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Why Does Overthinking Sabotage the Creative Process?

Too much cerebral thinking inhibits the creative powers of your cerebellum.

This post is in response to
Why Does Overthinking Cause Athletes to Choke?
ishareimage/labeled for reuse
Contrary to popular belief, the "right brain" is not the only source of creativity.
Source: ishareimage/labeled for reuse

There is an ongoing debate about the differences between the function of the "left brain" and "right brain." Since the late 20th century, many experts, thought leaders, and the general public have believed the myth that the right hemisphere of the cerebrum (Latin for brain) is the seat of creative thinking. For over a decade, I've had my antennae up for research which illustrates that the right brain alone is not responsible for creativity. I'm excited to share new findings on this topic with you here.

My father, Richard Bergland, was a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon who was partly responsible for advancing the "left brain-right brain" model. For example, he was the scientific consultant for Betty Edwards' bestselling book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. He also wrote extensively about left brain-right brain in his book The Fabric of Mind (Viking).

Later in his life, my dad regretted that he had pushed so hard to advance the right hemisphere of the cerebrum as the seat of creativity. When my father died in 2007, I made a vow that I would pick up the torch representing his ideas and do my best to set the record straight in his honor.

"Unclamping" Your Intellectual Machinery Unleashes Creativity

Ultimately, every region of your brain works in concert to optimize the creative potential of your mind. That said, having simple split-brain models and paradigms that create an easily visualized framework for deconstructing how the mind and brain work is helpful.

Based on my father's influence, I created a new split-brain model that emphasizes the importance of optimizing the structure, function, and interconnectivity of all four brain hemispheres. This includes both hemispheres of the cerebrum and both hemispheres of the cerebellum (Latin for little brain).

Interestingly, when you go back and look at the writings of William James—who is considered by many to be the "father of American psychology"—he identified the brain mechanics of why overthinking sabotages creativity over a century ago.

Notman Studios/Public Doman
William James (1842-1910) c.1890
Source: Notman Studios/Public Doman

In 1911, William James advised in On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men. The Gospel of Relaxation, "When you are making your general [creative] resolutions and deciding on your plans of campaign, keep them out of the details. When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good."

James’ words are prophetic in identifying the importance of ‘unclamping’ the explicit memory and executive function of the prefrontal cortex to break the cycle of 'paralysis by analysis' and achieving a state of superfluid creative thinking.

In 2013, researchers from Dartmouth College debunked the myth that the right brain alone is the origin of creativity and imagination. Researchers at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences were curious to discover “what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?” They found that imagination stems from a widespread network of brain areas that collectively manipulate ideas, images and symbols. This "mental workspace" had been theorized before, but this study provides new brain imaging evidence.

The September 2013 study, "Network Structure and Dynamics of the Mental Workspace," was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers conclude that human imagination does not come only from the right hemisphere of the cerebrum. In fact, creativity and imagination requires a widespread neural network in the brain. This mental workspace needed for creativity involves all four hemispheres of both the cerebrum and cerebellum.

Interestingly, a different July 2015 study found that dynamic proprioceptive activities—which specifically involve the cerebellum—increased working memory by a dramatic 50 percent. Working memory creates the mental workspace that facilitates creativity.

Why Does Overthinking Sabotage Creativity?

This blog post is an update to a Psychology Today post I wrote in 2013, “Why Does Overthinking Cause Athletes to Choke?” In that blog post, I explored the neuroscience behind the famous Arthur Ashe quotation, “There is a syndrome in sports called ‘paralysis by analysis.’”

In August 2013, researchers from University of California at Santa Barbara reported in the Journal of Neuroscience that too much activity in specific regions of the prefrontal cortex was the likely culprit behind “paralysis by analysis.” The scientists identified brain regions linked with overthinking that help explain why trying too hard intellectually interferes with the the 'flow' of performance and causes athletes to choke.

Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons
Cerebrum (Latin for brain) in red.
Source: Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons

The prefrontal cortex—which is housed in the cerebrum—is the newest part of the human brain in terms of our evolution. It's the part of your brain responsible for planning, executive function, and working memory.

These UCSB findings showed that overactivity in the prefrontal cortex can interfere with memory processes necessary for implicit recognition memory required to perform fluidly and cause people to choke. It turns out, the same brain structures and functions that cause athletes to choke, also appear to inhibit creativity.

Where Do New Ideas Come From?

Creativity is the ability to bring together disparate ideas in new and useful combinations. What is happening to the electrical, chemical, and architectural environment of our brains that stimulates our imagination and makes us more creative? A 2015 study from Stanford University suggests that “overthinking” (relying exclusively on the brain’s higher-level, executive-control centers held in the cerebrum) actually impairs, rather than enhances, creativity.

The study’s lead author, Manish Saggar, PhD, summed up the findings of the study by saying, “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.” This is exactly what tennis legend Arthur Ashe would describe as “paralysis by analysis.”

The May 2015 study, “Pictionary-Based fMRI Paradigm to Study the Neural Correlates of Spontaneous Improvisation and Figural Creativity,” was published in the journal Scientific Reports. This research at Stanford was a collaboration between the School of Medicine and Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

This study is the first to find direct evidence that the cerebellum is involved in the creative process. The cerebellum is traditionally viewed as home to muscle memory, balance, coordination, and the reason "practice makes perfect," but hasn’t been considered by most experts to play a role in the creative process until now.

