When the Sharks Gather

When the Sharks Gather: How Rituals Can Make Us Better Writers

Before I write, there’s this little thing that I do. Call it a ritual. I do it the same way every time. And according to neuroscience research, my little ritual is actually priming my brain to deliver a focused and confident writing session.

Here’s how it goes…

Everyday at 5:30 a.m., I zombie out of bed. I shuffle through the dark to the kitchen and switch on the electric teapot. I fill the pour-over with coffee and stack it atop my blue pot-bellied mug. As the water heats to life, I head to the living room to turn on the twinkle lights strung up since the holidays. Laptop boots. Notebooks and pens assemble. Coffee trickles into cup.

sharks-chocolate

“Chocolate” by John Loo. Image CC.

Lastly, I break off a nub of chocolate from the stash in my goody-drawer. I hold this nub lovingly and whisper to it a little prayer of sorts. Seems appropriate. Chocolate is, after all, theobroma, food of the gods. Muse munchums. To this heavenly food I give my thanks for its nourishment and my request to please nourish me now during my creative hijinx. I savor that nub of chocolate. Then I slide into my reclining wingback chair and set off on a two-hour writing jollification!

My writing sessions are intensely focused, fun, and productive.

But is that all really thanks to a superstitious pattern of actions? Francesca Gino and Michael Norton would answer yes. In a way-too short co-authored article in the Scientific American, the researchers explain that ritual work, whether or not they are rational or irrational. And they work even if you don’t believe in the efficacy of rituals.

In the Lab

“Crossed Fingers” by Evan-Amos. Image CC.

Gino and Norton conducted experiments where participants were given a task, but half of them first had to carry out a small, superstitious acts or rituals like crossing their fingers or touching a lucky talisman. The half that engaged in the ritual performed better overall on the task. They gave invested more effort, demonstrated enhanced confidence, and did better on future tasks that did not require a ritual. (Even participants who said before the experiment that they did not believe in rituals or superstitions performed better when they executed a ritualistic or superstitious behavior!)

And the results seem to be consistent around the world and across cultures. Hardly a surprise, considering how many rituals we see globally. Rituals seem to decorate the entire tapestry of human history. In the 1940s, anthropologists observed a ritualistic pattern in an indigenous tribal community in the South Pacific.Whenever the fisherman set out to fish in the calm lagoon, they just hopped into the water and fished. But whenever they set out to fish in the shark infested sea, they always performed a ritual to seek protection from the gods.

Whenever uncertainty or risk run high, we humans need a ritual.

The Royals celebrate after winning the 2015 #WorldSeries.

Royals celebrate their epic 2015 victory! From Arturo Pardavila III. Image CC.

Sports psychologists have seen and studied the ritual phenomenon for a long time. Michael Jordan always wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform. Boston Red Sox third basemen Wade Boggs wrote the Hebrew word “chai” (living) in the dirt before each at bat. The entire Kansas City Royals team spritzed on some Victoria’s Secret perfume and listened to the same rap song before each game. Between every serve, Maria Sharipova does this seemingly anal five-count foot shuffle-shuffle-shuffle. The list goes on and on.

And did these athletes enjoy a better performance? Well, I’ll let you Wikipedia the results if you don’t already know.

Gray Matters
The real question is why? Why do rituals have this effect on us?

If you fMRI the brain while someone performs a ritual (praying, meditating, or some other ritualized action), what you will see is a deactivation of the parietal lobe, the area most associated with processing and sensory stimulus. Turning off your parietal lobe is like disconnecting from the world around you. Shutting off “reality.”

The next thing you’ll see is the frontal lobes fully activate. These lobes are involved in our ability to focus and concentrate.

Finally, you’ll also see the amygdala go into hyperdrive. This area of the brain is thought to be the center of our primal emotions: fear, joy, panic, relaxation. A hyperactive amygdala is not necessarily a condition you want to provoke in the body. See Norman Doidge’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, for some pretty disturbing disorders (rife with panic attacks) linked to an inflamed amygdala. But in the case of rituals, the amygdala’s inflammation produces more joyful and relaxed emotions, leaving fear and panic in the backseat.

And with your brain operating in this manner, what you get is that intensely revved up flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified in the brains of the world top athletes, artists, and business leaders. You know this state of mind if you’ve ever gotten so wrapped up in a task that the external world just peeled away and it was impossible to tell if a minute spanned an hour or an hour spanned a millisecond.

Ritual or Habitual?
But herein lies the rub: to get your brain into this altered state, you have to perform a ritual, and not just some rutted habit. On the surface, rituals and habits seem almost identical. They are both sequenced or patterned behaviors that recur in the same way. The difference between rituals and habits boils down to intent. You do a ritual in order to achieve a particular outcome: hit the ball out of the park, sink fifty three-pointers, ace every serve, win the World Series or write one helluva good novel!

