Improving Creativity: The Absorb Brainset

Harvard University creativity researcher Shelley Carson recently published Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life. She was kind enough to mail me a review copy.

Carson divides creativity into seven distinct categories, or “brain sets.” Each brain set is a different flavor of creativity, and different people will naturally have some brain sets that come more naturally to them. In her book, Carson describes each brain set and provides exercises for strengthening it, and I thought it would be fun to talk about these brainsets as they apply to writers.

Carson emphasizes that these are not scientifically proven fact, but a model inspired by current neuroscience research. I wouldn't view these as an ironclad description of the way things are, but rather as springboards to develop your own creativity.

The first brainset is the Absorb brainset. This brainset is all about being observant -- noticing the world around you, and paying attention to random thoughts that pop up from your subconscious.

Developing the absorb brainset will help you in several ways. First, it increases your resources for solving problems. Perhaps you need better character descriptions, setting details, or ideas for resolving  a pothole. The more material you have to work with, the better and more original your solutions will be. Second, being generally aware will open your eyes to new problems or projects that you want to tackle. After all, many great books were inspired by a single image or idea that caught the author's attention.

To access the absorb brain set, you want to do several things. First, you want to train yourself to notice and appreciate novelty and easily missed details. Second,  you want to delay judgment and let the ideas flow freely. Modern society and schooling often trains us to focus our attention on the task at hand, but to access the Absorb brainset, you want to defocus your attention, noticing everything that comes across your mind.

How do you strengthen the Absorb brain set? There are several ways:

1. Practice! Make it a game with yourself. Set a timer for a few minutes and just try to notice new things. Cycle through all your senses – what you see, hear, smell, and taste. Don't judge or evaluate, just absorb.

2. For writers, try doing the same thing with language and stories. Break out your favorite novel, a piece of poetry, or sit outside and listen to people talk to each other. What do you notice about their word choice, the cadence of the sentences? If you are reading something, what do you notice about the plot and the characters, how do they make you feel? This is how I come up with material for the majority of my blog posts on writing technique.

3. Some outside factors will also enhance the absorb brain set. Alcohol, for one thing -- the stereotype of the alcoholic artist is more than stereotype. For more liver-friendly creative enhancement, try exercising. Research has shown that the two hour period after exercise results in enhanced alpha and theta wave activity, which is associated with the absorb brain set.   You're also more creative during the period after waking from REM sleep, but that's a little harder to plan.

Now readers, your turn. What are some other ways to use or strengthen the absorb brain set? Stay tuned next time for the Envision brainset.

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  1. I think an easy way to kick the "Absorb brainset" into gear is to force yourself to occasionally read/listen to things you normally wouldn't. If you read fiction, try non-fiction. If you listen to classical, try jazz or rock. Exposing yourself to different influences opens up the mind to accepting and learning.

  2. I always enjoy your posts, Livia, and cracked this one open as soon as it came into my inbox. So what a lovely surprise to get a prize too!

    Creativity is so interesting. I definitely agree with the point of turning off the judgement side of the brain and training ourselves to notice more. We often don't realise how we inhibit ourselves.

  3. I don't think I've ever read something that so accurately describes the way my brain works.

    Now I want to read the book :)

  4. Love. This. Blog.

    I once practiced my observational skills by writing at least one original haiku or senryu each day for a whole year. I also set some limits on myself. It had to be nature that I observed in an urban setting, and it had to follow the rules of haiku -- not the 5-7-5 rule, which is overstated, but the rules for season words, placing breaks, etc. I didn't become a better poet, but I did become a better observer and writer. Imagine what I might have done if I had stayed drunk that whole time! Or exercised...

  5. Leo -- that's a great point! It's so easy to get stuck in the familiar

    dirtywhitecandy -- I agree! Especially since as writers were trained to be so critical (which is good in some contexts too)

    1000yh monkey -- stay tuned for the other ones. It'll be interesting to see if they are similar are different from the way you work.

    C.C. Finlay -- thank you! Anyone up for a drunken exercise haiku session?

  6. after getting drunk
    even our talk is
    double cherry blossoms!

    Oh, wait, that's not me. That's Issa.

  7. Great Haiku and great joke...I love it.

    I was struck by how similar the exercise is to the practice of Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation. One wonderful aspect of that is that you don't aim for a result (such as trying to relax). You just observe as an end in itself. But I find that observing myself leads to more fine-tuned observation of the world and of my characters.

  8. C.C. -- after enough drinks, maybe you'll start thinking you're Issa....

    HelenQP - I think I remember Carson mentioning meditation for one of the brainsets, but I can't find it at the moment. I'll keep an eye out.

  9. Yay for neuroscience.

    I think exercise is great for creativity. I always feel hyper-aware after a workout (as long as I don't exercise to exhaustion). I've lost count of the number of plot problems I've solved as I'm driving home from the gym. But it does tend to be short lived. Like maybe an hour or 2.

    Also, I have a theory that listening to new music tends to increase creativity and awareness. For example listening to a new album and learning all the songs over the course of 1 - 3 weeks.

  10. That's very awesome. I can't wait to see the other(s).

    I think I absorb a lot of information, but I'm not sure I actually solve problems doing so. I think I often dismiss things I absorb before actually collecting the information from it. Or something like that.

  11. Fascinating! Looking forward to reading about the other brainsets. Some of the descriptions and activities for this brain set remind me of techniques to reduce anxiety. Makes sense - both need us to suspend judgement.

    Thanks for sharing! :-)

  12. So after reading this post, I ordered the book. It arrived yesterday and I'm looking forward to diving into it this weekend.


  13. See? I just knew alcohol was good for my creativity....


  14. love this post... amazing how judgement stands in the way of our creativity - watch the beautiful young innocent children fill their thoughts with creative imaginations - we should fill our minds with couriosity!

    Livia thanks - i know i'll read Shelly Carson's book