The Stanford findings advance our knowledge of the neurobiology of creativity. The researchers found that activation of the brain’s executive-control centers—the parts of the brain that allow you to plan, organize, and manage your activities seated in the prefrontal cortex—are negatively associated with creative task performance.

Jeremy D. Schmahmann, MD, an expert on the cerebellum from Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in this study, commented on the new findings from Stanford in a press release by saying “These are intriguing results, and it will be interesting to see how this relationship of cerebellum and artistic and intellectual creativity plays out in future studies.” Two of Schmahmann’s patients are artists who had their creativity sapped by strokes that damaged the cerebellum.

Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons
Cerebellum (Latin for little brain) in red.
Source: Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons

Why Does Exercise Stimulate the Creative Process and Lead to "Eureka!" Moments?

Albert Einstein said of the theory of relativity, "I thought of it while riding my bicycle." Anyone who exercises regularly knows that your thinking process changes when you are walking, jogging, biking, swimming, riding the elliptical trainer, etc. Aerobic exercise clears the cobwebs from your mind and gives you access to insights that are out of reach when you are sedentary. Sweat is like WD-40 for the creative process.

New ideas tend to bubble up and crystallize when you are inside the aerobic zone. You are able to connect the dots and problem solve with a cognitive flexibility that you don't have when you are sitting at your desk. This is a universal phenomenon, but one that neuroscientists are just beginning to understand.

There are many parallels between the athletic process and the creative process. Both require a combination of determination and drive but also letting go and creating a state of flow. Many creative geniuses possess the paradoxical ability to be really dialed in but also laid back. In both athletic and creative pursuits, overthinking can sabotage the process and results.

The urge to force a creative solution by never letting up is a mistake that many "Type-A" personality types typically make. If you tend to overthink, loosen up! Allow yourself to 'space out' and daydream—doing so will allow the creative juices to flow more easily at a neurobiological level.

If you tend to ruminate and are hyper-analytical all the time, current research shows that you might want to "unclamp" your executive function throughout the day and let your mind wander more. Conversely, if you tend to be spacey or always daydreaming, your mind and brain will benefit by consciously making an effort to dial-in your focus. You can use mindfulness training to help condition your mind to wander less. I recommend practicing mindfulness or some type of meditation every day.

Many scientists believe that the creative process springs as much from the subconscious as it does from a conscious thought process. Most often, creative solutions are not wrestled from your mind through sheer force of will. A wide range of research confirms the importance of the default mode network (DMN) and that overthinking backfires when it comes to creativity.

Arthur Koestler once described the experience of finding the conscious truth by connecting to the intuitive subconscious when he explained the 'aha' moment by saying:

The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flushes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.

Pixabay/Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/Public Domain

"Eureka!" moments tend to occur spontaneously, almost always when the conscious mind is thinking of something else, or nothing at all. This is where the daily athletic process is crucial to creative breakthroughs. The person in pursuit of a creative solution must be intensely interested in solving a particular problem while having a laid-back attitude about finding a solution.

Because it's nearly impossible for neuroscientists to track the link between exercise and creativity using current brain imaging technologies, I like to look at the daily habits of creative greats for proof of how aerobic exercise facilitates the creative process. Below are a few examples of writers who use aerobic exercise as part of their creative process.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Thoreau: "The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all." While researching my book proposal for Origins of Imagination: Exploring the Neuroscience of Creative Thinking I found a variety examples of writers throughout history who have used physical activity as part of their creative process.

Henry Miller, who was an avid endurance cyclist, described the importance of creating a default state to improve his writing process by saying:

Each man has his own way. After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I'd say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you're walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever. . .You're working, your mind is working on this problem in the back of your head. So, when you get back to the machine it's a mere matter of transfer.

Renowned creative greats like Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci didn't create a constant stream of brilliant works. They had the stamina and boldness to keep going after failure and the confidence to admit that most of their ideas were probably going to be duds without losing enthusiasm. Thomas Edison once said "I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don't work....genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Athletics and creativity can fuel one another by giving you the stamina and resilience to keep pushing to the finish line and find creative solutions.

Conclusion: Creative Genius Relies on Engaging All Four Brain Hemispheres

Illustration and photo by Christopher Bergland
Engaging all four brain hemispheres and "unclamping" the prefrontal cortex may optimize creativity.
Source: Illustration and photo by Christopher Bergland

Both hemispheres of the cerebrum and cerebellum must work in harmony to create fluid peak performance in sport and life. All four hemispheres must synchronize to create superfluidity, which is a state of performing with zero friction or viscosity. Superfluidity is the polar opposite of choking and is at the heart of "eureka!" moments and creative breakthroughs.

In a sedentary digital age, full of standardized testing and an emphasis on crystallized intelligence, "cerebral" thinking is monopolizing our brains and causing cerebellar brain regions to shrink and become disconnected. The atrophy of brain regions in the cerebellum could ultimately lead to less innovation, trademarks, patents and hurt your personal finances and our collective power in the global economy.

It's important to stay cognizant and vigilant about constantly mixing up your explanatory style, to 'think about your thinking', and to stay physically active. This will keep the structure and function of your brain robust and prevent your mind from getting stuck in a rut that blocks a healthy flow of information and connectivity between all four brain hemispheres. I believe strongly that optimal brain function and creativity relies on equal participation of both hemispheres of your cerebrum and both hemispheres of your cerebellum.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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