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Creativity and the Body

Posted: June 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: theory

Understanding your relationship, or lack thereof, to your body can lead to creative insights.

Denial of the Physical

In 2005, I heard a 1993 radio interview with Frank Conroy, a now-deceased fiction writer, and he described how he preferred writing in bed. He spoke with another author who did this also. Nelson’s own take on it is that he wrote best when his mind flowed without concern for his surroundings. Staying in bed was a strategy to disconnect his brain from his body to facilitate creative flow. The less he was aware of his body, the more his mind could reel and wander.

While Conroy might have had a self-destructive streak, something about this insight seemed familiar. I started to notice my own patterns and methods for staying creative and generating ideas, and realized that, indeed, the idea of disassociating the body from the mind is something that I also do.

Over the years, I’ve learned to obey these rhythms and how to use them in order to stay creative in a deadline-centered world.

Daily Altered Consciousness

Working from home and working in a studio or office is very different. For me, my work-at-home days are all about ideas, concepts, and the creation of deliverables, and when I need to be in that mode, I’ve found it helps to create a cocoon of creativity.

When I work from home, I have a predictable routine that completely differs from my in-the-office days. I don’t sleep in; I’m still up at 6am, as if I was going to commute into the office. First comes the long hot shower and the full pot of coffee. Then the comfortable, loose clothes.

Then, for me, comes the most important part: music. For creative work, it’s all ambient, often the Drone Zone, beatless music that ranges from gorgeous contemporary classical to true nonmelodic drones that most humans would find mind-numbingly annoying. It’s in the first few quiet hours of the morning that spawns my best creative concepts. During this phase, I don’t self-edit. I generate a bajillion ideas, sometimes gigabytes’ worth of content, perfectly willing to sort it all out later.

I do this, I think, because the morning quiet helps me persist something of a hypnogogic state, that half-waking drifting feeling that lets my mind wander.Some would liken this to alpha state brain activity or even to trances or meditation, but to me it’s just how my mind works through association, recognition, and idea generation.

Of course, hard-core, left-brain cognition has to come in somewhere in the design process. I call that the end of the pot of coffee.

I know enough about my own mind and body that I can sense the value of this drifting creativity wane. At that point, I dress as though I was going to work: real shirt, real pants, shoes. And then I sit back down at my desk and change the music to something more beat-oriented. Then the deliverables take form, the notes are written (and make sense this time!), and the phone calls and meetings are attended. This period can be creative also, but it’s more focused on decision making, editing, and problem solving than freeform idea generation. Others seem to share this same pattern.

The Dangers

My significant other  can rightly become annoyed with how distracted I can be, and how often I totally ignore the state of my body, sitting in front of the computer for hours. Unfortunately, all my work, most of my creative pursuits, and many of my hobbies all revolve around the computer. And it’s a testament to her patience and wonderfulness that she puts up with all of it anyway…and it’s my efforts to still get a fair amount of exercise that keeps us in good stead.

But I think that those are just iceberg-tip symptoms of a larger creative need to sometimes put our physicality aside to let the creative juices flow. Creative professionals and artists are paid to live a majority of their lives within their heads, focusing on solving problems or working towards insights others might not reach (and I mean due to time and other pressures, not that any one group is more creative than another). It’s therefore easy to see how this can become habitual, and lead classic nerd-dom, obsession and lethargy.

And in no way am I saying that’s a good thing. Being intensely focused on creative work is no excuse for being a poor steward of your body.

Reconnecting the Mind and Body of the Designer

You’ll notice that my own little body denial dance in the morning has its ending signal…I can easily sense when the altered consciousness of morning gives way to more constrained, rational thought. And there’s no sense in fighting it…in fact, rolling with that transition is important self-knowledge and self control.

It’s vital to one’s work to reconnect with the body at some point, and to treat it with respect. If you don’t, it’ll lie in wait and exact serious revenge. I’ve been there. I’ve seen it.

I do this by bike riding, kayaking, traveling, and hiking. This isn’t just about exercise, though, although that’s important. I’m talking about being places, seeing things, meeting people…getting informed and allowing one’s work to be informed of real things. If denial of the body influences creative output, which is largely a resynthesis of what is already in our minds, then recognition of the body can help with creative input, which is the basis for what we resynthesize into our own creations. We consider other perspectives by being sociable, we observe design patterns and human experiences by being in physical places, we even recognize rhythms in our own bodies. I find all of this very inspirational, even if I’m not going to utilize it until I get back into my morning creative trance some day in the future.

I’m of the opinion that the best designers and artists are well-balanced people, who can live within and without of their own minds as their own creative needs and impulses warrant, but without ignoring their physicality to a perilous degree. So, how do I rank in the pantheon of well-balanced world of the world’s best creative types?

I am writing this article at night, on my laptop, on a couch, in the dark, wearing comfortable clothes and slippers, completely unaware – until right now – what time it is and how ravenously hungry I am.

[Note: Interested in seeing more imagery like that at the head of this article? Check it out.]

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5 Comments on “Creativity and the Body”

  1. 1 Randy Coppinger said at 9:19 pm on June 8th, 2010:

    I have found that I do my most lateral, “out of the box” thinking first thing in the morning, straight out of bed and into the shower. I am constrained by that little space with few visual or audible distractions, going through my hygiene ritual from muscle memory. My mind is free to wander, and it does. If something had me stumped yesterday, I often think of several ideas to try that next morning.

    I also agree with the idea that we disassociate from our bodies. When I’m in the zone I will go for hours without eating or a restroom break then suddenly realize I’m in desperate need of both!

    I appreciate your suggestion that we should intentionally create time/space in which this can happen, and also corral that part of the day so that other kinds of activities are given their due. Dig.

  2. 2 Michael Maroussas said at 11:19 pm on June 8th, 2010:

    Great post Nathan. As much as we all like to talk about which mic we use and which sounds we’ve recorded, it’s equally fascinating (and possibly more insightful) to hear about others’ workflows and to actually think about our mindsets as a tool to be honed in this way. I’m not a big self-help fan but I nearly always get something out of Tim’s various ‘creativity’ links as well for the same reason.

  3. 3 thehipcola said at 5:44 pm on June 9th, 2010:

    Fantastic post! Couldn’t agree more – I’ve found increasingly that as I move through my thirties (38 now), my muse is FAR more productive and liberated in the morning. The weight of life’s business crowds out truly inspired thinking sometime around mid-morning. Likewise, late-at-night creativity is fast becoming a rare beast…. It has been spotted recently…but it’s unsubstantiated so far. ;)

  4. 4 Nathan said at 6:38 pm on June 9th, 2010:

    Thanks for the interesting insights thus far, folks. Sounds like morning is indeed a fertile time for a fair number of people. All of this is very closely tied to the psychological phenomenon of Flow, popularized and studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. His book on the topic is highly recommended: http://amzn.to/Gabf

  5. 5 J.D. Northrup said at 2:12 pm on June 24th, 2020:

    Thanks for the interesting article! It’s funny, I am definitely similar, but in reverse. I get into my most creative fugue states in the evening, say starting no earlier than 4pm and often later. I find that my most creatively productive days are around taking care of the essentials of survival first during the day, including getting out and exercising etc, taking a short nap, and then spending the evening / night in a creative state.

    What I *can* do well in the mornings is the technical finishing / editing parts of projects. I think I am productive at these times for similar reasons, but I tend to be more of an extreme night-owl in my circadian rhythms.

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