Monthly Archives: June 2008

Let Your Creativity Soar

This post’s title comes directly from the June/July Scientific American Mind print article of the same name. (The online version is named How to Unleash Your Creativity.) Mariette DiChristina interviews three artists to spearhead a discussion of how they get their creativity soaring. The artists are Julia Cameron, poet, playwright and filmmaker; Robert Epstein, author and visiting scholar; and John Houtz, psychologist, professor and author.

As stated by others, including Sir Ken Robinson, the consensus among these folks is that “creativity is shut down in most people by early socialization.” And like Robinson, they believe that risk taking and failure are important components of creativity. Indeed, “the creative individual thinks of failure as a new opportunity.”

While Cameron, Epstein, and Houtz do not all use the same vocabulary, they often describe similar activities for stimulating their creativity, which are…

Hold that thought! Write it down, record it, do whatever is needed so you don’t forget it. Ideas come to you during sleep? No problem, just keep a pad and pen nearby. Not enough, or too many ideas in your head? Allow whatever you are thinking to topple out, unedited. Julia Cameron writes her “morning pages” on a daily basis – “three pages of longhand writing about anything.” She notes that as she writes those pages, “new ideas began to walk in.”

Try something different! At least once a week, break your routine, feed your head visuals, sounds, and text that are not your standard fare. Give your brain ideas to ponder. Cameron teaches “the artist ‘date’ or ‘outing’ [which] is to take an adventure once a week.” According to Robert Epstein, “the more diverse your knowledge, the more interesting the interconnections – so you can boost your creativity simply by learning interesting new things.”

Make yourself think! Look for problems to solve, but not just any problems. Rather, challenge yourself to solve more complex or unusual problems. John Houtz reminds us that people “have to work at it; creativity isn’t necessarily going to come naturally.”

Get out and about! Epstein says “the more interesting and diverse the things and the people around you, the more interesting your own ideas become.” Cameron adds that simply taking a “walk out the door for 20 minutes or so” will have an impact on your thinking. “When people walk, they often begin to integrate the insights and intuitions that they have had through morning pages and outings.”

Ah yes, this has happened to me multiple times when I take walks by myself. My thoughts flow freely and it is not unusual, if there is an issue I am dealing with, for me to have a conversation out loud with myself. Indeed, this is an easy way to get “off the grid”.

Houtz talks about how our personalities can impact the manner in which we stimulate our creativity. Someone who is more introspective and less outgoing might prefer quiet reflection; a more extroverted person may benefit from the hubbub of other people.

These suggestions read like a “how to” manual for fostering creativity but before you say they are silly, give them a try and then let me know what you think.

Images: pad and bicycle on beach from iStockPhoto; squiggles and stonewalls done in SketchUp by Fred Bartels

[p.s. August 9, 2008 – I stumbled upon this related Encefalus post, How to Bolster your Creativity. The author hasn’t “written in english for a loooooong time”, which explains any quirks in the prose.]


Design and Innovation with Arnold Wasserman

Arnold Wasserman is the man behind The Idea Factory. I discovered him thanks to a recent interview by Joan Badger and Ben Hazzard for their SMARTBoard Lessons Podcast.

Wasserman echoes Sir Ken Robinson in saying that we all come hard wired to be creative, and we then teach that feature right out of our children as they progress through school.

In discussing his company’s work with Singapore’s education system, Wasserman asks how we go about reintroducing our two hemispheres to one another, and concludes that we need to figure out how to use the ideas of K-6 education in the upper grades. He says:

“The brain knows how to be creative and the mind gets in its way.”

In other words, as we get older (and more “educated”) the mind encounters enough information that it begins to put a harness on the brain, stifling it from using ideas that do not mesh with the reality to which the mind has been exposed.

Wasserman references Google’s 80/20 rule as a way to nurture innovation. The rule states that employees can spend twenty percent of their time focused on their own ideas. This allows “the mind to get out of the way of the brain.”

