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November 6, 2008 / davebirss

The brain experiment that went wrong


Many years before Unchained, when I was still an eager young advertising copywriter, I decided to do a little experiment to see if I could make myself more creative. My thinking went like this: to be creative you need to break out of established patterns and do things differently – so if I applied this principal to every area of my life, I’d become more creative in general.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

So I duly embarked on my little experiment. I would try to do even the most mundane things differently every time to see what happened.

When I woke up in the morning, I’d randomly pick what side of the bed I got out of (sometimes slipping out of the bottom of the covers to make it interesting). I’d then decide what order to do my ablutions. And I’d brush my teeth in a different way – sometimes starting by scrubbing my top left molars, other times starting by polishing my incisors. I’d put my clothes on in a different order (but  always underpants before trousers) and vary my route to the office.

This would go on all day, trying to make sure that I didn’t slip into any pattern. I would even pay attention to my vocabulary and try not to use linguistic crutches like ‘cool’, ‘no way Hosé’ and ‘that’s the badger!’ Patterns were the route to formulaic thinking, after all, and that didn’t have a place in my life. No sirree.

I did this for months and got better at it as time went on. Every time I saw a pattern emerging, I’d break it. The one habit I got into was pausing before I did anything so that I could do it differently to the way I did it last time.

I must have been an infuriating bugger to everyone around me.

On the plus side, the experiment worked. I did indeed feel more creative. I was coming up with more ideas – although I don’t know if I actually came up with any better ideas – but I felt a bit more sparky and innovative.

But there was one drawback. Quite a big drawback: I was no longer a fully functional human being.

I realised it one day as I stood in the kitchen trying to work out how to make myself a coffee. What equipment was needed for this task? Where could I find it? In what order did I use it? Everything had become a conscious decision and I was wasting a lot of time and energy doing everyday tasks that I previously didn’t need to think about. And that meant that I had less time and energy left to actually use my mind in a creative way.

I discovered something that I’d learned about during my university psychology courses. The mind automatically bundles tasks together to allow you to operate in autopilot. Most people don’t think about how they make a coffee – they just do it and can hold a conversation while their hands get on with the well-trodden tasks. I had broken most of these little task bundles. And it was making my life harder and harder to live.

It took me most of a year to feel pretty much back to normal again. And I wouldn’t recommend that you try anything as stupid as this yourself.

Has anyone else buggered about with their mind in a way that they shouldn’t have? I’d be interested in hearing your story.


Leave a Comment
  1. Tim / Nov 9 2008 5:22 pm

    Thanks for sharing, very interesting indeed. Good to hear you got your shit back together.

  2. Bjork / Nov 9 2008 5:47 pm

    Or.. you could just write with your left hand (if you’re right handed)

    The trick is to just use your right brain more and meditate to tap your subconscious.

    Or if you want to REALLY pierce the viel of perception. Try shrooms or smoke some herb. Those work!

  3. dylan / Nov 9 2008 6:53 pm

    If you really want to experiment with your brain you should try polyphasic sleep. Re: Uberman’s Sleep Schedule.

  4. ZaPenguin / Nov 9 2008 11:16 pm

    Interesting.. I think your experiment is good but not entirely. You exaggerated when you started doing ALL things differently. You develop some reflexes over time like making coffee:)) and they need to be left alone so that your can concentrate your energy to more important things.
    Changing landscapes can help your mind and imagination and that`s why you got more ideas. That`s a good aspect of your experiment..

  5. Rebel Without a Sauce / Nov 10 2008 1:27 am

    The experiment sounded a lot like self induced OCD to me. NOT A PLEASANT ACRONYM OR CONDITION. 😦

  6. Lisa Canning / Nov 10 2008 2:49 am

    I think your experiment is hysterical. It took a creative mind to think it up and in the end it produced an ‘AH-HA’ moment; which in many ways IS the product of creativity at work.

    Lisa Canning

  7. Elliot Kim / Nov 10 2008 1:00 pm

    I’m right brained and considered by many more creative than logical. I think the essential component to creativity is not surprise but feelings. Creative people tend to be more emotional than others, if you look at the great artists in the world. So creative people are feeling based rather than thinking based. And on top of making decisions based on feelings, they’re extremely sensitive to their feelings. When they perceieve objects, it’s not the physical dimensions of it that draws meaning but how they feel about it that draws meaning for them.

    Now it’s hard to even imagine what ‘feeling based’ is like but I think a good start is to simply will yourself to become more emotional and drive yourself more by impulsive and emotional actions. It’s a totally different world and in the process giving up your previous. I try to find a balance.

  8. Discover Unearthed / Nov 10 2008 1:01 pm

    Enjoyed your post, partly because I recognised a lot of myself in it. I do try and break habits that become constraining but I guess the key is to recognise the ones that are simply time and thought-savers.

    For a time, I used to meditate (amateurishly) for half an hour when I got back from work which I found cleared the mind and made some space for creative thoughts to pop in for the rest of the evening. Then I discovered that the same effect could be had by playing sport or doing most any singular activity that involves concentration. As I prefer sport to meditation, I went with that.

    Changing landscapes point is strong – works well with meetings – don’t always hold them in the office! I’ve bought a yurt that will be the venue for some future meetings with my team, but perhaps that is just wierd!

  9. davebirss / Nov 12 2008 7:28 pm

    Thank you all.

    I didn’t realise that this post would attract so much interest. I like the comment about OCD – because it was almost the inverse of it. I was obsessive about NOT creating patterns. But pretty much the same screwed-up, unrealistic mindset.

    I also like the comment about changing landscapes giving a new perspective. That’s something I do a lot and have encouraged my colleagues to do likewise over the years. It’s a fantastic way of refreshing your thinking. Offices are so totally the wrong places to work sometimes.

    Thank you all for your interest and comments.


  1. Where good ideas come from « The Dictionary of Specific Generalities

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