How does creativity show up in the brain? Neuro-Leadership expert Rachel Bamber shares her knowledge and lots of practical advice in episode five, including tips on how to stop creative procrastination, or the fear of being judged ‘not good enough?’ Rachel explains some brain-friendly techniques to overcome these challenges and the neuroscience behind them. You can listen to the podcast here or via the player at the bottom of this page.
I’m so pleased that you’re able to join me Rachel. Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
I can, of course. My name’s Rachel Bamber and I run a company called Brighter Thinking and I help leaders get more done, faster with zero stress. And so, I work as an executive coach, trainer, and also I am currently editing my first book. I’m very excited about that as well. But I help leaders all over the world to be leaders that their teams want to work with and for, and I generally work with director level or above now. I also work with people in elite sport and very creative business owners too.
I’m sure we’re going to get into lots of that through the conversation. I want to start, because I know that we both trained as coaches roughly around the same time. And at that point it was one of those funny things where you said, oh, I’m a coach, and people said, oh, what netball? Because they just didn’t have any idea what it meant. And now I think people are much more familiar with it. But you have a particular discipline, training that I think is interesting, which is a focus on the brain. So, could you tell us a little bit about how you came to do that? How that perhaps differentiates the way you work?
Yeah, sure. I studied quite a long time ago now ten years ago that I did that. Allow me to blow my own trumpet for a moment, but I’m the first person in the world to achieve a particular qualification in the postgrad Diploma in the Neuroscience of Leadership. And what that means is I study how the brain works and apply it into the real world. And with the advent of technology, we can peer inside the brain using fMRI scanners, which some of you may have seen in hospitals, et cetera, and actually see what is happening real time in the brain.
Technology has helped us to learn and I think actually confirm what we already know about the brain, what our intuition says. And by doing that, we’re able to understand our friends better, our family better, everyone around us, and of course, leaders can utilize that with who they work with, and of course, customers and everybody. Applications are universal and we can help children using the knowledge that we now have.
I think it very much differentiates me because everything I do is what I call brain friendly from the way I do my coaching, the way I do training, and I do train others in coaching skills and even the way I produce my blogs and things like that. My clients will ask me for strategies about how the brain works and they go and implement them and always find that it really makes a positive impact.
Okay, so obviously I’m assuming you don’t sit with your clients in a scanner. But it’s the knowledge that’s been gained through the science that you’ve then been able to incorporate in your understanding of how the brain works and then teaching people to use that to their advantage in this brain friendly way. So talking specifically about creativity, then, is there something you can tell us about what creativity is, how it works? What’s going on in the brain when someone is being creative?
Well, the one thing that I think neuroscience has shown is that there was this old belief that we’ve got right brain and left brain and that people were either one or the other, the left brain being more analytical, the right brain being the more creative side. Now, that is still the case in a way. But we know that our brain is very plastic, meaning that it doesn’t use necessarily particular parts, as in 100%, all the time for various things. There are areas where we’re more likely to process speech, for example.
But if we were to put both of us in the scanner and ask, where’s your creative part? It would be all over the place, as in if you were wanting to solve a particular challenge, for example, which of course, many leaders, many people at work, their creativity comes out through innovation, having ideas, solving problems, if you like. Areas in our brain wouldn’t be the same because it depends on our experience, our existing neural connections that are already in the brain, if that makes sense.
And if that sounds a bit complicated, if we were both thinking of the color red, again, the areas that would light up. And what I mean by that, in the scanners, people are given glucose, for example, to show the areas that are lighting up the blood. We would have all sorts of different areas in both of our brains and of course, everyone listening as well. No two brains are alike. That is what neuroscience has really shown. So our creativity will come from all sorts of things, and like everything, in the brain is use it or lose it.
So do you think it is more fundamental than people think? Because there’s a lot of discussion at the moment about what’s essential for us to teach our children, so ‘it’s essential that they all do maths until 18.’ I’m not going to get into political discussions here, but I think you can probably tell from my tone of voice that I don’t necessarily think that’s a great idea. But having said that, maths is something that can be creative in the same way as painting. So, what is the essence of human beings and their creativity? Is it something that everybody has and just applies it differently, do you think? What is the essence of creativity in your own view?
That’s a great question. And I think, in my view, we are all born with a brain that has this capacity and so therefore we can all be creative. Now, what has been shown is that when we are born, there does seem to be a bias and this is often linked to family, if you like, where some parts of our brain may be, say, more developed than others.
