Good days are powerful. On good days, your source of energy comes from within, and overflows your bounds. You can do no wrong.
As a playwright/screenwriter, I have experienced the power of good days. I’ll sit in a coffee shop and hammer out words for hours, as if God himself is dictating the words. I’ll write witty banter between characters, emotional tones that will make you laugh and cry, and clever plot waves that I can’t wait to see on screen or stage.
Unfortunately, the good days don’t happen every day. Most writing days are simply mediocre, and some are just bad. On the bad days, I’ll sit in the same coffee shop, with the same chair, the same drink, and the same script, blocked by a heavy fog preventing the good ideas transmission from brain to page.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to screenwriters. Every person in every industry who encounters problems that need to be solved can have the same experience. On your good days, there’s no shortage of good ideas and no problem you can’t handle. On the bad, no matter how hard you try to push through, you keep going through the motions while trying to run out the clock.
What causes good days and bad days? We need to unlock what’s happening in the brain on good days, and then learn tools to get to that state even on bad days.
Let’s talk neuroscience.
Two Competing Brain Regions
Networks of regions in our brain are responsible for both creating and regulating creative thinking. Two networks in particular are the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Central Executive Network (CEN).
The DMN is responsible for open, divergent, and generative thinking - the thinking that allows you to generate many ideas. If you want to get really nitty-gritty into the neuroscience, the DMN involves the (i) ventral and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex; (ii) the medial parietal regions, including the retrosplenial and posterior cingulate vortices; (iii) the anterior lateral temporal cortex, including the temporal poles; (iv) the inferior parietal cortex and the temporoparietal junction; and (v) the medial temporal lobe structures, such as the hippocampus formation.
The CEN has the opposite function. It is responsible for the closed, convergent, and evaluative thinking activities. Here’s the nitty-gritty again: The CEN involves (i) the lateral prefrontal cortex, (ii) the anterior prefrontal cortex, (iii) the anterior cingulate, and (iv) the posterior parietal cortex and intraparietal sulcus, alongside the connections of the broad regions to structures in the basal ganglia and cerebellum.
What does that mean to you? The DMN (open/divergent/generative) is involved when you’re imagining, reminiscing, self-referential thinking (reflecting on thoughts or feelings), wondering about someone else’s thoughts. Most creative thinking comes from the DMN. In a previous post, I talked about Semantic Networks, which look something like this:
The ability to generate semantic networks are important to creative thinking, and it is the DMN’s job to help you create these connections.
What happens then when you’re having a bad day? The CEN gets in the way. The CEN’s job is to regulate the thinking of the DMN. The mechanisms that control your brain’s switching between the DMN and CEN are not yet well understood.
Here’s a clear example that most people can relate to: ever have some really good ideas while falling asleep? That’s because, as you enter a sleep state, the regions involved in the CEN “fall asleep” before the DMN.
Quick note: this sounds an awful lot like “Right Brain/Left Brain.” It’s not. The DMN and CEN are both whole-brain networks. The “Right Brain/Left Brain” theory has been debunked for decades.
Quick note 2: The book The Neuroscience of Creativity by Anna Abraham is responsible for my knowledge of, well, the neuroscience of creativity. It’s a fascinating but thick read.
What do you do on a bad day?
Simple recap: On a “Good day,” your DMN (open/divergent/generative) is yelling louder than your CEN (closed/convergent/evaluative).
While we don’t fully understand the mechanisms that control DMN and CEN function, we do know that intentionally exercising the functions of the DMN (open/divergent/generative) help to activate that network. Here’s a few tools to get your synapses firing and activate the DMN:
Put a word central to your problem in the center of a piece of paper. Connect to it every related word you can think of in 1-2 minutes. Then make connections with those words, and repeat as far out as you can go. When I’m stuck on a screenplay, I go until I have 100 circles on the page. Making these sorts of connections activates the regions of the brain involved with the DMN.
Walk and Notice
Take a walk and notice your environment. Think about a problem you’re stuck on. Try to make intentional connections between your environment and the problem. How would that construction worker solve your problem? How would that bird solve your problem? How would that child solve your problem? How does that house remind you of your problem? Drawing intentional connections helps activate our DMN.
Another way to walk and notice is to take just one item on your walk and break down all the characteristics of that item. A fire hydrant for example: It’s red, made of iron, has water in it, it’s close to the curb, dogs pee on it, etc. Think of as many characteristics as you can.
Take a single item. Break it down into all the things it does. Even alternate uses. A plunger can be used to scale a building, use as a sword, and create a “wawa” sound with a trombone.
Then, make a list of all the things it doesn’t do. It can’t fly me to the moon. It can’t get me to San Francisco. It can’t think on its own.
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For more tips on how to practice creative skills, to hear more, contact Creative Dave to book a workshop or motivational speech for your school or organization before his roster is full for the year!
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