“The Learning Journey” is a method that his company uses to “get the mind out of the way of the brain” by shakings things up. He suggests that to innovate it helps to see how innovation is working in other fields in order to understand how innovation works, in general, as opposed to within a specific field.

Wasserman’s tips to discover the principles of innovation:
First – see how it is done in other fields
Then – try to solve a problem in yet another field, completely different from your own (the proverbial “sandbox”)
Now – translate this to your field

The main reason for getting out of your comfort zone and exploring a completely different field, where you then have to solve a problem, is that “expertise is the killer of innovation.” The more you know about your own field, the more difficult it is to innovate. What is required is to “think back into the company from the minds of those outside it.”

This last bit reminds me of teaching. It is said that the best way to learn something is to have to teach it, and I agree with this concept. However, sometimes if you know a thing too well, it becomes very difficult to think back into the learning from the mind of someone who is struggling to learn that very thing. Yet more food for thought for educators on summer break.

What we educators know, and sometimes forget

In December 2007, I participated in a three-day training session to become a Smart Master’s Certified Trainer. At the time, my school had close to 50 Smart Boards installed, and this summer another 20 are being set up. Thus, it should not surprise you that I follow several blogs geared to the Smart Board and interactive white boards.

One such resource is the SMARTBoard Lessons Podcast by Canadians Joan Badger and Ben Hazzard. I confess to usually not listening to the podcast (because I learn better visually) but to always checking out their links and often checking out their lessons.

This week’s lesson is about Design & Innovation with “Arnold Wasserman, a legendary human systems designer, is the Chairman and Co-Founder of the Idea Factory who is redesigning the nation state of Singapore. Wasserman talks about design principles in an education context, innovation in education, and his ideas about the brain versus the mind.” Given the topic, I couldn’t pass up listening to the podcast, which I will write about in my next post.

Before listening, I visited the The Idea Factory and did a bit of exploring. Curious to know more, I downloaded the pdf An Introduction to the Idea Factory and was immediately struck by three of the six beliefs of the company:

Hazaah! These beliefs coincide with what is known about how we best learn, and the third one is quite in harmony with what I have written about professional development. These ideas have been around since the days of John Dewey, but it’s always a little disconcerting how many in education tend to forget them. Food for thought as we educators transition to the summer.

Creating Off the Grid

Garr Reynolds writes about “going analog” during the beginning process of creating. In his June 17th post, Creativity, nature, & getting off the grid, he even shares a one-minute video of his favorite “off the grid” location, which is on the coast of Oregon.

I’ve been thinking about that for the past few days as I’ve kayaked on Long Island Sound, just out of Mamaroneck Harbor.

Otter Creek, behind our house, is a tidal creek that serpentines out to Mamaroneck Harbor:

Some of the many types of birds and water fowl that hang out on the rocks:

Long Island Sound, facing Long Island – Larchmont, New Rochelle, and eventually NYC to the right; Rye and Greenwich to the left:

Greeted by an egret upon returning to Otter Creek (yes, it’s said there used to be otters swimming in this creek):

There’s no doubt that my most creative thinking happens when I am not thinking about the topic in question. While that could be during any number of activities, it typically seems to be during recreational moments, such as kayaking or lap swimming or taking long walks. Interestingly, when I’m fully engaged in yoga, the breathing has me so focused that there is no room in my brain for any other thoughts to enter. The same is true for when I’m drawing or sketching; I am so absorbed in the process that my brain silences all other thoughts.

The June/July 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind includes a panel interview with three people who focus on creativity: John Houtz, psychologist and professor; Julia Cameron, poet, playwright and filmmaker; and Robert Epstein, former editor of Psychology Today and currently a visiting scholar. How to Unleash Your Creativity is an interesting discussion between the three of them and interviewer Mariette DiChristina, executive editor of Scientific American and Scientific American Mind.

Each of these individuals has similar approaches to stimulating their creativity, and all of them seem to get off the grid, meaning they walk away from whatever it is they are thinking about. They “take breaks and learn to use them strategically; use daydreams as sources of new ideas.”