To give me as an example, I’m very good with words and processing and reading them really, really fast. Maths, on the other hand, I’m not. But as a family bias, it’s that. And so it could be argued, was I born with that or was that nurtured as well? So it reinforces itself.
But with creativity, it does seem to be that if you are given the opportunities in childhood to be creative, that’s why creative play is so important. And I would argue as an adult as well. And if you are around people that are creative, then are you more likely to go on and be that.
I did some work in a prison in England and I was helping them advise and coach them around what they were going to do when they got out of prison. And one of the things that really struck me, and apologies, because I might get emotional with this, there was a young guy who was age 19, and whilst he’d been in prison, he’d discovered his talent for art. And all around the day room where we were, there were paintings from previous people that had been in that prison, and he didn’t know that he had this talent. It was going to prison that opened up the opportunity for him. And it was so, in a way, sad that throughout his childhood, he’d got to an adult and never realized that he had this innate talent and he was going to be exhibiting after he came out.
I do believe that we can absolutely learn to be more creative. We exercise muscles, we tone them up. So with our brain, the same, the more creative endeavours we do, the more likely then that’s going to help us.
And going back to what you said about education, I believe that creativity and music, sport, everything should be in education because it cross pollinates. The brain uses lots of different areas and therefore you’ve got a lot more neural connections. And I know there’s somebody I know who’s an artist and he actually goes into companies to help them work their creative muscles more. I think this skill is going to become much more desired with the advent of AI, because, dare I say, it the industrial revolution that we’re having now, which is AI, is that going to take away some skilled work jobs. Whereas with previous industrial revolutions it was more unskilled work. But AI at the moment doesn’t have that creative capacity.
Now, I’m sure there are humans on this planet right now who want it to do all sorts of things. And also, for the record, I know I’ve spoken about this before, but I believe as coaches, we will be replaced at one point in the future because they want AI to have this ability. But being able to solve problems, being able to think, being able to write and draw and invent things, if you like, those skills, I think, are going to still be very much required. And of course, as I say that, I know AI is producing books and all sorts of things as well, but will we know that it comes from that? And obviously that’s for the regulators in the future.
Yeah, it’s a very interesting topic. We’re actually in the middle of it now. I think a lot of people haven’t realized quite how integrated it is into our lives. But I’m totally with you. I think, actually, whereas previously we’ve not valued those creative skills in the past as much as perhaps the STEM subjects and so on. And again, I’m not saying that within science you’re not going to be creative because you do have to innovate within that area. But I think the true creativity of humans won’t ever be able to be replicated. I mean, obviously AI takes inputs from everything that we’ve created, so it’s only as good as stuff that we’ve already got that’s out in the world already.
But what I think is unique about humans is the fact that every single brain is different, is the fact that something can be created using different parts of the brain, which perhaps people who studied that brain wouldn’t have expected. And I think then what we’ve got to do is, as a society is work out how we can actually use that creativity to best endeavour and tap into it and allow people to be freer to tap into it as opposed to trying to make us all study the same things and follow a particular path. Because we’re all different. That’s a whole other podcast.
And I went to an exhibition in the British Design Museum and they had the first AI artist robot who they’ve trained to make art through images she has seen. So she has effectively got eyes and the input has gone in through that way. But it’s really curious because it’s, at the moment, quite primitive. And in fact, the team that built her, which includes a whole load of disciplines of different people, they didn’t set out to replace artists. What they did is set out to ask the question, is this art? Are humans the only beings who can make art? Just to raise awareness of how much technology can do, but then to look at the question of what are its limitations and so on. So it’s a fascinating area.
For people who want to use their creativity and perhaps aren’t, some of the things that get in the way. And I think definitely they could use some knowledge about how the brain works to perhaps overcome these, if I ask them, perhaps in order, rather than asking them all at once. So the first thing is, people worry. They fear doing something that they’ve sat on, that they think perhaps has been judged as not worthy, or they’re not good enough at it. How would you encourage someone to tap into something that they’re worrying about, they’re scared of?
Well, obviously, just do it. That’s the obvious answer there. But of course, we know it’s not as easy as that. And I know through nearly 20 years experience coaching clients, that we don’t want to face what we fear. And so that’s why, obviously, having a coach can really help there. It’s switching off that judgmental mind, which we all have, by the way. We all can have this inner critic, with some it’s louder than others, I’ve found, and it’s knowing that just by maybe thinking of it as a creativity exercise, that is going to then help.
