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!