How Creative Discipline Rewires Your Brain

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Blue Man, 2016, Outside the Lines, one painting a day for one year,

In 2007, Harvard Medical School conducted a study around a five-finger piano exercise. Half of the participants were told to play for two hours a day, five days and keep to the metronome’s 60 beats per minute. The other half were asked to simply think about practicing the piano, holding their hands still while playing the music in their heads.

Scientists then looked at the function of neurons in each group. In both groups, the area of the motor cortex devoted to the finger movements took over surrounding areas. As an increasing number of studies are showing, greater practice in a particular area of interest causes the brain to devote more growth to it. Practice rewires the brain. And, as the study goes on to show, even envisioning practice rewires the brain.

In other words, if you live in the world of your creative discipline, if you dream it, day-dream it, envision yourself doing it, and do your creative pursuit daily, whether it’s art or writing or dance, the brain capacity for that activity increases.

In 2014, and again in 2016, I took on a visual art project; I decided I’d do one painting a day for one year. I’m a book coach/creativity coach, award-winning novelist, and visual artist. Time spent coaching and writing my novels meant I had little time left to do my visual art. I knew that my muscles were weakening around the discipline of art and it caused me great grief. I gave up a jet-setting international career as a journalist to pursue myself as an artist, and that meant writing and art. I felt by not doing the art often enough, I was letting myself down.

So, with 20 to 40 minutes between clients, I decided I’d create a 9 x 12 watercolor every single day.  One painting had to be finished each day. I knew I wanted to paint hard and fast, bypass my internal editor, and get to the true “maker’s mark”, the hallmark of a piece of art that denotes the person responsible for it.  I wanted to see my real self in the marks on the watercolor paper. As a book coach, and novelist, I know how writing every day has significant impact on capability and on project completion. I used watercolor because of how quickly it dried, and how transportable it was.

Every day meant painting during business trips, on vacation, the day of a family member’s funeral, in the hospital when I broke my ankle — every, single, day.

Six-year-old selfie, Outside the Lines, one painting a day for one year, 2016,

What makes these painting-a-day projects so important to me is that as a coach, and as an artist, I know that most of us can “feel” how powerful we really are. We know we’re destined for something real, and great, but we don’t know how to engage that side of the self. I know from coaching hundreds of people all over the world that locked within the soul of most of us is a creative capacity so great it could change the world. I’m enthralled by the question of how to unearth that creativity, how to activate it, how to cultivate and expand it.

Today, I have 600 odd, 9×12 watercolor paintings hanging from fishing line in my art studio yurt in the woods in rural Oregon.  (Many of  the others sold, and I’ve sold many prints of the existing originals.)

Here are a few things I learned about the creative process.

  1. You think you don’t have any ideas, and when you’re outside the process you don’t. Once you’re inside the process, ideas come to you.  Engaging the process opens the creative doors. Engaging the process expands the area of the brain around that pursuit, so more ideas come to you. Every single day for 365 days I had to come up with subjects to paint. The ideas did not come to me while I sat thinking and making a list, they came to me as I worked the paint, and allowed my soul to fall into the process.
  2. In line with how envisioning the process expands the brain as much as doing it, I would dream whole paintings, and when I awoke, they would paint themselves with very little effort. Most of the dreamed paintings sold. Dreaming is important.
  3. Opportunities for art shows came “out of the blue” when I was in the process and posting the images to social media. The work itself seems to activate opportunities in the external world. I posted old paintings to social media regularly before these paintings a day, and no such opportunities came my way. The energy of “doing” unlocks doors.
  4. I was approached by other artists, both near and far. The consequence of entering your creative discipline is that it organically draws like-minded people to you. Following a creative discipline creates community.
  5. In the deepest throes of the process, I would not think of a subject matter, I would just splash paint, and see what emerged. I was often surprised, moved and ultimately changed by what I painted. Visual art became a way to understand what was going on in the depths of me, bringing it to the surface, airing it out, turning the human condition into art.

We often make plans for what we do, we create a budget. What if we just went ahead and did that art project, or wrote that book, or created that project — what if it’s in the doing that the plans manifest themselves? Want to manifest something? Put it into action daily, and watch the manifestations fly.

I’m a coach who loves helping unlock the creative power in the human soul. Contact me for a free initial consultation.


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