More Neuroplasticity Means More Creativity
Erik Weihenmayer, who is totally blind, belongs to an elite group of mountain climbers who have scaled the “seven summits,” the tallest peaks on all seven continents. That includes Mount Everest in Napal and Mount Vinson in Antarctica.
Weihenmayer learned to “see,” with his tongue, using a device called BrainPort. That is just one of the extraordinary stories in The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking, by Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack.
Before he lost his vision to a rare disease at the age of 13, Weihenmayer interpreted visual data conventionally through his eyes. Using BrainPort, he learned to distinguish patterns of electrical impulses on his tongue and interpret them as representing shapes, sizes and motions of things in his environment. In effect, his brain was rewired to get visual information in a new way. The authors also cite studies showing deaf people can rewire their brains to get auditory information from sight and touch.
Rewiring isn’t just a metaphor, they explain, because our brains are actually changing throughout our lives, creating new physical connections among neurons. That’s neuroplasticity. “Our experiences, the things we pay attention to, and our behaviors,” they write, “are constant feedback loops changing the structure of our brains.” That means we have some control over our own neuroplasticity. Even if we’re not compelled to overcome disabilities, we can choose not to be neural couch potatoes.
The more new neural connections we build, the more neuroplasticity we have, the more creative we can be, and the more likely we are to experience breakthrough thinking of the type that solves problems and fosters innovation. With 100 billion neurons, each with the possibility of making thousands of connections, Cabane and Pollack write, “there are more potential connections inside your brain than there are stars in the sky.”
The authors provide examples of different kinds of breakthroughs. Inspirations can come from dreams, and nature, among other sources. After the inventor Elias Howe dreamed he was captured by a primitive tribe wielding spears that had holes in the tip, he had a waking inspiration for the lock-stitch sewing machine, which revolutionized the clothing industry. Velcro imitates sticky burrs, and the water-tight glue that keeps barnacles clinging to rocks has inspired surgeons to close wounds in new ways. Sometimes an odd intuitive hunch turns out to be right when it’s tried. And sometimes accumulated years of thought and study produce the kinds of major paradigm changes wrought by Einstein, Newton and Darwin. But all breakthroughs are valuable, and often cumulative.
The authors present fascinating stories on original thinking. They also explain tools and exercises to increase neuroplasticity, think in new ways, observe things once unnoticed, and find connections among ideas and events that had seemed unrelated.
Here are some simple suggested plasticity exercises: Use your non-dominant hand to write, eat, and use a key. Taste and cook something you’ve never eaten before. Watch a foreign movie without subtitles and try to understand the plot from action and facial expressions. Listen to music from an unfamiliar culture. Experiment with thoughts: What would happen if gravity stopped nightly at 10 PM? Would we sleep on the ceiling? Have nets in trees? Float away toward a new landings when gravity resumed at dawn? Suppose everyone lived to be 130? Suppose you lived in a city where memories were currency, and you could only buy thing by sharing recollections?
There are more tools, practices, and insights about how we can learn more, try more, do more and develop the habits that promote all those sparkling new neural connections that may just outnumber the stars.
Want to learn more? Join Judah Pollack on the March 24 PlexusCall when he and Barrett Horne discuss Judah’s new book.