“Eat, Pray, Love” and the brain

“A team of neurologists … had wired up a volunteer Tibetan monk for experimental brain-scanning. They wanted to see what happens to a transcendent mind, scientifically speaking, during the moments of enlightenment. In the mind of a normal thinking person, an electrical storm of thoughts and impulses whirls constantly, registering on a brain scan as yellow and red flashes. The more angry or impassioned the subject becomes, the hotter and deeper those red flashes burn. But mystics across time and cultures have all described a stilling of the brain during meditation, and say that the ultimate union with God is a blue light which they can feel radiating from the center of their skulls. In Yogic tradition this is called “the blue pearl,” and it is the goal of every seeker to find it. Sure enough, this Tibetan monk, monitored during meditation, was able to quiet his mind so completely that no red or yellow flashes could be seen. In fact, all the neurological energy of this gentleman pooled and collected at last into the center of his brain – you could see it happening right there on the monitor – into a small, cool, blue pearl of light.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I  began listening to audio books in my car a little while ago.  I’ve been doing a lot of driving back and forth between Boston and Vermont, and I thought I wanted to listen to something educational or meaningful instead of listening to the radio.  I heard the above passage on a recent drive.  Gilbert was talking about meditation and the quieting of the mind. I rarely am thinking of nothing, although I am also rarely thinking of anything productive.  I often find that when I am not completing any particular task – on which my mind must concentrate – that my thinking wanders to past regretful, joyous, or confusing events in my life.  When I am going for a long bike ride I am by no means in a meditative state, although I am constantly mulling over my life, parts of my day, upcoming events, etc.  Usually, I am thinking about events, but am unfocused in a way that I am not productively mulling or ruminating (as Tom Ashbrook describes as a habit of creative thinkers).  However, Ashbrook states that those who blog are often practicing those creative habits of producing, generating, and thinking in divergent ways.  So, I will be blogging my journal, and perhaps other random thoughts, as a way of expanding my creative practice.

Anyway, back to the monks.  I find it incredibly interesting that monks are able to quiet their brains to the extent that brain activity is really only located in the most basic part of the brain, and in such a way that turns off all other functions.  In a way, that is almost counter to humanity, since humans are programmed to be constantly aware and aroused as a tool to aid in survival.  It seems almost counterproductive to quiet one’s mind to that extent, but at the same time it is uniquely human to be able to consciously do so in order to attain some sort of heightened and non-human (perhaps ultra-human) state.

In listening to Gilbert explain this phenomenon I also wondered about creativity and multi-tasking.  The readings, audio, and viewings to this point have asserted that creativity is not about artistic ability, but is more about the ability to simultaneously, rather than sequentially, process and generate.  Creativity has to do somewhat with the brain’s ability to multitask, especially in the right hemisphere. So, if these monks are concentrating on meditating so much so that they are shutting off a great deal of brain function in both the right and left hemispheres, are they no longer thinking in either a critical or creative way?  How do proponents of practicing convergent and divergent creative thinking feel about meditation?  Is it necessary to meditate to build self-control over one’s mind? Or, can people gain conscious control over their minds and thought processes by practicing critical and creative problem-solving methods like Treffingers’?

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Me? Creative?


I had a roommate for a couple years in college who was incredibly “creative”.  She loved seeking out new music, styling her hair in weird ways (she had a Mohawk at one point), dressing in ways I would not dare, writing dark poetry, drawing abstract images, etc.  While she was not particularly invested in any one art form, I considered her very creative and different.  While she is a special breed in a number of ways, part of it was that she came from Seattle, where I think difference is tolerated and encouraged to a greater extent than it is in Vermont and on the East Coast in general.  We had many conversations about this, how she thought people were too uptight here, and that we East Coasters lacked something too.  I was a bit offended at first, but I couldn’t disagree.  It’s true, the vibe in East Coast cities and towns is just not the same as it is in Seattle and other West Coast cities and towns.  The East Coast is the Old World to the West Coast.  I spent two summers in the San Juan Islands in Washington, and I felt out of place.  I felt so uncreative.  I felt so boring, even though I felt that my wit was every bit as creative as anybody’s.  In high school it was almost a hindrance, as I would make clever remarks – at least I thought they were clever – and the typical response was a blank stare.

I can remember multiple occasions where I struggled with creativity in college.  Like most, I wanted greater opportunity to express myself in creative ways, but I just felt like I lacked the talent or spark.  I gave up on the piano years before.  I was always just “ok” at singing, drawing, painting, dancing, writing etc.  In other words, I was no creative genius, which is somewhat of a frustrating realization when you are constantly surrounded by so many incredibly talented people in college.  Of course I appreciated others’ talents, but a part of me was always a bit jealous.  Again, I felt so boring, like I had very little to offer to “enrich the college community” or the community at large.  It seemed that I could write analytical papers for days, but I couldn’t create anything truly beautiful- which had always been my measure for creativity.  But, my friend, the “creative” one, reassured me that I was creative, just in different ways that I would not admit.  When she said that to me I really did not believe her.

This is my story in response to the prompt in this week’s lecture – to think about the ways in which we are both critical and creative.  I think I have always liked school because I was good at being critical.  It was easy for me, and I liked the concreteness of the “right answer”.  Thinking critically has always been at the forefront of my intellectual existence.  I was creative too, it just was harder to pinpoint.  I am an athlete.  I think my creativity has always rested in my ability to generate on the field, or on the ice.  I have always been a play maker, or so I’m told.  I love to play on teams, I think because I love being active, but I also love being able to communicate and collaborate with others in a physical sense.  I’ve competed in college Nationals competitions in both ice hockey and ultimate frisbee, and I have devoted probably 20 years of my life (some unconsciously) to sport.  I am incredibly creative when given a soccer ball, frisbee, ice hockey or lacrosse stick.  I can unconsciously think and act in divergent ways when given the chance in a practice or game.  Often I am not really sure how I produce certain plays, and there is both creativity and critical thinking involved when I make minute decisions as both a player and a coach in sport.  I think this is especially true in coaching- because one must use divergent thinking to come up with a variety of possibilities for players and tactics against different teams, and one must also use convergent thinking to come to the best solution for a particular player (in terms of how to coach them) and for overall decisions about what the team needs to work on in a practice or game.  So yes, I am creative and critical, but I guess I just am not creative in a way that is very apparent to the general public or myself.


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Journal for Class

I will be updating this blog as my journal for class.  This does not count as one of my entries, just a start for me.

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