I remember the first time we did an art school critique. It was brutal. In the first five minutes a friend’s year-long photography project was compared to a Flickr stream. Cringe worthy. The funny part was, the comment didn’t crush her— in fact, she just got back to work.
The notorious art school freak out.
Criticism is the backbone of the Fine Arts degree. People have compared it to a firing squad. It feels like one. Art critiques showcase your work to peers and professors, who then proceed to tear it apart. These critiques are an evaluation of your process not your creativity.
From that day on, when my friend defended her work she talked about the journey more than the destination. She talked about breaking patterns and pushing past discomfort. This helped her work withstand the firing squad. She learned from her past failures and improved.
It’s then that it became apparent that trying and failing is really what the creative process is all about.
The reason critiques stick with you forever is because they hurt. It’s not the bruised ego I remember as much as the importance of building, failing, trying again, and finally succeeding. It’s become the default methodology for everything I do.
How does failure affect the brain?
Science has shown us that new patterns and behaviours are formed through repetition. Behaviours reinforce patterns and eventually create habits.
As cells in the brain connect, synapses fire and sympathetic pathways are born. As these pathways strengthen, we begin to feel more comfortable with new behaviours. Uncomfortable things begin to feel natural.
Familiarity is something the brain likes. Think about your morning routine:
Wake up > drink coffee > read emails
Didn’t that feel good? It did for me. One action triggers the next, and after a while we don’t think twice. Our actions become habits that are so deeply ingrained in our brain that they become very difficult to undo. fMRI Scans of violinist’s brains show us exactly this: professional violists have reinforced behaviours resulting in concentrated neural activity.
The professional violinist’s brain on the right shows more focused activity compared to the amateur violionist’s brain on the left:
The more we practice the more efficient our brain becomes.
As it turns out, simple things like forgetting someone’s name can be a sign that the brain is changing or developing. Pathways may be rewired or cut, but these mental hiccups are part of the process. It’s the brain rebuilding itself.
Your brain is more resilient than your ego
The brain is an organ that responds to experiences— both good and bad. If your ego survives the firing squad, it adapts. The bruised ego is the emotional trigger that inspires change. According to Dr. Richard Davidson, behavioural strategies are the most effective way to produce changes in the brain.
The truth is that experience and repeated behaviour shape the way your brain thinks. The shock of being wrong serves as a trigger. This is known as plasticity— our brain’s ability to change based on repeated experience. If this repeated experience is attached to an emotional stimulus, change seems to stick.
The more you force yourself beyond regular everyday patterns, the more your brain remains plastic. This requires focusing on the constructive part of your failings, not the emotions it causes.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” — William James
So how does this affect creativity?
The strong feelings associated with failure force you out of patterns that inhibit your work. This helps you develop new approaches and helps your brain remain plastic and active. In other words, your brain stays in shape and doesn’t become lazy.
Imagination is the fuel for creativity but its dependant on memory. Closing your eyes and imagining what warm sand feels like between your toes is imagination, but describing how it feels, putting these feelings into words, music or art is creativity. Imagination and memory are the parents of creativity.
Alogical connections at work from How to Have an idea by designer Frank Chimero
Creativity is not a linear process. Much a like a mind map, creativity and good ideas are often alogical connections. This is helpful considering that the creative brain is not localized in one specific hemisphere of the brain. In fact, we need both hemispheres to make insightful connections that lead to creative bursts. The more you experience the more memories you have to work with, the richer your imagination will be.
Good plasticity is the key to learning and increasing your memory bank. In a study done by University College London, cab drivers faced this exact behavioural pattern. With 25,000 streets in London, their brains need to learn and adapt quickly. For taxi drivers, their livelihood depends on knowing all these streets, research shows that their brain grows, develops and even gets larger.
London taxi driver’s larger than average hippocampi on the right.
How do we hack creativity?
What we learn from breaking patterns and developing habits is that the brain is malleable. The most important things we can do to keep creative juices flowing is to keep our brains plastic. The more plastic, the stickier our brain becomes. The secret is exposing yourself to as much as possible. This includes criticism.
Reflection and visualization
As painful and uncomfortable as criticism can be, it truly is constructive. This applies to people that reflect on their experiences. Reflection strengthens related connections in neurological networks by forcing us to rethink and re-experience. Reflecting on our failures may be difficult, but it boosts activity in the brain and helps strengthen pathways.
That’s exactly what this study found. Architecture students were split into two groups and asked to build structures. One group of students was asked to build structures by visualizing shapes while the other group was asked to build the structures using physical blocks. An fMRI scan showed the brains of the students who were asked to visualize the process lit up more than the students who physically arranged the shapes. The research mapped visualization and reflection and showed multiple areas of the brain responded to the creative task — this is plasticity at work.
Become an active thinker
Henri Le Chat questions life and all his experiences.
Art critiques force passive thinkers to become active.
The real weakness of passive thinking is that you will never engage in learning from your experiences. You’ll let things happen to you, affecting your creative process, and making you into a bystander. This makes it hard to call back experiences and memories when trying to build new creative ideas.
A great artist not only creates, he continuously reflects and re-engages with his work. The more he tinkers, the more his brain remains active. Tinkering lets your brain create alogical connections, reinvigorating your creative approach. And iteration and repetition lead to better results.
Showing your work to others and asking for opinions is a good way to start this process. Exposing yourself may be uncomfortable, but that only means you’re doing it right. This simple choice lets you lead your creative approach, as opposed to watch it from the sidelines.
Try multiple solutions
Of course, there’s never one clear solution. Often, there are many ways to look at a problem or an idea. Put yourself in another person’s shoes. How would your mother, teacher or mentor approach your idea? Approach your ideas with the mindset of a Scorsese, Starck or Jobs. Forcing your brain to look at things from different perspectives means your brain is thinking outside of the box, which keeps your brain lean and trim. Most people think long and hard about one approach when they would likely benefit from several.
In a fast paced and changing world being able to think creatively has become a necessity, it keeps your brain on top of its game. We want to view creativity as a magical process, but it’s actually science and lots of hard work.
Having your ideas shot down is a necessary evil, but how you treat your wounds is important too. The more time you spend reflecting, experiencing and improving, the more likely you are to excel. The truth is trying and failing forces you to think, have ideas and be creative.
Failing is the best catalyst for creativity.