I spend a lot of time using my computer, not only related to school but also writing and blogging, and communicating with friends and family via email, iChat or web pages. In this past year much has been written in the press about email and related technology information overload; it’s even become a big topic on the tech listservs I read.

The solution – Get Off the Grid. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, but for those who manage to do it, I’m willing to bet all sorts of interesting ideas will pop into your head.

Summertime & the Body Is Moving

Exercise and diet seem to be popular topics of conversation these days, probably because summer is just around the bend. The weather has turned warm and sunny, even hot on some days with high humidity. And this change in weather, along with the ending of another school year, brings out the inner exerciser in many of us. To paraphrase the Gershwins: Summertime and the Body Is (should be) Moving.

A 14-year old blogger from my school, in his June 13th blog post, wrote:

Mark is a bit of a health crazy (at least compared to me), so we decided to enter into an arrangement. For these summer months, Mark and I are going to meet and he is going to try to make me at least a little athletic. I’m optimistic, especially if I don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.

And my 51-year old brother just this weekend told me that the recent death of Tim Russert, moderator of Meet the Press, has inspired him to try and change his eating habits. My brother was shaken by the fact that there were just seven years between their ages.

People have often talked about and made changes to their eating and exercise habits in terms of how they look or what might be good for their hearts. Rarely, though, have I heard people consider these in terms of what might be good for their brains, yet healthy eating is good for your entire body, starting at the top! You can read more about diet specifics at The Franklin Institute’s page on nourishing your brain with a healthy diet.

And while there are many folks who may choose to skip breakfast, the fact is that when you wake up in the morning your brain needs to be replenished with a fresh stock of glucose. Don’t take my word for it; you can listen to NPR’s A Better Breakfast Can Boost a Child’s Brainpower. Just this morning, as my 17 year old was heading off to his English Regents and was in no mood for breakfast, he finally succumbed to the offer of a crunchy peanut butter and blueberry jam sandwich (much to his mother’s delight 🙂 .)

NPR (National Public Radio) has two additional short pieces on the benefits of exercise. At the younger years, Exercise Helps Students in the Classroom, discusses how brain cells are strengthened by exercise. In the older years, Study: Exercise Lowers Dementia Risk, details the results of a study done on people age “65 and older who did moderate exercise had a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia.” The fascinating part of this study is that folks who had already started to show signs of decline benefitted the most from the exercise. As Eric Larson, the interviewee from the Center for Health Studies – Group Health Cooperative says:

Use it or lose it.
Use it even after you start to lose it!

There have been a number of articles written about the benefits of exercise for the brain. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has written the book SPARK, which is all about “the connection between exercise and the brain’s performance”. Ginger Campbell has a 2008 interview with Ratey on her Brain Science Podcast.

I’d really rather you stopped reading this post and headed outdoors to move your body! But if you need one more ounce of convincing, read through the rest of The Franklin Institute’s pages devoted to The Human Brain, particularly the Nourish and Renew sections that cover eating, exercise, and sleep.

p.s. Yes, to answer the questions some of you may be posing, I DO get out and move, especially in the summer when I kayak and swim. Our neighborhood has an outdoor pool where 72 laps is a mile. I am up to daily half-miles and am aiming for 3/4 of a mile by July and daily miles by August. Will keep you posted.

p.p.s. Happy 24th Birthday J!

The Urban Trance

Psychologist Daniel Goleman uses the term “The Urban Trance” in his TED Talk: Why aren’t we all Good Samaritans? Goleman is best known for his writing and work on Emotional Intelligence.

You can also watch his author talk at Google, where he talks about his book “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships”.

So back to the urban trance. In his TED Talk, Goleman discusses empathy, mirror neurons, and the process of simply attending to someone when they talk to you. The “urban trance” refers to the state that many of us are in when we get caught up in what we are doing and tune out the world around us. People may talk to us, but we are not listening. We may observe others, but we do not see them. We are, in effect, in our own “urban trance”. Goleman tells the story of the man in the subway station to demonstrate the urban trance and its counter balance, that of empathy and attending. If you haven’t already watched his TED Talk, see if you can imagine the content of this story before tuning in to what Goleman has to say.

