to being creative.
  • One has to have an acquisition of knowledge in a particular field, be it art, music, sport, drama, science etc. and then:
    • Practice experimentation with it on a regular basis.
    • Allow sufficient downtime where ideas, based on their knowledge, can flow. They need to be in a state of transient hyperfrontality and not engaged in cognitive activity. Some people are wired to be in this state more than others.
  • It does take time to change our perceptions and “connections”. Persistence is required. To be a master of anything apparently requires 10,000 hours of practice!!
  • Remember: If you suppress your ability to be creative by not believing that you are capable, then your potential will not be realised?

My own experiences have shown me that when I am sitting at the piano trying to force an idea, it won’t come, but as soon as I take a break and get preoccupied with something else, my brain kicks into gear and comes up with some solutions. When I was writing my books, or formulating lesson plans, I found, and still find, that ideas come more freely when I get up and move away from the task at hand.
However, my most profound creative experiences have come through improvisation. I have witnessed myself playing passages of music where I can’t identify the harmonic progression, or the kinds of modal scale form runs, phrases and combinations of colour, or I have no conscious awareness of the types of modulation such is the depth of musicality that is flowing through my fingers. Things that are not “supposed” to go together actually work really well (It’s not what you say, It’s HOW you say it, right?). In other words, I can’t claim to be reorganising pre-digested material. I didn’t learn those chord voicings, I didn’t practice those combinations. This observation points to the more romantic vision of the higher self, and if it does exist, then the journey of ongoing creative discovery should be even more interesting.

Whichever side of the fence you sit, don’t stay still staring into space waiting for creativity to happen. Get on the move and do something different! Make it happen. Let your mind wander and allow yourself to be open to all possibilities. Practice your downtime too.


Essentially, science has found some jigsaw pieces, but there are still some pieces missing that we need to find in order to complete the picture of Connecting to Creativity.


One Comment on ““Connecting to Creativity”

  1. Shaun

    That was a very interesting article and confirms a lot of what I have discovered through my own independant research on the subject. (Jonathon harnam, The pracice of practice is a good read for example ).

    One thing I have found is rather than”waiting for the right moment” is to be actively alert for situations when creativity is at its peak.( in my case, most annoyingly, the ideas accur in that halfway stage between wakefullness and sleep).

    A typical scenario is, I hear an appealing musical phrase in my imagination, then as time progresses I allow the imagination to play with it, and notes are either added, transposed, moved around etc, or I might find myself asking ok, how would that sound if i change the instrumentation a little? sometimes it sounds great sometimes not. so I either revert to the previous instrumentation or I make adjustments to the phrase to suit the instrumentation and it builds from there. Its an interesting process to observe as the phrase goes through its many iterations and changes from the original idea to somethig completely unrecognizable yet often(at least to my mind) far superior to the original idea…by which time I have usually been lulled to sleep and forget about recording some fragment so, in an attempt to combet that situation I have taken to keeping a tablet beside me with some simple to use music making software so i can (hopefully) record a working skeleton track to work on in the studio next day.

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