So it’s getting started, starting small. And also, I would suggest enlisting support. Now, that need not be a coach. It could be like one of my clients is doing drawing workshops, for example, and she is aiming them, Caroline Banks is her name. She’s an artist in London. She is aiming them at people who are fearful of getting out and doing something, or maybe they used to as a child and they feel like they’ve forgotten how. So there’s people like her who are offering solutions to help go and do it. And of course, there’s been adult classes for ages for art and all sorts of things. I would encourage people to do that, but also knowing that everyone does have an ability and actually, if you talk to artists, well, everyone can draw and paint, but of course it’s what other people might value. That is subjective, isn’t it?
Totally. And I think often comes, you talk about the inner critic, but I have a feature that’s going to be in the podcast, which I’m going to ask the listeners to get involved in, which is called Who Is Your Doubting Doris, often the stories of creative people, there’s somebody somewhere in their background who either was an advocate and said, “You’re great at this, you should do this, more of it, you should practice this skill, you should enhance it, you should learn.” Or they have someone who has said, “oh, no, you can’t do that. Oh, that’s not good enough. Oh, you’ll never be good enough to do that”. But it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because sometimes, depending on who you are, the latter is the thing that makes you get up and do something, if someone is telling you you can’t. But for other people, it really knocks their confidence and it stops them from trying.
If someone’s got that voice in their head, who is, I don’t know, a relative or a teacher from the past, do you have any techniques or tips that you could give someone to overcome that and to stop that block from being there?
Yeah, and absolutely. That’s an interesting point you raise, because we allow others to determine what we do. And I do hear that a lot. But one thing that I think is key here is confidence overall. Not just thinking about confidence in our creativity. I would suggest thinking about how can I enhance my creativity through building my confidence elsewhere? Because when we’ve got an inner confidence to think, I’ll just give it a go, we’ll apply that all over the place in our life and at work. So that’s the key thing that I would do.
So I would suggest, say to somebody that was a coaching client of mine, perhaps an action around, how can you build your confidence? What’s something else that you don’t want to do and that you’re fearful of? Let’s start there and then bring it back to the creativity. Now, the other thing perhaps say they want to draw or write is give them a challenge. Spend five minutes drawing or writing anything you like by yourself. Nobody needs ever to see it. And just challenge yourself to do that. Now, I suggest five minutes because in our brain, five minutes is an achievable amount of time. The brain can get its head around five minutes. We can see the sort of start of that and the end. And that makes us more likely to do it because often we’ll procrastinate on things.
And I’ve worked with clients who were all sorts of creative endeavours, but when they think ‘that’s going to take ages, so we won’t get started on that.’
I’m thinking of another client that I’ve worked with running a successful business and changing into another type of creative business. And it was actually helping her to give herself permission to spend time in the working day pursuing her creative interests because she stopped doing that and actually she then became overwhelmed, stressed, she wasn’t getting anything else done. And of course, that became a vicious cycle.
So by actually encouraging her to say, look, this is who you are, and I say that because what I’ve noticed in all my time coaching is that when creative people come to me and there’s normally something like overwhelm, their motivation has gone overall and they’re feeling like they’re stuck. What I’m noticing is that by encouraging them to be who they are, to accept that they’re creative, they need to have this outlet, then they will flourish and their motivation comes back.
So for everyone listening I would say, look, you know you like to be creative and it’s going to come out in all sorts of different ways, give yourself permission to do whatever it is and to know that that is going to nourish you, stimulate you and make everything else much easier. Does that make sense, Nikki?
It does, yeah, totally. When we first started working together I’d identified that I knew there was a creative skill that wasn’t being exercised, I didn’t even know what it was going to be but very quickly, having said yes, I want to have a goal, I don’t want it to be structured, I want to just explore. I think within two weeks it had gone from a ‘creative goal’, very nebulous, could be anything, to ‘oh, no, I want to write a book’, to ‘actually, no, I want to be published.’ And obviously it had been quite latent, but as you say, giving yourself permission to try and explore, I think that’s the key word there, the freer you are to feel it doesn’t matter what happens, the outcome is not the point, it’s the expression of yourself. And what will come out will come out with a sense of well being.
So not necessarily someone who wants to produce work that is for the world, for others to see and to share that, but that part of everybody that’s creative, why is it that that is good for us just in terms of expressing ourselves and feeling fulfilled? Why is it that it works in that way?
Yeah. And I think actually we’d have to ask everyone individually, what does it do for you? As humans, we do have this desire to create. We’re very goal focused humans. That’s why we’ve been very successful as a species, because we like to create and like to evolve. But I think it’s part of how we process our emotions and also learning.
And if people are interested in this who are not writing, I’m sure you’ve heard Julia Cameron’s, the Writer’s Way. Just writing morning pages, just writing a stream of consciousness, a journal, for example, of just what you think. That can be very cathartic. By writing things down it helps process what’s going on in our brain and writing down with pen and paper has been shown to be more effective than typing on a keyboard. The neuroscientists are still not entirely sure why but the motor part of the brain, where we have all our motor skills from, that has been shown to be really essential in learning and gets activated. So anything we can do to that, I think it helps us make sense of the world and I’m sure everyone listening would think, oh yeah, it helps me de-stress.
One of the things I like doing, which some would say isn’t that creative, but I would argue is, is baking, cooking and by doing that I’m totally absorbed in what I’m doing and not thinking about anything, the same as when I’m writing. I’m in flow and I will feel better. I’ve gone for a period of not being creative and interestingly. I’m traveling at the moment and coming to you from Bulgaria. I haven’t had the opportunity so much to do that, and I’m very aware that I’m missing it. So when I’m back in the UK, it’s going to be something I do.
I mentioned about travel because there is some, I think, quite new research that’s coming out that travel is supposed to benefit our creative muscles. Now the link that I can make is that wherever we put ourselves in new situations, see new things, hear new things, have new experiences, what our brain is going to do is have new insights, make new connections. And I for example, sometimes will encourage clients to go often to an art gallery or a museum or even sit in another room or another part of the room because whatever it is you’re wanting to solve, whatever challenge, you will perceive it differently.
Having that different perspective is going to help us be creative. Which of course is back to what I said earlier about this cross pollination. I know some companies, I think it was Google in London, wanted to have their headquarters in Kings Cross, next to art, next to science, next to other types of industries because they want people to talk and connect. And so therefore, this whole idea of multi brain approach, utilizing everyone’s particular strengths or what they love doing, that’s going to help us solve challenges much faster.
That’s really interesting. So there’s a mindfulness element to creativity. There’s a self fulfilling part of it, as you say, dealing with stress or overwhelm. It helps with all of those. What about most people’s bugbear when there’s something they’re trying to achieve and they can’t get it done? What about procrastination? Because so many authors I know, so many of the artists and the creatives I’m talking to, don’t understand why this happens to them because they think, well, I want this to happen, I want to create this thing. What is it that’s stopping me from getting on with it?
I’ve experienced this as well and of course I help clients with their procrastination and motivation. So it makes it even more frustrating, I think. I know I’m doing this. First of all, I would say the brain is designed to procrastinate, okay? And therefore let’s all breathe a sigh of relief and go, do you know what? I’m normal. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m procrastinating, my brain does this, okay? So that’s the first thing I would say to everyone. Just don’t worry about it.
Now of course, if it becomes chronic and thing we really want to do, we keep putting off and we’re doing all this other displacement activity instead, then that will start to frustrate us even more and upset us, overwhelm us and all the rest of it. So how can we stop that? Of course, one of the things that is linked with procrastination is this fear of wanting to do it perfectly. So that’s the first thing it’s wanting to do perfect work first time. I would challenge everyone to really understand that everything you see out there, the songs, the music that we hear, the paintings and the sculptures that we view, the books that we read, we’re not seeing the first iteration of that. As you will appreciate this, Pivotal (your book) wasn’t the first draft that you ever wrote.
Absolutely not. No.
And I think we can forget that because we think oh, people are producing all this work and at such a faster rate and it has to be perfect first time. So it’s giving, again and I’m using the word permission today, and allowing yourself to write the crappy first draft, for example, and to do the original line sketch of a painting, which by the way until I went to art galleries and saw these on display, I had no idea that artists did that. I didn’t know they did this preliminary sketch and then they did the painting either. Again, I just thought they came up to the canvas and off they went. So it’s allowing yourself permission to get it wrong for a start, not worry about it being perfect and also again though having that, ‘well, how can I make this easier?’
I wrote my book by doing it in five minute or 30 minutes chunks and putting the timer on because I’m very deadline focused like a lot of my clients and that feeds into the brain because the thought of achieving that deadline, that’s what gets our dopamine going if you like. It’s one of the neurotransmitters in the brain and it’s the seeking behaviour that fires that up and it’s the thought of it that thought of the reward if you like. The thought of that timer going off and having done the writing or that anticipation of the reward is very motivating.
