The Science Behind our Creativity: Process + Practice of Presence

By Nkechi Deanna Njaka, Msc. Photography by Deun Ivory.

I am a creative being. You are a creative being. We are all creative beings.

Our own life has to be our message. — Thick Nhat Hamh

Creativity heals. When I was young, I became very interested, very soon, in how fear and anxiety prevented me from living a fully expressed life. In certain circumstances, my anxiety would paralyze me. It was hard to accept this knowing that participatory arts like dance gave me the freedom to self express. When given the space to self express, I felt only peace, openness, grace, curiosity, wonder, ease and beauty. There was nothing unkind or oppressive in the present moment.

For several years, I worked as a neuroscientist as well as a professional modern dancer/choreographer trying to understand myself and this phenomena better. Through my work, I discovered that mindfulness and creativity are crucial for sustaining individual and global well-being. And now there is research out there to show us why.

We were each born a creative genius. Fact.

I recently read an article that suggests that while we are all born creative geniuses, overtime our creativity diminishes as a result of the education system. The good news is that we can replenish our creativity with mindfulness and practices of presence.

The article reviews a longitudinal study that NASA researchers conducted, reviewing the creativity of a group of children over time. The findings reveal that the creativity of the population sample dropped from 98% at six years old to 2% by the time these children reached adulthood. This research was conducted over several population samples with over a million replicated findings.

From the study,  Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman were able to see that there are two kinds of thinking that take place in the brain. The first way of thinking is called divergent and that is our imagination— our creativity. This type of thinking is used for making new possibilities. The second way of thinking is called convergent. And this is when we are making judgments, opinions, a decision and criticism.

The cool thing about divergent thinking is that it is an expensive way of looking at and interpreting the world where convergent is a restricted way of understanding our reality.

According to Dr. George Land, based on all the studies his research group conducted and all the brain scans they looked at, we must learn how to judge less, and look to understand more. If we can criticize less, and be curious more, we are finding ways to increase our creativity. He also cites fear and anxiety as being extremely counter-productive. I knew this to be true first-hand from a very young age in battling my crippling anxiety.

Additionally, in their research, when they looked at the brains of their sample, they found that the neurons were fighting each other. This activity was actually diminishing the power of the brain as a result of the constant judging, criticizing and censoring. When we are operating under fear, this is what is happening to us, in our brains. There is a very bright side, though! The beautiful thing is that when we use a creative, divergent thinking, the brain lights up, our neurons thrive. You can check out his TED talk here to learn more.

"Creativity occurs in the moment, and in the moment we are timeless." ― Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way

Wellness and creativity are inextricably linked for me. I find creativity in my sitting practice, my movement practice and my writing practice.

It’s incredible that even at a young age, my intuitive sense of my body being honest with me was spot on. My suspicion about my preferred state of creativity was the very thing setting me free. It is also amazing to reflect that when I experienced burnout from my career, my time spent in yoga, meditation and self-inquiry were also the things that healed me.

[the practice]

Mindfulness practices are the way of divergent thinking.

Some of the greatest ways to deal with our blocks or mental paralysis, is to engage in practices like yoga, meditation, and other movement, since they all help to mitigate and alleviate stress and anxiety. Each also inspire a process called neurogenesis — which is the creation of new brain cells.

In her book The Artist Way, Julia Cameron advocates for something called an “artist date,” which is a time to be present and attuned to your creative genius or inner child. Think of it as a once-a-week, sweet, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. It doesn't have to be “creative” or “artsy,” although it can be!

The goal is that these dates spark whimsy and encourage play. it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?”— and then allow yourself to try it. I love her book and the practices.

Here are 10 of my favorite:

  1. Spend some time outdoors with your journal, sketchbook, craft supplies, etc.

  2. Go for a walk, and take your camera with you to document the experience.

  3. Go to a free museum.

  4. Create a vision board.

  5. Dance like no one is watching to your favorite song- bonus points if you sing

  6. Plant something

  7. Watch the clouds

  8. Write a poem and water color an illustration

  9. Spend the day naked

  10. Have a technology-free day.

These have supported my art practice and have fueled and expand my creativity. When I am creative, I feel more connected to myself and that which created me.

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Nkechi Deanna Njaka is an SF mindfulness meditation instructor and the founder of NDN lifestyle studio, co-founder of Sitting Matters, and a 2017 YBCA Truth Fellow. As a neuroscientist, choreographer and meditation teacher, she has spent the majority of her life investigating the relationship between the brain and the body and has always felt the significance of their integration.Through her work as a neuroscientist as well as a professional modern dancer + choreographer, she discovered that mindfulness and creativity are crucial for sustaining individual and global well-being. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, CA where she majored in neuroscience and dance and went on to complete an MSc. in Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh.