Thursday, December 10, 2009

Shutting Off Our Inner Censors

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
~ Albert Einstein

Divinipotent Daily has one of those minds that frequently wanders down side streets, and one of my favorite haunts is the human need for narrative. Somehow, while life goes on all around us in a chaotic, nonlinear fashion, we humans crave a simple beginning, middle and end. We want a story we can follow, and if there isn't a clear story progression, dammit, we'll create one.

(This tendency is not without its problems. For example, in his book The Black Swan Nassim N. Taleb discusses the way the need for narrative makes our history books unreliable — eliminating surprises and random events and imposing an orderly progression that may bear very little relationship to reality at the time.)

The urge to narrate crossed my mind as I read a recent blog post about lying and creativity by Jonah Lehrer. As Lehrer explains, many people with damage to their frontal lobes tend to confabulate — to make things up of whole cloth. He quotes an excerpt from a case report about a man who began confabulating after a brain hemorrhage. "When inconsistencies in his confabulations were pointed out to him, he would become perplexed and either profess ignorance of recent events or invent a new confabulation."

"Don't play what's there. Play what's not there."
~ Miles Davis

What really jumped out at me from Lehrer's post is a few paragraphs down. A research study using fMRI machines found that when jazz musicians improvise, they disconnect from their frontal lobes. "Before a single note was played, the pianists exhibited a 'deactivation' of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a brain area associated with planned actions and self-control. In other words, they were inhibiting their inhibitions, which allowed the musicians to create without worrying about what they were creating."


The frontal lobes are our inner editors and censors; they are the headquarters of the little board of overseers who say, "Now, now, calm down" and "piffle, that makes no sense." But creativity has nothing to do with making sense. Of course we need to lock the voices of reason in a soundproof room where we can't hear them! And how utterly amazing that we are able to do that — and scientists can watch it happen.

By the way, surely it's not just jazz musicians who do this. Writers, artists, anyone who does their best work when "in the zone" is working outside the realms of logic. Isn't that what Anne Lamott was suggesting when she wrote in Bird by Bird, "Don't look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance."?

See you tomorrow. It's time for Divinipotent Daily to go dancing. 

"If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."
~ Carl Sagan


  1. I used to believe that I'd rather have a free bottle in front of me than a prefrontal lobotomy, but now I'm beginning to wonder. Perhaps we all need to lose our minds more often if we want to be more creative and inspired.

    And if anyone sees my mind wandering around looking lost, please tell it to come home... all is forgiven.

  2. It does have a certain appeal, but I'm thrilled to know that, given enough practice, we can lobotomize ourselves temporarily and non-surgically.