Friday, 17 April 2009

Journey Into Space - Nicola Morgan

My brain often gets stuck when I’m sitting at my desk. I put it down partly to the easy distraction of email etc, because it’s all just a finger-twitch away, and twitching that finger to the “sign on” screen is so much easier than writing. But I’ve often felt that it’s more than that. Even before the email tyrant took over, I’d noticed that if I was stuck on a story, the worst plan was to sit at my desk: the only way was to go for a walk. And so out I’d go, and lo and behold, within minutes all my problems (well, the writing-related ones) were sorted.

It got to the point when I’d answer the “Where do you get your ideas from?” question with “From my dog. See, I go for a walk with no ideas and I come back with ideas and I didn’t speak to anyone except the dog, so …”

None of this seemed like brain science, but I used it in the talks I do in schools about the brain, and how brains work differently, and how you can discover how your brain works. (For details, see Know Your Brain.)

But then I discovered that actually I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t relate to this thing about open space and walking as a way of freeing ideas. And, since I’m supposed to know that brains are different, I thought this was intriguing - but I didn’t really pursue it.

So, imagine how interested I was to read my newest issue of Scientific American Mind. There’s an article which explains it all in brain science terms. Seems we need space around us - and especially above us - in order to have creative ideas. And there’s growing research into this, with many architecture schools now incorporating neuroscience as well as environmental psychology into their syllabus. The environmental psychology isn’t new, but the neuroscience is.

For example, research in Minnesota in 2007 showed that people in a room with a higher (only two feet higher) ceiling came up with more abstract and uninhibited answers to questions than those in a room with a lower ceiling. Those in the lower room focused better on detail. This and other work suggests that higher ceilings help people think more freely and make abstract connections - just what a writer needs.

The article didn’t go to the logical conclusion - that outside is the biggest ceiling of all - but it did say that when we have scenery with greenery and nature we think better and differently. Research in 2000 followed some families who moved house, and looked at the attention ability of the children: those surrounded by more greenery after the move appeared to do better on a standard attention test. Other research showed that students had better mental focus when they had “natural” views, compared with those looking onto buildings.

There’s even a name for the human tendency to respond well to natural scenery: biophilia.

So, for me going for a walk is not instead of working - it’s an essential part of working. And I believe that this isn’t just about writers: everyone needs space to free those thoughts, get ideas flowing. So, every now and then (preferably every day) just stop focusing on the details of life for a while: get outside and let your mind fly.

Release your inner biophile!


Nick Green said...

That is fan-tas-tic-ally fascinating! It rings so true, too. It explains so much. It suggests a reason why we build sacred buildings with high ceilings, why Wordsworth was so into mountains... even horrible cliches like 'blue sky thinking'. It even explains why almost all my new ideas come to me when I go on holiday, into a new environment.

I wonder if the 'greater space, greater imagination' rule has this evolutionary basis: we instinctively know that in a bigger space, a greater variety of random events can happen, so our brain has to raise its game to prepare for more possibilities (opportunities and threats). But in the confines of a hut or a cave, we know that comparatively little can happen, so our brain powers down its imaginative faculty to conserve energy. Nice theory?

RubySue said...

I couldn't agree more Nicola. Whenever my plot is stuck in a rut I go for a walk and almost always come back with at least one, usually more, fresh ideas for how to rework it. And there's the added benefit of having had a break from the screen! Nice to know the science behind it now!

Sue Barrow said...

Sorry this is my first time to comment - didn't realise it wouldn't print my name!Hope this works now!

I couldn't agree more Nicola. Whenever my plot is stuck in a rut I go for a walk and almost always come back with at least one, usually more, fresh ideas for how to rework it. And there's the added benefit of having had a break from the screen! Nice to know the science behind it now!

Nicky said...

I walk the dog most days. I am not aware of thinking about anything but it keeps me sane (ish) and plot problems do seem to resolve themselves by the time I return to my desk :)

Penny Dolan said...

As someone who stays frittering at the desk for far too long, I feel I can now officially experiment by taking thinking walks! But I do so agree about needing space overhead. I'm always glad about living in an old high-ceilinged house.

Philip Sington said...

I've become a little lazy recently, but in the past I would always go running when I found literary ideas or inspiration lacking. It almost always did the trick. On the other hand, ambling rarely worked as well. So I think the physical exercise involved in outdoor activity probaby plays a role, as well as the environment. Somehow being breathless seems to free the imagination. Something to do with depressing the higher 'critical' brain functions, I've heard it said.
(Will we see scores of creatively blocked but rather unfit writers keeling over with heart attacks as a result of this discussion? I hope not. The country's A&E departments are clogged up enough as it is.)

Stroppy Author said...

That's absolutely fascinating, Nicola. I get lots of ideas walking and cycling, which tends to be through at least some green spaces.

At home, I have one downstairs space which looks out onto trees and fields, and one with a higher ceiling where I often work on picture books (but hadn't realised the height might be an issue - it's a room I rarely use otherwise). In my upstairs office the ceiling is lower but there is an adjacent roof garden which I use all the time in the summer - again overlooking garden and fields.

Last summer I rented a house in the hills north of Rome to write in but spent the *whole* fortnight sitting in the garden of an old monastery writing - outside, green, *big* ceiling (93 million miles). And I always work best in the Reading Room of the University Library, which has a ceiling about 40 feet high!

Nicola Morgan said...

Interesting responses, everyone. Philip - I personally can't vouch for the exercise/breathless bit (!) but I'll take your word for it. It would most likely be the endorphins that are responsible for that, though.

And yes, we probably need to cover ourselves legally by saying that anyone planning to take unusual exercise should consult a doctor first!!

Kathryn Evans said...

I wholeheartedly concur with the research - walking the dog never let's me down - as long as there are no other people - I just keep going until something works loose. Yep, fascinating, thank you.