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Archive for the category “Creativity”

celebrating the world of typography

fonts1Are you old enough to remember manual typewriters? If you wanted to produce decent-looking print material back then, you actually had to have it professionally typeset and printed. Selectric typewriters made proportional fonts possible, but they were no threat to printing professionals. During the selectric-typewriter age, I worked for a book publisher in San Francisco where I spent a fair amount of time editing proofs. And for quite a few years after that, I continued interacting with printing companies.

The introduction of word processors and then personal computers didn’t initially have any effect on the traditional print process. But enter Apple computers, and all of that changed in a very short time. Adobe started making fonts—and font families—available for Apple computers, and in short order, I was totally on their hook. I drooled over the Adobe font catalog trying to decide which fonts to buy. (I mean these fonts could actually be mine!) After making my decision, I went to the Apple store to purchase them, after which I had to manually install them on my computer.

Somewhere I came across a bumper sticker that read, “He who dies with the most fonts wins.” I put it up in my office. Because I intended to win.

I work on a PC now, and the graphic interface just isn’t as good as a Mac’s. I’ve learned to live with it, but I don’t like it. Yes, I have access to far more fonts now than I did 25 years ago when I had to go to the Apple store to pick them out one or two at a time. But printing from a PC leaves a lot to be desired when compared to either printing from a Mac or professional typesetting.

fonts2Occasionally I indulge myself by “leafing through” some of the online font catalogs reacquainting myself with some old favorite: Antique Olive, ITC Berkeley Oldstyle, Friz Quadrata, ITC Novarese, Nueva (used in the photo on the right), Ocean Sans, and Optima. There’s something about the shape and proportion of letters that I think I’ve always paid attention to—sometimes more than to the actual words or even the meaning. It’s not unusual for me to check out what font was used in a book I’m reading.

Typography is something most of us ordinarily take for granted. So I’m celebrating typography today, along with the artists who design typefaces, because beautiful typography has added a dimension of pleasure to my life for many decades. Maybe it has done the same for you without your being aware of it.

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

to celebrate the waking, wake

Muriel RukeyserIt’s National Poetry Month!

To celebrate, here is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser.

She’s the author of my all-time favorite quote: The world is made of stories, not of atoms.


Make and be eaten, the poet says,
Lie in the arms of nightlong fire,
To celebrate the waking, wake.
Burn in the daylong light; and praise
Even the mother unappeased,
Even the fathers of desire.

Blind go the days, but joy will see
Agreements of music; they will wind
The shaking of your dance; no more
Will the ambiguous arm-waves spell
Confusion of the blessing given.

Only and finally declare
Among the purest shapes of grace
The waking of the face of fire,
The body of waking and the skill
To make your body such a shape
That all the eyes of hope shall stare.

That all the cries of fear shall know,
Staring in their bird-pierced song;
Lines of such penetration make
That shall bind our loves at last.
Then from the mountains of the lost,
All the fantasies shall wake,
Strong and real and speaking turn
Wherever flickers your unreal.

And my strong ghosts shall fade and pass
My love start fiery as grass
Wherever burn my fantasies,
Wherever burn my fantasies.

I’ve written (very little) and written about poetry fairly often on this blog, which is named after some lines in an e.e. cummings poem. You can check the posts by clicking the Poetry category link.

This post is part of April’s 30 Days of Celebration. To read more, click on the Celebration category link.

celebration is a state of mind

celebrate 1At least that’s how I’ve decided to look at it. Recently I noticed that celebration hasn’t been present in my life as much as I want it to be—or as much as it has been many different times in the past. I could identify a few reasons for that, but the reasons don’t matter. What matters is that I want it back!

So I’ve decided to create 30 Days of Celebration to help me get back into the celebration habit. That means I will post something about celebration every day from now through April 30th.

In thinking about what represents celebration for me, I quickly came up with a list of at least a dozen things. One of them is music. To kick off this 30 Days of Celebration, I created a celebration playlist of 20 songs and put it on a CD.

Levels (Avicii)
Shut Up and Dance (Talking Is Hard)
It’s Time (Imagine Dragons)
Wings (Jimmy Buffett)
Wonder What You’re Doing for the Rest of Your Life (Train)
Bright (Echosmith)
Hands in the Air (Timbaland feat. Ne-Yo)
Wonder (Emili Sande & Naughty Boy)
Good Life (OneRepublic)
Leaving Winslow (Jackson Browne)

Glad Tidings (Van Morrison)
Earthquake Driver (Counting Crows)
The Moment (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
Avalanche (Talking Is Hard)
Terra Nova (James Taylor)
Downtown Train (Patty Smyth)
Good Feeling (Big Idol)
Wake Me Up (Aloe Blacc)
I Lived (OneRepublic)

The songs that represent celebration for me may not feel celebratory to you. I invite you to consider which songs do feel like celebration to you—and to play them today.

If you, too, would like to amp up celebration in your life, please visit throughout the month and share the things—and the ways—you like to celebrate.

reflections on a tea-soaked madeleine

How does autobiographical memory actually work—and how reliable is it?

proust madeleineThe scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera, for example, that it just records, and it files things away in mental DVDs that we can pull down and set playing. And in a way, that’s not surprising, because we see memories as foundational for who we are. We commonly feel that we are our memories; our memories define us. So something needs to change. … Accepting that memories are not literal representations of the past as it happened doesn’t mean that we have to forget about them or start disbelieving them all. But they’re shaped by who we are now. They’re shaped by what we feel, what we believe, what our biases are. (Charles Fernyhough, Pieces of Light)

According to neuroscientist Karim Nadar, it may be impossible to bring a memory to mind without altering it in some way. Memories we replay mentally over and over or talk about a lot with others are especially susceptible to such alterations. And when you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory.

What we now know is that our brains happily reconstruct memories, though we are frequently fooled into thinking that the reconstructions are seamlessly recorded recollections. … Even for the sharper memories born from strong emotions (often called flashbulb memories), time erodes the infrastructure, leaving cracks and gaps. Instead of remembering specific, perfectly accurate details, what constitutes memory over time are general impressions of events with spotty details—and the older we get, the spottier they become. (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)

There is more than one way to lay down a memory. We’re not talking about a memory of different events, but multiple memories of the same event—as though two journalists with different personalities were jotting down notes about a single unfolding story. … The conviction that memory is one thing is an illusion. (David Eagleman, Incognito)

The world is made of stories, not of atoms.

So said poet Muriel Rukeyser. And she was correct. The world of atoms is composed of facts, details, events, objects, phenomena, information, etc. In the world of atoms, things happen (events take place).

The world of stories consists of our perceptions and interpretations of what happened, as well as the meaning we assign to it.

The things that happen to or around us and our stories or explanations about those things are not the same thing. But because of the speed with which our unconscious brain (a/k/a System 1) processes information—and the fact that we’re not aware of what it’s doing—we think that our story about what happened is what happened.

  • Something happens.
  • We pay attention to selected aspects of it. How do we decide what to pay attention to? For the most part, System 1 (our unconscious) makes that decision for us, based on the model of the world it maintains.
  • We miss most of it! We’re not capable of consciously perceiving everything that is going on around us. Our unconscious can process around 11,000,000 bits of information at a time compared to the 40 bits we can process consciously. There’s an amazing amount of filtering going on all the time.
  • We come up with an explanation for the parts we paid attention to. We have an inner interpreter/narrator whose job it is to maintain an ongoing narrative of our lives, creating order out of chaos, making cause-and-effect connections, and generally leading us to believe we understand what’s going on. Our inner narrator is a great confabulator. If it doesn’t have all the information, it will make something up. And we will almost always believe what it tells us. And we can’t stop ourselves from interpreting or explaining.