Goleman goes on to share a number of stories about people, many of who lack emotional intelligence, including one man with an astonishingly high IQ but no capacity for feeling how others may feel, in other words, no ability to empathize.

Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, focuses on emotion and affective disorders in the Lab for Affective Neuroscience using the tools of brain imaging.

Goleman and Davidson come together on the More Than Sound Productions website, which has the goal of sharing “ideas that increase our understanding of the human condition.” This site was brought to my attention by a reader who left the following comment on my previous post:

hi, there’s a conversation between Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman which discusses Neuroplasticity which I thought you might find of interest. It’s available on the publisher’s website at

Their ideas mesh well with the discussions on stress, plasticity, and children’s developing brains that were mentioned in my previous post. Thanks to David, who left a comment on my previous post pointing me to Davidson and Goleman!

Learning & the Brain – assorted

Having written a lot about the various Learning & the Brain sessions I attended, there are just two more about which I will eventually write in greater detail. However, that will mean skipping over the Monday afternoon Keynotes on Brain Plasticity, Stress & Adverse Experiences. Not to diminish their importance, I will give them their due now.

What struck me at first about Bruce McEwen was his initial resemblance to Mel Levine. McEwen talked about Stress and Neuroplasticity in Learning. He noted there are three types of stress:

1. positive, which consists of positive challenges
2. tolerable, which consists of adverse life events coupled with good social and emotional support
3. toxic, which consists of a sustained stress agent and a lack of social and emotional support

McEwen went on to state that “Structural plasticity in the adult brain is modulated by experience”, so stressful experiences will take their toll on neuronal activity. He further discussed the impact of stress on various developmental stages and concluded with some additional concepts.


Seth Pollak gave a funny, personal talk about Developing Brains and At-risk Children. He left the podium and walked around making eye contact with those in the front. He engaged us with his slides, which were packed with visual imagery and very little text. (Garr Reynolds would have quite approved!)

Pollak talked about how “emotions tend to emerge in the same order and same time frame across cultures, and questioned if this is due to the hard-wiring of emotions or that cultures tend to treat infants and children in the same manner.” The focus of his engaging talk was about how neglect and other types of negative behavior can impact the development of an infant’s and child’s brain. He concluded with three points:

1. Experience matters, and early experience REALLY matters in terms of the development of the emotional system.
2. The type and pattern of deficits reflect the specific kinds of experiences children encounter.
3. Development = Experience + Biology


The last speaker of the day was Elkhonon Goldberg. I had been eager to hear him talk, as I have seen him referenced in quite a number of books and articles. As Goldberg began his talk on Brain Plasticity and Cognitive Fitness, I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say. However, despite my interest in his topic, it became difficult for me to follow his talk as he digressed and then skipped over information in order to end on time. More helpful in understanding his points was watching A Change of Character, the movie made by Neal Goodman that focuses on a patient of Goldberg’s.

Goldberg did make some early points about novelty and pattern recognition. “As we age, our expert knowledge remains strong, and our capacity for solving problems within our areas of expertise can often exceed that of those who are younger.” He went on to state that the main cognitive asset of aging is pattern recognition, and that our arsenal of patterns grows with age. “As one ages, the domain of the novel shrinks, and the domain of what is known (pattern recognition) grows”. Goldberg employed us to “turn neuroplasticity to your advantage” by:

1. Welcoming novel challenges.
2. Beware of being on mental autopilot.
3. Remain cognitively active.
4. Take note that cognitive fitness will be the trend of the future and be sure to “separate the wheat from the chaff” when considering these programs.


You can read more about any of these presenters at the following sites.

[July 4, 2013 UPDATE: These last two links are no longer valid, but you can read a pdf of the article here.]