If we look back on my morning ablutions, my trek around the house switching on appliances and making the coffee is a habit. I do it the same way because it turned out to be the most efficient system, not because I think it will make me a better writer. Breaking off the chocolate, whispering my little prayer, and savoring the chocolate? That is definitely a ritual because I certainly duplicate that pattern of actions with a desired outcome in mind. Besides being the food of gods, chocolate has also been shown to relax the brain and promote creativity. So it’s basically my vitamin-W (vitamin Write).

sharks-jambigenie

Jambi the Genie from Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Yes, I know it’s Dumbo’s feather. I don’t technically need it. I already have the ability to go sit down for two hours and knock out a couple thousand words. But diving into a writing project is not that different from plunging into shark infested waters. And if doing a little ritual is going to help me maneuver with poise among a bloodthirsty flock of sharp-toothed torpedoes, well then…mekalekahi-mekahini-ho!

The best part about this research on rituals is that you can truly tailor-make your own ritual. So long as you do it with a desired outcome in mind, it does not matter what actions go into your ritual. Cross your heart. Light a candle. Whisper a chant. Turn in circles three times and bark like a dog. Anything goes!

So what is your ritual (or should I say writual)? What do you do when the sharks begin to circle?

For further reading:

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

sharks

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Stoke the Soul Fires

 

 

You see that up there? White space. Blank, empty, open page. Writers face (and curse) that every day.

“What?” The vast white screen chins at us. Aggressive. Challenging. Mocking. What are we going to put on it? What ideas, characters, settings, emotions are we daring to scrawl on that pristine open void?

It’s never easy to face the blank page. But sometimes, when you do, you get in a flow. The rest of the world melts away and your imagination runs utterly wild. Time dissolves and you hear nothing around you in the real world. You are aware of nothing else but the story gushing out of your every pore. You pulse with creation. You are ablaze. Never have you felt so alive, so poised and effortlessly perfect.

That flow state is such a nice place to work in, isn’t it? It’s one I savor on the mat at the dojo. I feel that effortless, flowing, internal blaze when we engage in randoris (multiple attackers) or jiyu wazas (freestyle encounters where you don’t know who is about to attack or how). The world beyond that place, that moment, that next inhalation of air, completely disappears and I am nearly euphoric.

randori

I’ve often thought it would be so nice if I could hit that flow every time I sat down to write. Even better: what if I could light that fire as soon as I sat down to write?

Oh to be alight with creative fire the moment I open my laptop or journal!

Well, recent advances in neuroscience suggest that writers and artists can train their brains to immediately flip that fire switch. Not only that: they can even set their creative fires to a permanently “ON” position. Kind of like a pilot light.

So join me on a brief journey into our brains where we’ll not only face the the blank page, but also learn how to go sprinting across it with fire kites of amazing prose and poetry streaming all around, soaking the void in white hot ink!

Flow: Why it Matters and Why It’s So Hard to Achieve

flow-coverMihály Csíkszentmihályi (that’s mee-HI chk-szent-mee-HI) literally wrote the book on flow, which he defines as a mental state of operation in which the person performing the activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, deep and effortless involvement, and enjoyment. The concept of flow has been widely referenced across a variety of fields. According to Csíkszentmihályi, everyone knows the feeling of flow.

Olympic swimmers, X-game snowboarders, rock climbers, even chess champions describe flow in the same terms. Regular folks (non-experts or non-pros) who get immersed in an activity also describe flow in the same way, regardless of cultural backgrounds, income, or age.

I first heard about flow from my brilliant classmate and fellow Wingbuilder, Ashlee Glasscock. In fact, her graduate lecture was all about how writers could use the flow state to defeat procrastination. Leapfrogging from Ashlee’s shoulders, I want to examine how writers can train their brains to flow so that the writing comes electrically fast and supernova hot!

You see, attaining flow is not easy. Csíkszentmihályi notes that evolutionarily, flow is a bad state for humans to enter. We evolved to have quick-cutting brains that continually chatter and mumble as they take in information here, there, everywhere (because you never know what’s lurking and waiting to make you its dinner)! If you focus so intently on something that the rest of the world melts away from your awareness, then odds are pretty good a saber-toothed tiger is going to eat you.

Compared to those old saber-tooth predator days, the modern world pretty tame. But the brain prattles on. And its eternal nervous chatter distracts and stresses us. It compels us to multitask. It nags us. It interrupts a perfectly good train of thought to — oh dang, I forgot to order more tea.

See !?

But lucky for us, the brain’s wiring is plastic, meaning it can change constantly. We can rewire our brains to chatter less and focus more.

Artistic Immersion Makes a Better Brain

A yummy way to think of the brain (for zombies and non-zombies) is to imagine two hunks of angel food cake. Squish these into two lumpy blobs about the size of your fists and place them side by side. Next, envelop those cake lumps in pliant fondant. The angel food cake represents the white matter, or the fatty tissues that connect the left and right sides of the brain, ricocheting information back and forth. The fondant represents the gray matter, which is where the brain transacts the majority of its thinking and processing of all that information.

