Thursday, June 21, 2012

Finding your way

Do you believe in a book's ability to change your life? That moment when you're reading and you literally feel a shift in your understanding of the world, or better yet, yourself? For me, the first book that really did that was Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning with his revelation that even in the midst of hell, he had one freedom left - to decide how he was going to respond to the experience (a vast simplification here on my part). 

path, creativity, mental block, creative block, mental mapping

Another book that I read a few years ago, similarly changed my understanding of how we think. The book was Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. One of those moments happened when I read about an experiment done by a group of Harvard psychologists.  They took two groups of people and showed them a video of basketball players passing the ball. One group was given the directive "tell me what you see" while the second group was asked to "count the number of passes."

What neither group realized was that, in the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla costume would walk through the action, visible for about five seconds. Afterwards they asked the participants if they noticed anything odd. The "tell me what you see" group remarked on the gorilla, which was normal enough - but over half of the other group never noticed the gorilla. What the psychologists found was that the open ended order "tell me what you see" created a sense of curiosity about the environment and allowed the viewers to take in unexpected experiences. This differed from the "count the passes" directive which created a closed system, restricting the viewers to a specific task. 

The author likened it to a magic trick, where you are asked to watch the doing so, you create a mental map of the world and ignore anything that might be outside of that expectation. It was a rather extreme illustration of the idea that we see what we expect to see. This probably explains why we usually feel so energized when we travel, or are out of our own environment - we have no idea what to expect, so we're totally open to whatever's going to happen.  

The biggest block to finding new directions is just getting out of the box you're in - but the question is, now can you get out of something you've stopped being aware of? How do you climb a new mountain when you're not sure which valley you're in? As artists, if we start with a fairly strong mental map of the art world and what is (and isn't) art, doesn't this limit what we can attempt or what we feel comfortable putting into the dialog?

So, it seems that the trick is to find a way to stay curious and open. To put aside the directives we may have about the kind of work we need to be making...and just tell the world "what we see."


  1. This is such an inspring yet pragmatic approach to creativity! As always, adding to my book list from your suggestions :)

  2. I am reminded of " beginner's mind". :)

  3. Thanks for the blog, Ann. I don't know how I could add to my reading list, but I am enjoying your musings. Stevie