A set of brain circuits—usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. Our minds constantly struggle to extract meaning from the data rivering through our senses. … In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story. If there is no story there, we are only too happy to invent one. (Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal)

  • We assign meaning to our explanation of what we paid attention to or noticed. We decide the meaning of things. And we can’t stop ourselves from making meaning.
  • After the fact, we have a memory of what happened, which is really a memory of our fragmentary perception overlaid by our explanation and the meaning we attached to it. This is not a memory of what actually happened in the world of atoms. Our memory tells us stories. So what we get to keep from our experience is a story. The kinds of memories that make the best stories—and the easiest ones to recall—are of events that had a strong emotional impact.
  • Each time we tell the story (to ourselves or others), we edit it. Talking and/or writing about an experience interferes with our memory of it. We remember not what we have experienced but what we have said about what we experienced. Usually the editing is unintentional, but if you pay attention, you can catch yourself in the act of editing to suit your audience, your purpose in telling the story, the impression you’re trying to make, or even your mood.

We have a tendency to reshape the irregular features of our world into smoother, more symmetrical forms. Inconvenient details tend to be pruned from our memories, and facts that do not fit together in a coherent way tend to be forgotten, deemphasized, or reinterpreted. The process of retelling a story in our own narrative style places certain constraints on what we recall, and these constraints guide our reconstruction of events. (Joseph T. Hallinan, Why We Make Mistakes)

  • What we are left with is the latest version of our altered recollection (and selected perception) of something that happened and what it means to us.

When you’re writing a story from a character’s point of view, you include only what that character is aware of. Unless you’re a really bad writer, you don’t include random bits of information just because you find them interesting or because you discovered them in the course of your research.

Everyone always has a point of view, in real life as well as in stories. We—and our characters—can’t help but view the world subjectively. Everything that happens happens to us.

Your P.O.V. character acts, reacts, and interprets events based on his or her model of the world the same as we do in real life. No one is a completely reliable narrator because we are all selectively paying attention to—or screening out—various things, interpreting what we pay attention to, creating cause-and-effect explanations, and assigning meaning.

Furthermore, our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as a true story. A story can be more or less “truthy,” but never completely true.

for writers: use your brain to make writing a habit

(Note: This article was first published in the September issue of the SouthWest Sage newsletter.)

writing daisyYou probably already know that waiting for inspiration to strike is a sure way to get little or no writing done. If you want to produce a body of work—and be prepared to welcome inspiration when it does show up in your neck of the woods—you need to write regularly. The best way to do that is to turn the act of writing into a habit.

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration.  —John Steinbeck.

Habits are a labor-saving device for your brain, which needs all the help it can get. Your brain weighs only about three pounds, yet it consumes 20% of your body’s energy. Habits allow your brain to streamline some of its operations by powering down and switching to autopilot. Essentially you’re wired to have habits. And your brain isn’t interested in your opinion about your habits (whether you think they’re good ones or bad ones). A brain’s going to do what a brain’s wired to do.

When you perform any activity on a regular basis—brushing your teeth before going to bed, snacking in front of the TV, going to the gym after work—your brain takes note. It then “chunks” that behavior, beginning with the cue or trigger that initiates it, and turns it over to your basal ganglia. The cue could be time of day, a particular feeling such as loneliness, or even another activity. In the case of writing, it could be sitting down in front of your computer at the same time every day or with your favorite hot beverage.

engage the habit loop

Once a behavior has been chunked, each time your brain encounters the cue or trigger for it, it switches to autopilot while you go through the motions of performing the activity. After you complete that chunk of behavior, your brain turns autopilot off and powers back up.

In addition to the cue and the behavior itself, the third part of what’s called “the habit loop” is the reward. The reward is the feeling of pleasure you get during—or after—engaging in the behavior. The pleasant feelings you experience are the result of your brain’s release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that also activates emotional and learning circuits. The reward is positive reinforcement that motivates you to repeat the behavior. Although it’s a critical part of the habit loop, the reward is the part people are most likely to skip when trying to create a new habit. If you aren’t writing on a regular basis but think you ought to be able to do it without having to reward yourself, your basal ganglia beg to differ.

Until you’ve developed the habit of writing, you’re needlessly taxing your brain by forcing it to operate at full power while you debate whether, when, where, and what to write. Once you’ve turned writing into a habit, you can channel that brainpower into your actual writing.

