I drove along the ridge top through the ink-black forest and then down the winding road home. Cold rain pelted everything and dragged moss from the trees to the road where it lay in limp clumps in the black night. Everything in the world seemed wet, and it was as if all light had seeped into the cracks of pavement, down into the dark earth to be held there by the wearying winter storm.
How closed in and dank the night seemed, with no moon visible and creatures huddling in hidden thickets, waiting until light would rise from the ground at daybreak. I drove through wafting curtains of rain that moved like drifting mist in my headlight beams, and I noticed I was tense and tired from work. Then the part of the mind that notices but does not comment on what it sees began taking its turn after a long stint at work, and I felt both grateful to be away from the minutiae of patient care and alert for road dangers in the enveloping rainstorm. It had been a busy night, but it was time to leave it behind for good.
At four miles -- about ten minutes -- my commute is nothing, almost too short to be able to unwind before arriving home. But there is a point when I feel a mental shift happen, from detail-oriented work think to a free-form, more relaxed and creative musing. I breathe better, I become more relaxed and I remember other parts of life than work.
It is said that our minds are divided into a primitive brain and a more sophisticated higher-functioning brain that makes executive decisions quickly and fluidly when we are presented with various situations. We are constantly receiving sensory input, and we must do something with the information, either instantly forgetting about it or reacting appropriately. At work, phones, computers, and demands are constantly present, stress is increased and creative-artistic thinking is not usually possible. But later, when I want to think creatively, what happens?
fMRI is a short name for functional MRI, a scan of an actively working brain that detects where neurological activity is increasing and decreasing during tasks given to a person in the MRI scanner. What doctors have seen in studies is that there is a shift in brain activity that is noticeable when a person is asked to begin a creative skill - like writing or playing an instrument - and when they've "warmed up."
Think of playing tennis or playing a keyboard. You begin the task and you feel awkward, conscious of all the parts of your task, and you just can't find your legs, so to speak. Stiffness, nonfluency, or a feeling of dullness make you feel slow and clumsy, but after a few minutes of "warming up" you have a feeling of being in the zone, of energetic creativity, and off you go. You lose track of the world around you as your thinking begins to be done in a different part of your brain. You begin in the frontal cortex and switch to less conscious, more automatic areas and exist almost in a dream-like state when "flow" is really happening.
What's writer's block? You don't make the switch. You stay in the conscious, executive-thinking brain and cannot access the dream world where creativity flows easily. Who knows why; it just doesn't happen. There are probably many things that block you from accessing that flow, and it's frustrating when it happens. When you're in the zone and your brain activity has switched from conscious effort to automatic free-flow thinking, it's a relief and a pleasure. By practicing meditation and mindfulness, you can train your mind to switch earlier, and you get better at it.
I arrived home in a steady rain and hurried inside out of the dark and cold. I'd left work behind and would need to sleep soon, so my mind had to relax even further until sleep and then dreams could overtake me. Consciously going to the unconscious, I was able to drift off to sleep very shortly afterward, unaware of work or the sheeting storm outside.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way