Shifting Perspective

When we experience the world we typically do so from the perspective of “I.” What does that mean? It means that we place our own particular meaning on the sensory perception of our world.

For example, when we hear, the brain first records pitch and volume and then adds meaning. It runs through its memory banks. “Ah, yes, that sound is of a piano, and the music is Ravel’s Concerto in G Major. And furthermore, it’s beautiful and was played the first time I went to symphony with a man who is now my husband.  I love my husband; I love the music.”

So you see that the sound doesn’t stand by itself. It always stands with the meaning we give it. Even the first time we hear the sound, we immediately record the sound and what else is happening and the emotion that we have about it. Then each time, we hear the sound again the associated memory and the emotion are triggered. Piano. Ravel. First symphony with husband. Love.

Of course, not all our experiences are so happy. Suppose you are in an automobile accident. You record the sounds of screeching tires and colliding metal, and the smell of burning rubber. You recall the instant of quiet on impact and your terror rising immediately, thereafter. You remember being shaken up and your spine going askew, and how you walked away without anyone’s help.

Now you are walking down the street. You hear the sound of screeching tires. Your heart starts racing and your spine begins to ache. You are terrified. Why? You are not in danger. But, your brain doesn’t grasp that. It only grasps the sound of the screeching tires and associates it with the memory of the car accident. Not just this time, but every time you hear screeching tires. Why? Because your brain stored: sound of screeching tires = car accident and emotion of fear.

The fellow walking towards you has heard the same sound: the screeching tires. In response a big grin comes over his face. Why? Because the sound of screeching tires brings back the memory of attending a stock car race with his father as a young boy and his emotion of joy and wonder. Same sound. Different memory. Different emotion.

So what! Well, two things.

First, as long as the emotion associated with the sound and accompanying memory is not overwhelming and fades as quickly as it rises we are OK. If it is not so joyous that we go and do reckless things or so sad that we become depressed; or so worried that we become anxious; or so full of grief that we become grief-stricken; or so full of fear that we become terrified, frozen, and anxious; or so angry that we become enraged, we go on.  We are OK. Feeling a slight twinge of a past emotion such as joy when we hear the sound of Ravel or fear when we hear tires screeching is natural.

But if the emotion is too big it makes us suffer. When joy propels us to over-exuberance or sadness brings depressions, or worry or fear becomes anxiety, or grief becomes uncontrolled, and natural fear becomes terror, we suffer. This is the time when we need to walk into that emotion, right into the center of it to see that it is nothing at all. Disassociating from it in this way removes its power over us so we can see that it is not us and we cease suffering. This, by the way, can be much harder to do than one may think, so if you find yourself here, find a professional to guide you in this activity.

Second, remember that a sound is just a sound. When hearing the screeching tires, ‘A sound,” we can tell ourselves. Doing this allows us to hear the sound afresh. Letting go of the association of sound, sight, smell, taste, or touch with a memory and its emotion, even if it is a wonderful one, opens us to new experiences. When hearing the screech of tires, instead of the thought of “car accident” we are free to just hear the screech of the tire and go on. Perhaps, we now associate it with the broad smile that we see on the face of the guy walking towards us. We are open to experience something new.

The Creative Brain

Where do our creative ideas come from? Even if we think we’re not creative, all of our brains have what it takes.  To be creative, the whole brain needs to be in the best mind state for the job.

This doesn’t mean that everyone has to approach creativity in the same way. What each of us does when we are doing something creative can be very different. Some of us wake up from a dream saying, “I’ve got it!” Others work  in a certain place or at a certain time of day. And, then, there are those of us who just take a walk.  Which way we choose to work creatively doesn’t seem to matter.

