Learn to Trust Your Brain

Wanting to trust your brain (and mind in general) can feel a little counter-intuitive. After all, most of us are painfully aware of our own shortcomings. Our cognitive abilities are tremendous, yet we often feel like our thoughts and memory are trying to screw us over at every turn. We lose things, miss crucial meetings, forget what we were going to say mid-sentence…

Mental illness can make this uneasy relationship even harder. When your own brain is constantly telling you to give up on life, that you are worthless, etc. it can be hard to have any faith in its helpfulness at all. You want it to do things for you, or help you act a certain way, but it won’t budge. It goes against your every wish and robs you of the ability to function. It sucks, because you feel like your own worst enemy… and nobody else can see the struggle taking place inside.

This article doesn’t pretend to cure depression (or even deal with it really), far from it, but having just finished writing a novel that touches on the deep (and dark) relationship a person can have with their own mind, I felt it was a good example of how complicated things can get.

So why should you show your brain some patience? What can you do to get it to help you?

Here’s the thing. Your brain most often balks at direct commands. In his book, 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute, Richard Wiseman explains that the brain goes into panic mode if you demand too much of it at once. This is why so many New Year’s resolutions fail (and why you should probably slow down, when making such goals). There is too much information to deal with at once, too much change, and your brain shuts down in order to protect you from so harsh and sudden a transformation.

It is the same when you place heavy demands on your mind in the context of your work. As Wiseman says in his book, whenever a manager asks a team of employees to come up with creative ideas on the spot, chances are the stress levels in the room will sky-rocket and the first few answers (or even all of them, depending on the time allowed for reflection) will be pretty rubbish.

In an experiment he conducted, participants were asked to come up with some creative solutions to a problem, then told to doodle for the next few minutes. By focusing on their drawings, the participants allowed their brains to slip out of panic mode and keep on thinking about the question in a calm and indirect way. When the time was up, they found it a lot easier to make clever and creative suggestions.

The same is true of any creative task you might attempt. It is certainly true when you are trying to write a book. When planning your masterpiece (or simply your next NaNoWriMo project), you may be tempted to jot down every single plot twist and piece of intricate symbolism all at once. You want to feel prepared and like most people, you want all the information right here, right now. You want it so you can get down to writing, connect the dots and nail this thing.

I know. I want those things too. But it rarely ever happens like that.

What I have discovered, over the past fifteen years or so that I’ve been writing, is that if you give your story enough space to thrive inside your mind, it will do exactly that. When you get an idea, don’t dismiss it if you don’t immediately have all the elements you need to start a book. Write down what you have, then wait a while. Work on something else. Like a good sauce, you need to let things simmer.

Certain narratives can take years to achieve full maturity. It took me 9 years to write the first half of Mirrormind, yet only 3 months to finish it. I would have loved for it to happen faster, but waiting for the right level of maturity to tell that particular story allowed me to write a better book (I hope). It’s the same with my story that got shortlisted last year (and which you can read here). I wrote it in 2011 and at the time, it felt like the best I could do… but when I revisited it a year ago, I was able to clearly see what still needed to be changed. Waiting paid off.

Even if you do think you have everything you need, your mind can still surprise you while you are working. For me, the best way to find answers to niggling questions is to describe my project to somebody else. As I try to make sense of it in words that another person will understand, my brain finds all sorts of new connections between existing elements. Small epiphanies concerning plot or character developments form inside my mind. They help the story move forward, bit by bit.

Now that Mirrormind is finished, I’m eager to start a new project. I want to write a collection of short stories in French and I’ve found the basic theme for it, but most of the short stories lack any sort of detail at the moment. I refuse to panic about this, or feel miserable, or scrap the idea. I know that if I let my brain do its job, each piece will fit together like a puzzle in due course (although by the end of May would be good, seeing as it’s for a competition).

So whether you’re trying to please your boss by coming up with new ideas or attempting to develop your own projects, give your brain a little break. Do something else, preferably something that involves keeping your hands busy, but doesn’t require much mental effort. Running is good, if you can. Doodling or even reading a light-hearted book also works (though you might forget some of what you just read if ideas start flowing).

Have some patience and confidence in your own abilities. Let them shine at their own pace.

You might surprise yourself.

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