Recently I listened to an On Being segment interviewing Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist and creativity researcher, in which he discusses, among other things, transient hyperfrontality, that brain state in which we are most apt to make connections between the seemingly unrelated to innovative effect. He had a useful metaphor for this brain state, comparing our usual brain function to a super highway, and transient hyperfrontality or, the down regulation of the frontal lobes, to the back roads, or even the dirt roads, where our minds wander freely. This is not “knowledge acquisition,” but rather a kind of deep, undirected processing that creates something new and useful (which, for many neuropsychologists, is the working definition of creativity). We all have our own ways of getting there, he notes: walking, yoga, napping, driving, rearranging the paperclips on our desk.
I wrote a poem about it once…
In the bizarre rituals of the batter
I see the writer at her early morning desk
Herding the paper clips,
Aligning the research stacks, just so
To create a path perhaps, a sight line,
A semblance of a clear-cut open path.
Virginia Woolf cleaned the house first,
A rite of order and approach that,
On more than one occasion
Allowed them to hit it out of the park.
Anyone immersed in the novel writing process, particularly the research/exploration end of novel writing, is familiar with the strange, out-of-time, connectivity that seems to arise from this kind of creative work. Associations multiply. Dramatic coincidences abound. Jung called it “synchronicity”, temporally coincident occurances of acausal events. It is an odd state, where unrelated events or circumstances become meaningful and often symbolic. For the writer deeply engaged with theme and storyline, it’s a familiar sensation; the roots and branches of research are endless, and significant connections grow and multiply.
This is the way the writer’s brain works, by association, and it was with great relief that I came to realize that what I considered my scattered, undisciplined, illogical processing was, in fact, a boon to the artist, a state of mind to be prized and cultivated. We are all our own libraries, after all, our psychological and emotional and intellectual shelves stacked high from birth, in our own quirky systems, with all we hold meaningful.
'The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday--but never jam to-day.
' 'It MUST come sometimes to "jam to-day,"' Alice objected.
'No, it can't,' said the Queen. 'It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know.
' 'I don't understand you,' said Alice. 'It's dreadfully confusing!' '
‘That's the effect of living backwards,' the Queen said kindly: 'it always makes one a little giddy at first—
' 'Living backwards!' Alice repeated in great astonishment. 'I never heard of such a thing!' '
--but there's one great advantage in it, that one's memory works both ways.
' 'I'm sure MINE only works one way,' Alice remarked. 'I can't remember things before they happen.
' 'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,' the Queen remarked.
Lewis Carrol, Through The Looking Glass