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Imagination helps you resolve and initiate what Alex Schlegel¹, a cognitive neuroscientist, calls ‘mental workspace’, which he describes as a widespread neural network that coordinates activity across several regions in the brain and consciously manipulates symbols, images, ideas and theories. He proposes that if you can reliably access this mental workspace to solve and resolve problems, you shift your perception of who you are in the present moment, as well as the person you hope to be in the future.
For example, imagine that you want something, like a vacation to a tropical island, and you need to figure out how to make enough money to pay for it. Obviously the wise thing to do would be to make a savings plan rather than pay for it with credit cards in hopes of paying off the balance somehow, some day.
To engage the parts of your brain that are responsible for live wiring new ways of approaching a challenge, you would start by getting a bunch of brightly colored Post It® notes and writing on each one ideas for how you save money. You might end up with ideas like cut back on eating out, put a percentage of weekly earnings in a savings account, no more fancy coffee drinks, and pack a lunch to work.
The idea is to brainstorm lots of ideas, even if you have no concrete plan for how you will put them into action. Your imagination thrives on visual data, whether that is images you draw, or just a bunch of scribbled ideas on colored paper. Seeing everything spread out before elicits the Creative Genius to get involved and start adding ideas or seeing new ways to make your plans a reality. When people create images, as in drawing simple pictures, of their current state and possible outcomes, they are often surprised by when something in the picture emerges that they didn’t expect, or a pattern for action that suddenly becomes very clear.
The goal in doing this kind of exercise is based on the ‘Yes, and…’ Principle, a technique for improving the brainstorming and creativity process. Often, when doing an exercise like the one I described, our typical response is to see focus on all of the obstacles in the way of reaching a goal. Our inner censor gets involved, sending messages like “I only spend $4 per day on coffee, that won’t add up to enough to pay for my trip” or “I barely have enough money as it is, why should I think I can afford this vacation.”
The “Yes, and…” Principle works on the belief that first you must say an emphatic “YES!” to any idea that you dream up and then let the parts of your brain (specifically the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex), engage in flexible decision making, until you can clearly see the options that bring you closer to your goal.
It is important that you don’t censor yourself or allow a critical voice to shoot down any ideas. Don’t worry about how your ideas fit into the bigger picture, that process takes place in another part of the brain, (the prefrontal cortex) responsible for critical thinking. Save that for after you have come up with all of your ideas.
You can’t access a free flow of creativity at the same time you’re critiquing and editing.
This is why lots of successful, brilliant writers still do their writing the old-fashioned way, with a pen and a piece of paper, rather than a computer where the flow is impeded. The critical thinking function of your brain wants to filter everything through grammar and spell check, while the hand/brain connection generates the flow of creativity. The language of your Creative Genius is a rich stream full of ideas, that may be a crazy combination of brilliant, silly and thought provoking. When this tap is flowing, things move quickly, and you would be foolish to stop and critique or correct what is coming through.
Your task is to let it flow until it’s exhausted.
The goal of the Creative Genius Equation is to find ways to open the tap and keep it flowing. Your brain, that ever-expansive live wiring machine, is a fertile environment with limitless potential for creativity. And there are proven methods for making this happen. For example, in recent studies using meditation as a means to let imagination flourish, groups that mediated before brainstorming had a higher ratio of ideas.²
Your task is to keep your garden plot fertile by practicing basic self care – getting enough sleep, drinking plenty of water, balancing work with play, daydreaming – as well as actively engaging your imagination.
Imagination affects our outcomes
Our perception of ourselves, and the world around us, is profoundly affected by imagination. We often think about the things we imagine and the things we perceive as being clearly dissociable. However, studies show that our imagination of a sound or a shape changes how we perceive the world around us in the same way actually hearing that sound or seeing that shape does.
“Specifically, we found that what we imagine hearing can change what we actually see, and what we imagine seeing can change what we actually hear.³"
My experience shows that what we imagine ourselves experiencing or becoming works in exactly the same way. By actively working with your imagination you open yourself to new ideas, solutions or what you want or need to create to move yourself forward into a better you in the future. But the best way to override what you have always done is to change the questions you ask.
In Jim Kwik’s book “Limitless” he talks about the RAS which is the part of your brain called the reticular activating system. That is what makes it through your automatic filtering system when you are gathering up the 11 million bits of information around you every second of every day. It’s like a gatekeeper of information through habituation, which lets your brain ignore meaningless, repetitive stimuli and stay open to other inputs.
“One of the ways to guide the RAS are the questions we ask ourselves. These tell that part of our brain what is important to us,” Jim writes.
The fascinating part is that we have some dominating questions that drive some of our behaviors and it’s good to know what those are!
Here’s an example of what Kwik calls a dominant question. In my family, I was the youngest of three siblings. For some reason, I never felt like I got quite enough attention. I was super short and scrawny and didn’t get chosen for the neighborhood baseball teams, plus I knew from that early age that I was “different”. Even at six I would yell to put my “real clothes on” when I came home from anywhere that required me wearing a dress.
This set up a dominant question…
“How can I be my true self?”
The common themes in my performances as an actor were about being yourself. Then, as a change agent and trainer, I felt compelled to remind people to be themselves in their corporate or business environment. My dominant question has continued to evolve to
“How can I help others step into the dream life they long for?”
I use visuals to help people spark and access your imagination to see how they can serve the world with their unique talents.
This week take time to reflect on your dominant question from your childhood and see how it has evolved, or if you’d like to evolve it so you can bring more of your Creative Genius to the world.
Let me know what you learn by posting your dominant question in our FB group or shooting me an email with the title #dominantquestion!
Big love to you and have a great weekend,
¹Shlegel, Alex, Network Structure and Dynamics of the Mental Workshopace, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013
²Meditate to Create: The Impact of Focused-Attention and Open-Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking
³Berger, Christopher, Mental imagery changes multisensory perception, Curr Biol. 2013 Jul 22;23(14):1367-72.