Managing Fear for Creative Thinking

30 March 2009 at 6:22 pm Leave a comment

A recent book I found at my local library is titled Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently.

While I haven’t had time to look deeply in to this book, I did read the dust jacket (first step in the process of “gutting a book”).  Here’s what it says:

What makes iconoclasts so astoundingly creative and successful? They overcome mental barriers that stop most of us cold. The brain has three natural roadblocks that stand in the way of  truly innovative thinking:  flawed perception, fear of failure, and the inability to persuade others.

This reminds me of a previous post in which I discuss “mind control” as a form of controlling the energy flowing through our brains.  It demonstrates another source that focuses on this same issue of “psychoenergonomics” and channeling the energy within our brains.

Aaron T. Beck, in his book Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, writes of the evolutionary source of our brains as “fear-machines” and how counter-productive it can be in our modern lives:

Although the enemies of our prehistoric past, such as animal predators or bands of human marauders, are no longer a threat to our everyday existence, we are encumbered by the legacy from our ancestors, who were exposed to and feared these dangers. We unwittingly construct a phantom world composed of individuals who are poised to dominate, deceive, and exploit us. We are overly suspicious of actions that hint of manipulation or deception, and we may transform trivial or innocuous events or mild challenges into serious offenses. These automatic, exaggerated self-protective processes lead to unnecessary friction and pain in our contemporary lives. It probably was useful in our evolutionary past to react in an either-or fashion in discriminating friend from foe, prey from predator. It may have been adaptive to be on guard against the intrusive behavior of other members of the clan when our own survival was at stake, but we generally no longer need the margin of safety provided by these archaic mechanisms in our ordinary interactions. (33-34)

Gregoy Berns, author of Iconoclast, makes a similar point:

The human stress response, although sometimes rearing its head in the most inopportune times, is part and parcel of our evolutionary history. . . . But stress is different today. And while humans do not fend off saber-toothed tigers, we sure have our share of other stressors. The social fabric of society is far more complex than any culture that humans evolved in. And still, we carry the burden of millions of years of evolution.  (61-62)

Controlling our fear is essential if we are to release the energy of our brain from centering on the amygdala, the fear-center, and letting it flow throughout the frontal cortex, giving it the freedom to make associations across our senses and domains, juxtaposing the disparate areas of our experience to open the way to alternative solution.

Recognizing that fear can paralyze action, the iconoclast takes the automatic arousal associated with fear and uses it for something productive. The prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for this override control… (67)

Berns suggests “cognitive reappraisal” as a way of engaging the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala (i.e. replace negative reactions with positive ones):

The recent advances in neuroimaging show with increasing precision that cognitive strategies are highly effective at keeping the fear system under control, and these cognitive strategies have their origin in the prefrontal cortex. So rather than people needing to avoid the situations that cause fear or the circumstances that make them stress out, neuroscience is showing how the rational part of the brain can regain control over such toxic emotions like fear. (81)

The issue of controlling fear is complicated:  the book devotes three different chapters to the topic:  “Fear–The Inhibitor of Action”; “How Fear Distorts Perception”; “Why the Fear of Failure Makes People Risk Averse.”

I want to make one more point about this book.  The dust jacket speaks of the efficiency of the brain insofar as it minimizes energy expenditure in terms of processing recognizable perceptions:  “Did you know that when you see the same thing over and over again your brain expends less and less energy? Your mind already knows what it’s seeing, so it doesn’t make the effort to process the event again. Just putting yourself in new situations can make you see things differently and jump-start your creativity.”  Here, again, is the idea of energonomics:  managing energy flow, here in the brain:  the way to creativity in this case is to stimulate energy expenditure in the brain, to awaken the senses with new stimulation and input such that one is able to break out of conventional categories that the brain uses to simplify its task of monitoring the world for the purpose of survival.

The efficiency principle dictates that the brain will take shortcuts based on what it already knows. These shortcuts, although they save energy, lead to perception being shaped by past experience. How you categorize objects determines what you *see*. And because imagination comes from perception, these same categories hobble imagination and make it difficult to think differently. (57)

Again, conscious effort must be used to channel the energy in our brains in a different way such that it serves our purposes.


Entry filed under: books, energonomics, neuroscience, psychoenergonomics, psychology. Tags: , , , , .

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