Written by Adam Hamdy
Pick a colour: red or blue? You’ll need to remember your choice for the end of this piece.
Listen to most writers, artists or musicians being interviewed and one question that will almost inevitably arise is ‘where do you get your inspiration?’ Well, science has started to provide answers that might surprise us all. It seems that ‘we’ may not be the ones getting inspired, and that the true impetus to create originates in the subconscious recesses of our minds.
Conscious and Sub-Conscious
One of the questions on my university entrance paper was ‘Does free will exist?’ As a 17-year-old know-all, I argued that free will couldn’t exist objectively because everything is part of a chain of causation. If we had a sufficiently broad perspective to see all that had come before, we would be able to predict what would come next. Even events that result from human agency have a certain inevitability if we understand the psychological profile and experiences of the person involved.
Recent experiments in the field of free will suggest that pre-university me might have been onto something. Benjamin Libet pioneered experiments that showed people’s subconscious minds made decisions before they became consciously aware of them. The conscious mind rationalises the decision that’s already been made and creates the illusion that we were responsible for it.
A study conducted by John-Dylan Haynes, Hans-Jochen Heinze, Marcel Brass, and Chung Siong Soon in 2008 was able to use an fMRI scanner to predict the user choice of a left or right button being pressed up to 7 seconds before the user was aware of having willed a choice. In other words, researchers were able to peer inside people’s brains and see which button they would choose to press before those people were even aware of having made a decision.
Other studies have shown that transcranial magnetic stimulation can be used to influence a decision without disturbing an individual’s perception of free will. In 1990, Ammon and Gandevia found that it was possible to get subjects to move a specific hand by magnetically stimulating the left or right regions of the brain. The subjects believed they’d made a random, free choice, but their brains had in fact been directed by the application of magnetic stimulation. These results have been replicated by numerous studies around the world, and suggest that free will, or conscious choice is something of an illusion.
It seems the inevitability of our decisions is concealed from us by the complex interaction of our subconscious and conscious. All very mind-blowing, but what does it have to do with creativity? Well, a 2016 study conducted by John-Dylan Haynes et al suggests that the conscious mind can act as a brake on subconscious action. Automatic decisions originated deep within our brains can be vetoed by conscious choice.
A brake on creativity
Any creative will know that their inner critic can obstruct progress and come up with a billion and one reasons why something’s no good and should never see the light of day. It’s safe to assume that since we’re aware of it, our inner critic is a facet of our conscious mind, and, if the research is correct, is not the true source of our decisions. It can act as a powerful brake but is not where the furnace of creativity is found.
Let the autopilot create
Our brains are highly sophisticated and incredibly complex, and I would hazard a guess that my subconscious mind, reacting to myriad inputs, memories, and experiences, drawing on neurological processes that I’m not even aware of, is a much more effective decision-maker than the conscious puppet. If that’s true, the best thing any writer or creative can do is get out of the pilot’s way, silence the inner critic, and let the auto-pilot that runs our massively powerful minds create.
Artists of all disciplines have traditionally used alcohol and/or drugs in an attempt to try to tap into a font of creativity, but perhaps what they were actually doing was silencing their conscious minds and giving the subconscious pilot the freedom it needed to get on with the job.
Remember the question at the beginning? Your subconscious mind chose red. Were you listening to it?
Adam Hamdy is the author of Pendulum, which is published by Headline on November 3rd.