Like fondant and all its billions of densely packed sugar particles, gray matter is densely packed with cells called neurons. In his 2011 TED Talk “A Map of the Brain,” Dr. Allan Jones estimates no less than 86 billion neurons. Neurons are hairy with wires called synapses that connect and “talk to” other neurons. At any given time, one neuron can be connected to at least 10,000 other neurons, says Jones.

To operate efficiently, your brain maintains a use-it-or-lose-it policy. Not consulting that area of gray matter where you stored high school French lessons? Kiss it good bye. The brain will prune it out. To save your neurons from the pruning, you need continual learning. New challenges, new information, new anything allows the brain to continually connect more and more neurons. So long as neurons stay connected, they do not get pruned out.

Spent too many decades thinning your gray matter? Don’t worry: your brain can actually grow it back! This ability to generate new neurons and new connections is called plasticity.

In the September 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a team of New England-based researchers published findings on how adolescent brains developed thicker areas of gray matter in response to regularly playing musical instruments. Other studies have found that artistic activities like dancing, crafting, sculpting, etc. also bulk up the grey matter.

In a June 2014 study, German researchers found that connectivity across the brain’s gray and white matter was significantly improved with participation in artistic activity. Led by Anne Bolwerk of the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg, the researchers used fMRI to observe brain activity in 28 retirees aged 62-70 years old. One half of the subjects participated in an art class where they actually drew or painted, while the other half took a class where they would only be observing art.

[Technical note: While MRI is like taking a still, satellite image of the brain, fMRI (f = functional) is like a weather balloon monitoring the live-action blood flow around the brain. As you undertake an activity, different parts of your brain are needed to do different things. The working parts are the ones in need oxygenated blood.]

Bolwerk and her colleagues found that the retirees who actually made art had better brain connectivity/plasticity than those who just looked at art.

Bolwerk suspects that a better brain is one regularly exposed to the kind of focused immersion usually associated with creative activities. Training your brain to flow ultimately makes it a better brain AND a brain better able to flow! When you flow, you are maximizing the functions of your white matter, harmonizing the left and right sides of the brain. The two work as one. With all roads smoothed out for stimuli, the better your brain can focus. The more your brain can focus, the more it is engaged in learning. And when your brain is learning, you are building robust gray matter full of neurons electrically firing!

Flow for Writers

So, after I found out all that, I wondered: “How is it I can write all the time and yet I don’t always flow. Are these neuroscientists politely insinuating that I’m gray-matter-deficient or something?”

Well, it turns out that the act of sitting down to write doesn’t always fulfill the essential components of a flow activity. According to  a flow activity needs to be something you can finish. If I sit down to work on my novel, odds are good I’m not finishing in that sitting. So, to make writing a flow activity, I could set smaller goals: I am sitting down to write 1,500 words….

Another important facet of a flow activity is the need for immediate feedback. If I were to sit down and work on a craft project, I could hold it up when time ran out and proudly say, “Look what I made!” Polite people who love me would nod, applaud, or otherwise give good feedback. But those people who love me can’t always immediately stop what they’re doing and read what I’ve written. And even if they could, I probably wouldn’t want them to!

So what’s a poor writer to do? One thing a writer can do is weave short flow activities into her day. Before your designated writing time, give yourself anywhere from 30-90 minutes to immerse in a bonafide flow activity. If you paint, paint. If you craft with metals or beads, do that. And don’t forget: athletes experience flow, too. So if you bike, go for a ride. Jog? Hike? Walk? You get the idea. Do what you do, but do it with attention and focus.

And if, like me, your flow activity takes place at a regularly scheduled class (like martial arts at a dojo, or yoga at the gym), then set up a 30-90 minute writing time to immediately follow that activity.

The first time I tried this, I was hand-crafting Christmas ornaments. I gave myself 30 minutes to craft and then I followed up with a writing session. Let me tell you…

IT.WAS.FRIGGING.GREAT!

I came to page on fire! My pen sliced up page after page. Or my fingers hit the keys and didn’t stop until my timer went DING! (I use the tomato-timer, AKA pomodoro, method which forces me to take much needed breaks.) Exhilarating. Satisfying. Productive!

bantock_tricksterNow, if you don’t count yourself among the “artsy,” “crafty,” or “mountain-climby” types, fear not. For you, I recommend Nick Bantock’s The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity. This book is loaded with timed flow activities designed to supercharge your angel food cake and fondant! Some of the exercises are writing exercises. Some involve art: draw a 1″x1″ box and inside that, scrawl as many animals (stick figures are fine) as you can in one minute! Some are just fun: for no more than two hours, go outside and use only raw materials and found objects to build a tiny village.

Okay, off you go! Focus. Immerse. Just be careful where you fly those fire kites!