Slow! by Alex Smith, Creative Commons licence

The slow brain theory of creativity

I’ve always been in awe of writers who can turn out a book every year. It’s often a contractual requirement for writers working in genres like crime and thrillers, but some literary fiction writers too are immensely prolific, from the firmly established like Joyce Carol Oates to the up-and-coming like Iain Maloney, whose latest novel The Waves Burn Bright is on top of my towering to-read pile.

Myself, I’m a slow writer. Sometimes – often – I find this frustrating. At every stage, from the emergence of a new idea and the first scribbled notes and maps to the multiple rewrites and edits, my progress is slower than that of most writers I know.

Recently, I listened to a repeat of Grayson Perry’s On Creativity and Imagination, an exploration of what we mean by creativity and how we might encourage it. I like the way Perry talks about art: he has a fine sense of the ridiculousness of much creative endeavour, as well as its importance, combined with what seems like an endless curiosity about the world around him. In this programme he describes the sign he has hanging over his workspace that says CREATIVITY IS MISTAKES – which dovetails neatly with my own favourite mantra, NOTHING IS WASTED (okay, that short story really didn’t come out like you meant it to, but look at it from another angle and there may be the germ of a novel in there, or at least a 1000-word flash fiction; and yes, you may have spent years working on an unpublishable novel, but you needed to write that mistake in order to write the next success).

But what really struck me in Perry’s exploration was a piece of research that suggests the most creative people may be those who think more slowly than others. The hypothesis is that the neurons in our brains are wrapped in white matter largely made up of fatty myelin sheaths, and the lower the integrity of this white matter the more slowly our neurons transmit information in the region connecting the pre-frontal cortex to the thalamus.  This slowness is associated with greater divergent thinking – a common test of creativity.

That a ‘slow brain’ should be particularly creative seems at the same time both counter-intuitive and absolutely spot on. We tend to associate creativity with a quick intelligence – and indeed it seems this ‘slow brain’ creativity can co-exist alongside higher integrity white matter in the cortex, associated with increased intelligence; so the same brain can be both fast and slow. But a slow model of creativity makes sense of much ‘pre-writing’ activity which we might otherwise see as procrastination. Sleep. Daydreams. Meandering walks. Andrew Motion’s mild flu and Lem-Sip. All of these more or less passive activities can work as active strategies to allow material to emerge, to give our brains the space to start making new patterns, new connections.

What does this mean for how we organise ourselves and our work? It might help in understanding our relationship with deadlines; when they might be helpful, and when they’re more likely to be counter-productive. For me a deadline can be incredibly useful, forcing me to commit my words and thoughts to paper or screen – but this is only possible once the slow, organic phase has done its work. Until then, the only thing I’ll produce to a deadline is stress, tantrums and ultimately failure.

As well as a slow writer, these days I’m also a slower reader than I used to be, and at times I feel I’m a slow thinker too, taking a while to build up ideas and arguments and to process new pieces of information. The idea of a slow creative brain makes me feel better about this. It’s only by allowing the time for unexpected connections to occur that later – in the act of writing – I can learn the shape of the new thing I’m making, and understand what it is that I mean to say.