In reading the new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, I was struck by a story about an incurable brain disease.
And, like someone was trying to send me a message, the next day I listened to a Radiolab podcast with Jonah Lehrer as a guest talking about the same disease.
I was destined to write about it.
In brief, the stories in both the book and the podcast talk about a woman, “a brilliant biologist” who one day decides to quit her work as a biologist and, instead, become an artist… full-time. Of course, her husband found it odd. The biologist hadn’t studied art or trained or even had any experience, just a strong and sudden need to create.
She painted and painted and painted more, up to 10 hours a day in her studio.
She got better. She began getting some high-profile commissions. She began to get some gallery showing and had her work featured in exhibitions. She painted for the next 15 years until she died of the very disease that unlocked her creativity.
It’s called frontotemporal dementia. The disease destroys the prefrontal cortex. According to Jonah, “As a result, nothing is repressed: the raw perceptions processed in the right temporal lobe of the cortex… are suddenly unleashed into the stream of consciousness.”
In the case of individuals with frontotemporal dementia, the disease creates an irreversible decline that starts with the need to… create.
What’s interesting is that we all experience, the shutting down of the prefrontal cortex, every night once we fall asleep.
Of course no one wants to shut down his or her prefrontal cortex just to create, but here’s the thing…
It debunks the long-lasting myth that only some people are creative and others are not.
Story after story about sufferers of frontotemporal dementia show regular non-artistic folks becoming highly creative and becoming good at it.
What Does this Mean?
Well from my perspective, it means everyone has the capacity to be creative. That means you, me and all of the people we work with.
The idea that one must be creative to appreciate new things like using images to facilitate is simply wrong.
We all have the capacity to use creative tools, to enjoy creative things, to express creatively and to simply be creative. The problem is suppression.
Once we practice suppressing self-expression and inhibit our impulses we stop those natural creative abilities.
This means we need to be more active in the practice of letting ourselves go. We need to make it safe to express. We need to make it okay to let others express. We need to be okay with expressing ourselves as well.
The next time someone says they aren’t creative or that they don’t understand creative things, tell them the story of the biologist turned accomplished painter.
Check out the Radiolab podcast here.