Friday, 21 April 2017

We need to talk about Brain Waves

I’ve recently finished the first draft of my brand spanking new novel. It’s the first entirely new ‘thing’ I’ve written in a couple of years – personal reasons – and I’d forgotten the utter joy you feel when you forget about life happening around you, put a gag on your critical self, and give creativity some breathing space.

With her inner critic gagged, Violet was finally able to finish her novel.
Adjusting to my new role as a carer was not easy. Caring is all-consuming, taking up space in your mind, your heart, and your daily routine, making it difficult to focus and concentrate. Desperate to write, and yet unable to commit to anything fresh for very long, I found myself stuck in the eternal loop of editing, rewriting, editing, reinventing, editing, and so on. I was getting nowhere.

But enough was enough. This year, I had to – needed to – find the head space, heart space and time to focus on something new or else my writing career was over. Nobody wants to read a polished turd, no matter how much glitter you sprinkle on top.

So I turned to science; more specifically, neuroscience. Because I knew there was a link between slower brainwaves and increased creativity I wondered if that could help me.

Our brains contain billions of neurons that communicate with each other at various speeds for different reasons and different effects. Think of them as waves of electrical activity; some fierce and fast like a raging storm at sea, while others offer a glassy stillness full of calm and quiet. These waves affect your thoughts and moods and are linked to specific states of consciousness.

Beta brainwaves are typical in normal waking consciousness. They are relatively fast; useful when we are alert and engaged in problem-solving or decision-making, but tend towards rut-like thinking patterns which do little to support creativity. The majority of us operate in Beta, but unrelenting Beta brainwaves lead to stress, anxiety and often depression.

Alpha brainwaves are slower. They are often associated with daydreaming but can be induced in meditation, mindfulness or even exercise. They are good for creativity. I’ve used Alpha waves before, taking time to relax before writing, but in my new all-consuming role as carer, it wasn’t working for me. I’d just get twitchy and distracted by the mental list all the things I needed to do. When it came to writing, sure, the words would flow, but my heart wasn’t in it and my nagging inner critic wouldn’t shut up.

I needed something to help me concentrate, focus, and get me in THE ZONE from the get go. That’s when Theta came in.

Theta brainwaves are slower still and commonly occur during REM (dreaming) sleep and deep meditation. They are associated with visualisation, inspiration, creativity and insight. That’s what I wanted; instant inspiration, creativity and insight.

I knew that sound can affect the way a person works. I’d heard about the Mozart effect, (listening to Mozart's music may induce a short-term improvement in some mental tasks ) and I knew about brainwave entrainment, (the capacity of the brain to naturally synchronise its brainwave frequencies with the rhythm of external auditory stimuli), and I wondered if a different sound environment could help me step into a more creative mindset, even though the external circumstances in my life were ganging up against me.

I turned to the app store on my phone, and there at the top of the pile was a free download of Theta Waves. I had nothing to lose.

I listened to my Theta waves through headphones every day for an hour or more, and during that time I wrote continuously. Of course, I had a rough idea of what my story was about; I had a few scenes in my head and I knew how I wanted it to end, but the rest of the journey was an unknown to me. I didn’t stop to edit, read back what I’d already written, or play with the wording – even though the temptation was strong some days; I just wrote my story out, as if I was telling it to someone else for the first time.

Less than three months later, my brand spanking new first draft was complete and I’m feeling pretty good.

Of course, there’s still a mountain to climb ahead of me; nailing voice and characterisation; strengthening subplots, themes, and story arcs; killing a few darlings, and fine tuning, but at least I have something to work with.

For my next trick, I’ll be looking at the benefits of Gamma brainwaves, also known as The Insight Wave, supposed to increase mental activity, concentration, information processing, focus ... and hopefully, mountaineering.