"In the white room with black curtains near the station...
...I'll wait in this place where the sun never shines
Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves"
White Room - Cream
I was given a piece of advice many years ago concerning ‘overcoming mental blocks’. If struggling to come up with an idea, the imagination failing to spark, stare at a white wall. A blank, space, ideally in a sparse room. Painted white. Failing to give the mind any stimulus of interest on which to anchor, it will create it’s own. Ideas will begin to emerge, coalesce, and will hybridise, expand, grow in stature. From this emergent complexity will arise impetus to act. As if the ideas spill forth from the confines of the mind and into the real world, demanding constructive action!
This thinking was borne out of research into isolation. Sensory isolation to be precise. Place an individual in a restricted environment, homogenise the light field (this can be achieved with halved ping pong balls over the eyes in front of a light source), and soon boredom will spawn fragmented then continuous imagery. Hallucination even. The brain craves stimulation. Whilst this can send a person unhinged, nevertheless it attests to the capacity of our most revered organ (!) for creativity.
This is an important facet to consider in these isolating times: where stimulus is reduced, our immediate confines may become underwhelming, over-familiar, oppressive even. If the brain-mind is left to drift un-tethered, or become subsumed into a drab, un-interesting environment and daily regime, it will craft it’s own demise. It is all too easy to devolve responsibility for our cognitive direction to automated patterns of behaviour. The brain will wander off tangentially and soon lose all focus, threatening the stability and meaningfulness of ‘self’, if there is no-one electing to take the reins.
It is therefore important to take ‘executive control’ as soon as possible over your mental faculties, before the board, the workforce ‘take-over’ and the ship sail off with no figurehead at the helm. The ‘default mode’ feeds on it’s own output, spiralling into a ruminative and destructive vortex of indulgent thinking. This in itself can create de-motivation, simply because all the energy is going into stirring the pot rather than cooking the food and feeding it to the workforce that make more productive output! It takes mental effort to instill this ‘executive control’ (that is a defining feature of this higher level directorship!). We have ‘fronto-parietal’ attention networks that identify salience in the environment and help facilitate behaviours that are ‘task-focused’. This ‘Salience Network’ is effectively a mechanism for ‘flipping the switch’ between ‘default mode’ and task-focused brain state. In order to galvanise this executive control capacity requires voluntary attention (as opposed to involuntary attention) and is lodged in a strategy that seeks to dissociate the emotional valence of the current state of mind, and sources of rumination. The emotional attention sub-network within this Salience Network engages involuntarily with stimuli either in the external world or based in internal ‘default mode’ rumination.
Where we find ourselves ruminating, procrastinating, we are inevitably falling prey to this default mode, and allowing the emotional attentional system to satiate it’s own appetite. This prevents focusing reserves, and attention on the ‘task-positive’ network. An efficient and productive ‘task-positive’ network will coincide with a ‘de-activated’ default mode network, wherein the voice of self, of internal rumination, or of wandering thoughts, is ‘turned off’.
Taking a step back, to a state where the ‘default mode’ holds sway, prior to finding sufficient momentum to get into ‘task-focused’ mindset, we need to find out how to disengage the default mode, and the emotional attention system. A ‘mindfulness’ approach is a first step, to observing the ‘default’ thoughts in a detached manner. If you can then switch straight into ‘doing’ and allow this activity to generate it’s own momentum, great. But it may be that you have as yet not found the motivation to activate that impetus.
This is where the ‘white room’ comes in. The default mode can be used, directed to creative ends – much as it inevitably operationalises when left un-checked. But with mindful ‘executive control’ it can be used as a machinery for generating ideas. Ideas that emerge slowly, then expand, become sculpted into intentional actions that realise them into being.
You may have a ‘white room’ in your house – or at least a white wall (sit close enough to it and it encompasses your whole visual field, so does not need a large space). Or the ceiling of your bedroom as your eyes adjust to wakefulness. Capitalising on a dreamy, drowsy state where the default mode begins to emerge from unconsciousness, you can engage your executive system to allow an idea to emerge. Nurture it, let it grow and take first steps of exploration into the world. Keep it central, do not let it give way to a plethora of other ideas that suddenly disperse that nascent energy across a multitude of unrealisable content. As you nurture it, feed its confidence, hopefully that will create the energy and impetus to jump up out of bed and hardly contain your impatience to get started (as the other rituals of the day come in sequence first).
Try this approach in order to get in touch with your executive control system, and mindful to your default mode. With such knowledge of how things work, you can empower more direction over the source of anxiety and rumination, motivational impetus, and the energy resources available to put to being more task focused, productive, and satisfied day to day.
Ultimately, though it may seem to be the biggest hindrance, especially in current times of uncertainty, and restricted opportunities, look upon the brain’s capacity for creativity and productivity as one’s greatest asset to adapt, ideate, and create!
I will soon talk in more detail about some experiments in ‘quantified self’ with respect to how I investigate and ‘train’ attention, and my ‘executive control’ over default mode, task-positive network and creative impetus, using Virtual Reality whilst monitoring of electrical brain activity that signifies the different networks that are in operation....
Here is where I synthesise my Adventure Psychology approach based on my extensive adventure travel and pursuits experiences, more than two decades of applied psychological research, and my association and work with extreme sports practitioners. My philosophy can be boiled down to a simple premise (as elaborated on in Science section): a 'task-focused' mindset is key to achieve success! What gets in the way of this is 'self' Through a deep understanding of how the brain 'works' it is possible to refocus attention, use 'self-control' and engage with the world in a more efficient manner to achieve goals. I offer insights and techniques backed up with cutting edge science and practical knowledge, studying optimal performers to ensure insights are based on real evidence!