Start by choosing a time and place to write, preferably daily. Decide on a cue so your brain knows when to switch to writing mode. Try hooking your writing habit onto an existing routine, such drinking your first cup of coffee or tea or returning home from a walk or the gym, and using that as a cue. Then choose a reward. You can give yourself a smaller reward each day or a bigger one after, say, a week. Just make sure you reward yourself often enough that your brain associates the reward with writing.

There is no magic number of days it will take before sitting down to write at the designated hour becomes automatic. It varies from person to person and habit to habit. Your brain responds to consistency, however, so it will eventually get the message. In fact, once you’ve developed the habit of writing you may find it hard to resist the siren call of your writing cue, even on days when you’re sure you don’t have time to write.

If you find the blank page a daunting place to begin, avoid having to face it by stopping in the middle of a scene or a passage. By the time you get back to it the next day, you not only won’t have to think about whether or not to write, you won’t have to think about where or how to begin, either. As a bonus, you will have given your unconscious the opportunity to make connections and see patterns that may not have been evident the day before. That’s how to use your brain.

P.S.: It’s a myth that we only use 10% of our brain. We don’t use all of it all the time, but we use 100% of it during the course of a day.

To learn more about using your brain, be sure to check out Farther to Go!

exploring the link between creativity and mental illness

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles B...

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford

Do the words tortured and genius go hand-in-hand? If you’re highly creative does that mean you’re more susceptible to mental illness? Do you, in fact, need to have a mental illness in order to be creative?

The link between creativity and mental illness has been a subject of discussion and speculation at least since Aristotle suggested there was one. More recently, it has been the subject of much scientific study. The topic is in the limelight once again due to Robin Williams’ suicide.

This edition of Brain & Mind Roundup (#5)  links to four articles by, or citing the work of, Nancy Andreasen and Shelly Cooper, two researchers who study creativity and who have published books on creativity and the brain.

Click on the titles to read the full articles.

secrets of the creative brain

Nancy Andreasen (The Atlantic)

Andreasen is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who began exploring the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness in the 1960s when she studied a group of writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She writes:

I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? 

the relationship between creativity and mental illness

At brainpickings, Maria Popova provides a beautiful and thoughtful presentation of Nancy Andreason’s book The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius. Popova says:

One of the most interesting chapters in the book deals with the correlation between creativity and mental illness, bringing scientific rigor to such classic anecdotal examples as those evidenced in Van Gogh’s letters or Sylvia Plath’s journals or Leo Tolstoy’s diary of depression or Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. Having long opposed the toxic “tortured genius” myth of creativity, I was instantly intrigued by Andreasen’s inquiry, the backdrop of which she paints elegantly:

Did mental illness facilitate [these creators’] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship? Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties? Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?

And this is where the monumental importance of her study shines: What Andreasen found wasn’t confirmation for the “tortured genius” myth — the idea that a great artist must have some dark, tragic pathology in order to create — but quite the opposite: these women and men had become successful writers not because of their tortuous mental health but despite it.

the real link between creativity and mental illness

Scott Barry Kaufman (SciAm)

Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, investigates the measurement and development of imagination. He questions Andreason’s findings and looks deeper, writing:

The oft-cited studies by Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, and Arnold Ludwig showing a link between mental illness and creativity have been criticized on the grounds that they involve small, highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts.

Is there any germ of truth to the link between creativity and mental illness? The latest research suggests there is something to the link, but the truth is much more interesting.

It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas. Indeed, Shelley Carson and her colleagues found that the most eminent creative achievers among a sample of Harvard undergrads were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition.

Latent inhibition is a filtering mechanism that we share with other animals, and it is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine. A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how may times we’ve seen it before and tagged it as irrelevant. Prior research shows a link  between reduced latent inhibition and schizophrenia.

creativity and psychopathology: a shared vulnerability model

In this paper, Shelly Carson, Harvard researcher on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience, and author of The Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life, reviews “the empirical evidence for an elevated risk of three disorders in creative individuals: mood disorders, schizospectrum disorders, and alcoholism.”

