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Art heals (especially when you don’t know what you’re doing)

Mary Sauer

Earlier this month, I made a trip to the art store. I found myself wandering toward the aisle of oil paints. I picked a few colors out, looked at paint brushes, checked the back of a small canvas for a price tag. I paced up and down the aisle a few times before I unloaded everything back onto the shelves and made my way to the register to pay for a bottle of glue my daughter needed for school.

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Lately, I’ve been wanting to paint. I’m a creative person but I’ve never considered myself to be that kind of creative. I’m pretty good with words but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be good with paint—and that holds me back. As much as I enjoy creative activities, I enjoy them even more when I’m good at them. I’m not proud of it, but the things I enjoy the most are activities that are easy. I don’t like to fail so I find myself avoiding creative challenges altogether. Even when I want to try new things, if I’m feeling insecure, I find a reason to back out.

Am I holding myself back from growth? It may not be a big deal if I never take up oil painting in my spare time but I also know this habit of avoiding challenges and sticking with my comfort zone bleeds into other areas of my life. Maybe it isn’t painting, maybe it’s my work and I’m selling myself short by deciding not to branch out to write on new topics. Perhaps there are other areas of my life that are suffering because I’m not being brave in my creative endeavors? Creative growth isn’t really going to happen in someone who isn’t willing to try and fail. According to Friederike Fabritius, neuropsychologist and author of “The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance,” a creative breakthrough only occurs after the brain has failed to solve a problem logically. “When you encounter a problem, any sort of problem, the first region of the brain that takes a crack at it is the prefrontal cortex or PFC. The PFC may be smart, but, frankly, it lacks imagination,” explained Fabritius. “The rational part of the brain actually has to give up in order for creativity to occur.” Additionally, stepping outside of our normal thought patterns is essential to making new connections in the brain and thinking about things differently than we typically would.

“Whenever we try something new, dopamine is released in the brain,” explains Fabritius. “When we have dopamine released it helps the brain grow new connections between neurons, which is very important for what you call neuroplasticity, for learning and for changing.” Maybe like me, you are simply feeling a little too comfortable in your creative activities or maybe you are trying to step outside of that comfort zone but you feel like you’re hitting a mental block. Shutting down patterns of rational thinking and problem solving to explore new ideas isn’t always easy, but Fabritius offered advice for encouraging creative thinking. In a nutshell, any activities that are known for releasing dopamine in the brain, like movement, meditation, and laughter, are going to be helpful since dopamine is essential to thinking more openly. And then? Take that risk. Pick up those paints, send that email, or starting writing that first page. You’ll be surprised what your brain can do.

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