What does matter is what goes on in our brains. Back in the 70s, creativity was thought to be solely a right brain activity. Today we know that it is a whole brain activity: Left-right, top-bottom, as creativity requires the brain to access a large web of connections. Neuroscientists now tell us tell us that about 300 milliseconds before an “aha moment,” when the creative answer comes to us, our brains go into very high gamma activity (neural oscillation with a frequency between 25 to 100 Hz) allowing the binding together of neurons as far flung brain cells connect in a new neural network creating a new association. This heightened activity takes place in the temporal lobe centered on the side of the right neocortex. This is the part of the brain that understands metaphor, gets jokes, comprehends the language of the unconscious, as well as that of poetry, art, and myth.  At this same moment the right brain uses its longer connections to other parts of the brain to collect more information and put it together in a novel way.

And before that 300 milliseconds? That’s just as critical, too. First, we have to concentrate intently on the problem or goal. But, if we just think and think about it, or try to force an insight, we stymie creativity. That’s why the next stage is critical, too. Just let go. In this state the brain enters a high alpha rhythm (neural oscillations in the frequency of 8-12 Hz), signaling mental relaxation, that state of openness when we are more receptive to new ideas. Being in this alpha state sets the stage for the gamma spike when new neural connections make novel associations and the new creative idea enters our consciousness.

You’re probably asking now, “But how do I get my brain to do this?” Each of us has to discover what’s the best way to concentrate with high focus on the problem. We may sit down at our desk with paper and pen or take a walk to clear our heads of everything but the problem at hand. You get the idea. Then once we’ve accomplished that deep focus, we don’t think about the problem any more. We just let go and relax. Meditation evokes this relaxed and open state and focusing on the breath is an excellent approach, especially for beginners. In meditation, the brain relaxes into alpha rhythm. Once in alpha, all is ready for the brain’s leap into high gamma activity leading to the aha moment, a feeling of joy, and the coming into consciousness of the novel idea or solution. Practice makes perfect. Habitually doing the stages of intense concentration followed by completely letting go make the difference.

There’s one more thing. Novel ideas are fragile so it is best to surround ourselves and our creative ideas with a supportive environment and with those who are willing to help the fledging flourish.


Thoughts. Where do they come from? Where do they go? And what leads one to another? Why do they keep appearing and dissolving? Why do they never stop? What’s the mechanism producing this constant rising and falling away? It’s not as though we can point to any place in the brain and say, “This is where it all happens!”

Some thoughts rise up out of memories, some appear out of thin air, and others pop into our consciousness in an “aha moment.” When we are solving a problem, we use the power of our brains, in particular, the frontal cortex, to “think.” We analyze, relate, and create. But, what about other times when unorganized and disconnected thoughts tumble into our consciousness? Perhaps we’re just having a cup of coffee and looking at the leaves falling from the tree outside the window. Thoughts come any way. Perhaps at this moment they arise from memories of other trees or other cups of coffee or perhaps not. Thoughts about the dirty dishes left in the sink or a friend who hasn’t returned a text message we sent him may take us far away from the cup of coffee and leaves falling from the tree.

Sometimes a thought appears because we’re on the same wavelength with another person. We pick up information (become entangled with someone) and the thought occurs to us. We saw this example last week when we talked about synchronicity. Suddenly I’m thinking of a friend for no reason. The phone rings. It’s the friend on the line.

Thoughts often have a way of bothering us. We may not want to think particular thoughts but in they come, invited or not. We can be so disturbed by them that we become distressed; we want to run away from them; or we yearn to fall asleep. Sleep may be acceptable at bedtime, but not in the middle of the day. What are we to do? Where’s the on/off switch?

There are no muscles, like those that control our bladders, that turn on and off thoughts. But, we can be with them in such a way that they are there without causing us any distress or interest at all. That’s what we do in meditation. When we focus on the breath, thoughts rise and fall away, but we pay no attention to them. In the beginning, we can nod to each one as it appears by saying, “Thought,” and then return to focusing on the breath. After awhile, we don’t feel the need to make this acknowledgement. We simply allow them to do what they do without showing interest, or interacting, or reacting to them. After a few minutes, the space within us grows bigger; we become calmer and more centered. The thoughts are still there, but they have receded into the background like wallpaper in a room that we’ve become accustomed to. We give them no notice and if asked, “What was that thought?” Well, we have no idea. So, in this way, we turn off thoughts.