While creativity is considered a positive personal trait, highly creative individuals have demonstrated elevated risk for certain forms of psychopathology. [In] this paper I argue that a model of shared vulnerability explains the relationship between creativity and psychopathology. This model, supported by recent findings from neuroscience and molecular genetics, suggests that biological determinants that confer risk for psychopathology interact with protective cognitive factors to enhance creative ideation.


Elements of shared vulnerability include cognitive disinhibition (which allows increased stimuli into conscious awareness), an attentional style that is driven by novelty-salience, and neural hyperconnectivity that may increase associations among disparate stimuli. These vulnerabilities interact with superior meta-cognitive protective factors, such as high IQ, working memory capacity, and cognitive flexibility, to produce an enlarged body of stimuli that is available in conscious awareness to be manipulated and combined to form novel and original ideas.

~ ~ ~

Reading and writing about this topic inevitably makes me think of my partner, who died nearly 10 years ago. He had a very high IQ, good working memory, and great cognitive flexibility, all of which seem to have mitigated the vulnerability factors, which were also present. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which wreaked some havoc in his early and mid-life before it was treated. At times, he was more than a little eccentric, with maybe a touch of mad genius about him. (Always interesting, that’s for sure!)

He was extremely creative, prolifically so, in a variety of areas–especially writing, art, and music–and he continued to be creative while he was on medication, which was very effective for him. So clearly his bipolar bent, if you will, didn’t cause him to be creative. But there was definitely a link there. Those areas of shared vulnerability were significantly moderated by medication, but also by his own awareness and self-monitoring. And maybe that’s something to take away from this, too. Self-awareness and self-monitoring are great tools for keeping us grounded even in the midst of our wildest flights of imagination.

NOTE: Originally published on

The color of my Lebanon

Absolutely luscious and enchanting photos!

Mimo Khair Creative

Too small to be divided, too large to be swallowed, too beautiful to be ignored, too charming to be forgotten… and oh the way the sun kisses my Lebanon…

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Your Brain on Art, Writing, and Music




Here are some recent stories about what goes on in the brain when we’re writing, making music, and appreciating art. (Originally posted on Farther to Go!)

Click on the titles to read the complete articles.


Our Brains Are Made for Enjoying Art

Ann Lukits (The Wall Street Journal)

Analysis suggests art appreciation is a natural biological process.

“Viewing paintings engages a number of different regions of the brain, suggesting art appreciation is a natural biological process, according to the report in the June issue of the journal Brain and Cognition. The study found that paintings activated areas of the brain involved in vision, pleasure, memory, recognition and emotions, in addition to systems that underlie the conscious processing of new information to give it meaning.”

This is Your Brain on Writing

Carl Zimmer (The New York Times)

Becoming skilled at writing may activate the same areas of the brain that are activated in people who are skilled at other things, such as sports or music. This study showed that the areas of the brain activated in novice writers were not the same as those activated in the skilled, “professionally trained,” writers.

“During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.”

It would appear that training is training is training—no matter what the training is for.

Musical Training Increases Executive Brain Function in Adults and Children

Jeremy Dean (PsyBlog)

“Both the brains and behaviour of adult and child musicians were compared with non-musicians in the study by researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital. They found that adult musicians compared to non-musicians showed enhanced performance on measures of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency. And musically trained children showed enhanced performance on measures of verbal fluency and processing speed.”

Music Changes the Way You Think

Daniel A. Yudkin and Yaacov Trope (Scientific American)

Different music encourages different frames of mind.

“Tiny, almost immeasurable features in a piece of music have the power to elicit deeply personal and specific patterns of thought and emotion in human listeners….Ponderous, resonant, unfamiliar tonalities—the proverbial “auditory forest”—cause people to construe things abstractly. By contrast, the rapid, consonant, familiar chords of the perfect fifth—the “auditory trees”—bring out the concrete mindset….That music can move us is no surprise; it’s the point of the art form, after all. What’s new here is the manner in which the researchers have quantified in fine-grained detail the cognitive ramifications of unpacked melodic compounds.”

the periodic table of storytelling


Please check out the periodic table of storytelling, created by James Harris. It’s fascinating, fun, and even useful for both writers and readers.

I found this gem through Open Culture.

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