Every screenwriter gets stuck. Some call it writer’s block. Others don’t believe writer’s block exists. Either way, every writer runs into a problem that stops the writing process cold. Then despair sets in. Usually. Science, however, now tells us this obstacle is a good thing. In fact, it is essential in the creative process for the mind to have a breakthrough.
Jonah Lehrer, a contributing Editor at Wired Magazine and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, recently published a book called Imagine: How Creativity Works, in which he describes how scientists have studied how the brain works when we engage in the creative process. Lehrer recently recorded an interview with Steve Paulson for the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge where he summarizes how creativity works in our minds.
One of the highlights from the interview includes Lehrer’s telling of the story of how Bob Dylan reinvented himself as a musician. As Lehrer points out, Dylan was creatively stuck and tired of his political folk music image. So, Dylan decided to give up music altogether. He went to a cabin in the woods without his guitar to paint and write a novel, but in a few days, something mysterious happened. His mind wouldn’t stop creating lyrics. Dylan “vomited” out 25 pages of lyrics, including his signature turning point song, Like a Rolling Stone.
Lehrer explains how Dylan had his breakthrough:
It came at his darkest moment. It came when he quit, it came when he hit the wall, when he had no idea what else to do, and then it came out of the blue and when it arrived, it felt like a revelation. It came attached with this feeling of certainty and those are both defining features of this very particular creative moment called a moment of insight and the defining features of this moment as defined by psychologists over the last few decades are one, the answer comes out of the blue. The answer comes when we least expect it. The answer comes often after we’ve been stumped, after we’ve been blocked, after we’ve basically given up, and then once it arrives, it feels like the answer. We don’t have to double check the math or reread the lyrics. We know this is what we’ve been waiting for.
Using Dylan as an example, Lehrer goes on to explain that the way we traditionally think of productivity and solving problems is essentially backwards:
I think we’ve got this very narrow notion of what productivity is, that productivity is being well caffeinated and being chained to your desk and staring at your computer screen, but when you’re solving really hard problems and when you get stuck on that problem, that’s the worst possible thing you can do. It’s in moments like that that you should get up from your desk and take that walk, take that hot shower, play some ping pong, do whatever it is you need to do to get relaxed. There’s this great line of Einstein’s which is that “creativity is the residue of time wasted.” You know, I think that captured a lot of wisdom, that sometimes we need to get better at wasting time.
Lehrer also explains that daydreaming is a key function of creativity, one that shouldn’t be beaten out of kids in school, but rather encouraged. And the shower has become one of the best places for daydreaming and solving tough problems in our techno-crazy world:
We should learn how to daydream productively, and I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons there are so many anecdotes now about people having their best ideas in the shower, is because the shower is one of the last places we can’t take our phones. We can’t take our smart phones and so we can’t check our email and we can’t check Twitter and we can’t check Facebook, and so we’re forced to actually daydream for a few minutes, you know, while shampooing our hair without interrupting that process. So maybe that’s why the shower is this, you know, this incubator of good ideas now.
The final point worth highlighting from Lehrer’s interview revolves around brainstorming versus constructive criticism. Brainstorming, when performed in a group setting, stipulates that no ideas should be criticized. Lehrer reveals that research has shown that groups engaged in brainstorming without constructive criticism develop worse solutions than groups that engage in open dissent and debate when solving tough problems. Criticism is good during the problem-solving process, as long as it is constructive in nature.
So, the next time you’re completely stumped, don’t get upset. Get up. Take a walk or a long hot shower. Give your brain time to process the problem and you may be surprised at the solution you discover.