Improving Creativity: The Envision Brainset

We're in the second installment of our series based on psychologist Shelley Carson's book Your Creative Brain. In each installment, we discuss one of Carson’s six categories of creativity (aka “brainsets"). As I mentioned last time, these should not be viewed as ironclad descriptions of the way things are, but rather a helpful model for thinking about creativity.

Last time, we discussed the Absorb brainset. Today's brainset is the Envision brainset. 

The Envision brainset is your brain's scratchpad or mental palette -- your ability to form images of things that do not exist. It could involve attempting to see your living room with a different furniture arrangement, or remembering the smell of your favorite lamb stew.

For a writer, the benefits of mental imagery are obvious. For one thing, it lets you create rich imaginary worlds. You can write about UFO abductions without having been to outer space, or a serial killer’s rampage without actually having murdered someone (we hope).

And just as important, the Envision brainset lets us ask "What if?” What if a vampire fell in love with a human girl? What if space battles were commanded by child prodigies, and what if those kids were trained in special military programs? (Orson Scott Card, in his excellent book How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction, describes how he came up with the idea for Ender's Game precisely by asking “what if” questions).

So what are some exercises for the Envision brainset?

1. Mental imagery.

Close your eyes and imagine a landscape. First, sketch out all the visual details. What do you see? Is it urban or natural? Are there other living things? What are they doing? What do you hear? Are there steady noises, or the occasional surprising sound? What do you feel on your skin? Is there wind? Are you warm? Cold? Wet? What does the air smell like? If you open your mouth, you taste anything?

Now do the same thing, but with a character. What does he look like? How does he move? How expressive is his face when he talks? Is his voice high or low? Does he have an accent, or any other speech affect? When you shake his hand, is the skin rough or smooth? Is he cuddly? Muscular? Cuddly in a muscular way? What does he smell like? How does he taste? (I imagine romance and horror writers would have very different takes on that last question.)

2. The What If Game

Try making a habit of asking "what if?" And then once you have a question, answer it to the best of your ability. Try to go beyond just a cursory answer and follow the train of thought for as long as you can. Carson suggests setting a timer.

What are other ways to use or improve the Envision brainset?

For more on the Envision brainset and exercises for improving it, check out Your Creative Brain. And stay tuned next time for the Connect brainset.

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  1. I really like this series of posts.

    From what I can deduce here, I'm assuming that every person has a measure of each brainset, just a different amount of dependence on it. Yes?

    Also, am I right if I say that having had a similar experience (say, if you killed someone before and then writing about a serial killer) then the envisioning would be easier or perhaps more vivid?

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

  2. I stumbled into you on Twitter (@penelopetaylor), promptly followed, and found myself here lickety-split. Now I am loving your blog, and wanting to catch up. I’m a transgendered writer with Parkinson’s who takes mini-odysseys through will, emotion, personality, and beyond with my developing mastery of self-hypnosis. I am also hoping to blunt my neurodegeneration and, at the same time, facilitate emotional aspects of my gender transition. Your blog provides a fascinating backdrop. I am ravenous for more. Thank you so much.

  3. Being a creative person, I never realized I did the "What if" game a lot until my girlfriend told me that I spend nearly all of conversations asking "what if"....I want to start working on mental imagery seems hard to set time aside for this though

  4. One things for sure .There is no match to anyone's imaginations depends how much you extend it and develop it.Those in the creative fields needs a mind that could kill a dinosaur with a needle using there imagination.