The time I broke my brain

By 31st January 2017Blogs, TEN Talent

I’m a big believer in treating life as a series of experiments. It’s a great way to learn about yourself and it stops you from stagnating. But not every experiment is successful. And some of them can leave you with lasting side-effects, as I discovered many years ago.

This is the story of a creative experiment I conducted on myself that wasn’t exactly a blinding success.

The hypothesis

When I was an eager young advertising copywriter back in 2000, 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 principle to every area of my life, I’d become more creative in general.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

The method

I duly embarked on my little experiment. I tried to do even the most mundane things differently every time I did them.

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.

These are not the results you’re looking for

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.

How do you make coffee again?

It all hit me one day as I stood in the kitchen trying to work out how to make myself a coffee. I was at a complete loss. I stood there trying to work out the steps in the process.

What equipment was needed for the 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 actions together into tasks to allow you to operate on 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-practiced routine. I had destroyed most of these little task bundles during the course of my experiment. And it was making my life harder and harder to live.

Recovery is a slow process

It took me just over six months to cause the damage and at least another year to feel pretty much back to normal again. It was a slow process of rebuilding the tasks I’d broken down. I believe even now my struggle with routine and consistency has its roots in this experiment. Things like putting my keys in a different pocket every time and then having to pat myself down when I get to my front door. And my drive to find different routes rather than fall into a routine journey. You have every right to feel sorry for my poor family.

Wisdom from a wise man

A number of years later, I was having lunch with Rory Sutherland and recounted this story to him. At the end of it, he laughed uproariously and said “Dave, you’re an idiot! Do you not know that a man’s intelligence can be measured by how many things he can do without thinking?” Well, clearly, I hadn’t thought about it that way. And maybe he was right.

But did that stop me from experimenting? No siree!

Last year I did an experiment with my friend, Relja Dereta, to see if we could teach our weaker hands to draw. It was slightly more successful than this one. Maybe I’ll tell you about it soon.

Read Dave’s original post here: http://openforideas.org/blog/2017/01/30/the-time-i-broke-my-brain/

Dave Birss

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