And of course once we’ve completed that we will get, for example, serotonin, another neurotransmitter feel good endorphins, if you like, in the brain will then kick in. That then is great feedback for the brain because it will think and I’m making it very simple here, but it will think ‘well this feels good, I want this again.’ I’ll be more likely do that again. So we’re really tapping into the reward network now.
Of course we can also utilize the limbic system which is where we regulate our emotions in the brain or part of it. And also it’s what I think everyone will be familiar with the fight or flight response. It’s in built, it’s one of the oldest part of the brain and that’s where the fear comes from. And so of course the fear of the deadline. That’s why I think having an external deadline is probably more helpful.
So having a coach who is going to say, well, how did you get on writing? However much you were going to write or working on your art or doing whatever it is, that can be helpful because we don’t want to let the other person down and we’ve made it public.
So the thrill of the deadline is going to work. And so I utilize that and I encourage my clients to, if they’re motivated that way, by setting their own mini deadlines. But add in extra time because you might get ill, things might happen, it might take longer. You might not be able to do the 30 minutes a day, for example, that you set yourself.
So I think that fear of not being good enough. Well, what I would say to that, that’s just a story. And how long are you going to live by that story? Probably, as you said, Nikki, it’s not your story, it’s somebody else’s. And how long are you going to allow that to keep you small and knowing it’s just a story, and then go, ‘well, I can write a new story!’ Now, of course, people listening might think, well, that sounds easy and sounds a bit glib. It’s not going to happen overnight, but through repetitive action going, ‘do you know what? I’ll just spend five minutes doing something creative. That’s all I need to do.’ Gradually, what’s going to happen in the brain? You’re going to create these new neural connections that are, in essence, going to create this new story of belief. ‘Oh, I am creative. I’m enjoying this, and it will come from there.’
So that expression, nothing worth having is easy, and fear is there. But courage is acting in spite of fear. And I’ll say that again, courage is acting in spite of fear. We all have fears, and I’ve coached thousands of clients all around the world. We all have a fear. We’ll all have different fears. But it’s going, okay in my case. Oh, I’ve got to get the neuroscience right. And I probably haven’t today, by the way, in the podcast at all, but it’s about getting it right. Everyone’s going to see it and it’s like, okay, well, I might not, but is it more important that I get out what I want to say than thinking I’ve got to get it all correct?
I think those are some really good tips there for people. We’re almost out of time, but I wanted to ask you firstly about your creative project. So you’ve talked about your book. What’s going on with that?
Well, I am editing it, nearly finished editing it. And this first book is around neuroscience and coaching. That’s the focus. And it wasn’t actually the first book that I was going to write. I was actually invited to do it. And I sort of feel this one’s hard, and I’ve got other things that I do want to write, so it’s nearly there and will be published later this year. And so that’s one of the projects.
I do write regularly anyway. I write blogs, Brighter Thinking tips that I send out monthly. And another creative project is that, and you’re the first to hear this, by the way, I’m going to be launching a training program around bright thinking, coaching, and linking the neuroscience, creativity, intuition, neuro linguistic programming, all sorts of things. Everything I’ve learned over the years that’s going to come together, as well as being creative in traveling that I’m doing at the moment. Being a Digital Nomad brings a completely different life, perhaps being creative because I’ve got a limited wardrobe now, so having to think of new ways of how I can put things together, I don’t know.
Excellent. It’s been fantastic talking to you. I’m sure people will take away lots and lots of useful tips about how to tap into their creativity and the challenges that lots of us face, not just people who are creative, but a lot of the things you’ve talked about are applicable to all aspects of our lives. So thank you so much for that. Where can people find you? Where do you hang out? Where can they connect with you?
Thank you Nikki. I would absolutely love everyone to connect with me at rachelbamber.com. And you can sign up to receive my monthly Brighter Thinking Tips, which is all about brain friendly strategies to help you get more out of life and work. And again, I do put things around creativity in there so that’s rachelbamber.com I’m off sort of social media. LinkedIn tends to be the one that I am on most, and that is LinkedIn. Yeah, same photo. So hopefully people can find it easily there.
Excellent. Thank you so much for your time and good luck with the book. You’ll have to let me know when it’s due for publication. Thank you so much.
Thank you very much for having me on the Creative Switch. Nikki.
Thanks so much for listening to this episode of The Creative Switch. If you enjoyed it, please leave a review over on podchaser.com. And if you’ve got any questions, please let me know on Twitter @nikki_vallance. You can also head to nikkivallance.com to join the Creative Switch community.
Look out for episode six, where novelist Sarah Nisha Adams shares the moment she switched to being a full time author. And remember, Why Survive When You Can Thrive?