A long term-patient told a fascinating story a couple of weeks ago which points to the power of creativity in strengthening critical thinking. The person’s identity is well-disguised so no confidentiality is breached.
For several years I have been treating a young man (we’ll refer to him as Collin) with psychostimulants for chronic ADD and psychotherapy to address his perfectionism. We’re also working on finding a work environment conducive to combining his entrepreneurial proclivities and his considerable technological savvy. (He taught himself to code a complicated computer program that would benefit his industry.)
Therapy is going well, in the sense that Collin has extricated himself from both a relationship and a job that were going nowhere. For the time being he has landed in a better, although not perfect, work situation. It both pays the bills and affords him time to develop his project, which he and several associates are beta-testing and rolling out in the coming months.
With extra time on his hands, Collin decided to take one of a series of tests which would prove valuable in credentialing him in his profession. True to his personality — he would never take such a test unprepared — Collin took a comprehensive review course in preparation for the exam. In therapy we discussed the mentally exhausting hours he spent cramming for the test, trying to outlast the voluminous material by memorizing page after boring page. His study sessions lasted hours upon hours, during the last of which he hardly remembered a thing.
“You can probably find a more productive way to study,” I counseled.
“Huh,” he replied. “What are you talking about?”
“There must be a way to work study breaks into your schedule,” I said. “It’s like athletes who take a few minutes off to give their muscles time to reconstitute between exercise sets.”
“What would that do?” Collin asked.
“Give your brain chemicals a change to replenish themselves,” I said. Even with psychostimulants on board, one could temporarily deplete the neurotransmitter dopamine. (Dopamine is essential for optimal function of brain circuits involved in sustained attention, focus and concentration.) Trying to process too many facts is like overwhelming a sieve with too much liquid to filter.
Neuroscientists understand that material such as Collin was trying to process (known as declarative knowledge) has to be funneled through a brain structure called the hippocampus. It didn’t evolve to cram information in the way Collin was trying to get it to do. “There must be some kind of brain-refreshing pursuit you could employ for a few minutes each hour. Everyone has some,” I said.
“I’ll work on it,” Collin said, as the session ended.
The next time we met he proudly presented a sketchbook he had begun to bring with him to study sessions. His sketchbook was replete with interesting pen and ink renderings of buildings around New York City. At first the drawings were very literal; then, as he got better, they became more abstract and impressionistic.
“I didn’t know you drew,” I said.
“Oh yes,” he responded. “Back before college I was always drawing something. It cleared my mind.”
Most of the drawings were enclosed by a sharp border around the edges. But in one of the most recent, the content spilled over beyond the border.
“Look at this,” I said referring to that drawing. “This tells us you’re beginning to think outside the box!”
The idea made Collin smile. “There’s something else,” he added. “It has to with using pen and ink as opposed to charcoal and pencil. You can’t erase ink, which means you are committed to every line or shape you draw.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “I don’t draw, so I never thought about it.”
“Being committed, like I feel when I’m drawing, helped me during the test.”
“How so?” I inquired.
He replied, “Usually, when I take multiple choice tests like the one last week, I second-guess myself about the answers, waffling back and forth wasting time. This time was different. Once I made my decision about an answer I stuck with my first impression. I had more belief in my convictions, which reminded me of what it felt like drawing in ink.”
“As far as your performance on the exam … ?” I probed.
“I’m not worried about it. My mind was clearer. I feel I did well. I did the best I could.”
Isn’t it refreshing to hear how creativity synergizes with learning? Some people’s best ideas sprout when they’re relaxing or being creative. Grade schoolers are encouraged to spend hours drawing or playing music. Then in middle school and beyond, their creativity is drubbed out with mind-numbing math homework or essays on topics that would put a gazelle to sleep. Collin’s experience is a wonderful example of how using one’s creativity improves performance and the sense of well-being.