I am working on my next Findo Gask & Erroll Rait novel, the Case of the Beth-El stone.  Starting in Melbourne they have so far travelled to New Zealand, London, Edinburgh and Perthshire where the plot is beginning to thread to a conclusion.

Even though I start with a skeleton of an plot, I find that every book I have written leads me into unexpected and unanticipated situations. I have heard other authors say the same thing, more or less, but before I began my journey as an author I wouldn’t have believed just how far the characters in the story develop a life and a mind of their own.  I assume my subconscious is expanding on the story with logical progressions or lived experience.  Which made me think about creativity and how it comes about.

A Venture Capitalist in Boston at Edison Ventures, with whom I worked was a huge admirer of Thomas Edison, the very embodiment of creativity.   I heard that he (Edison, that is) would hold a steel ball in each hand before falling asleep.  Why?  So that, when he finally drifted off, the balls would drop and wake him.  This allowed him to remember what he was last thinking about the moment he fell asleep; the period he considered to be his most creative.

It turns out that Edison may have cracked the code. An experiment conducted in 2021 confirmed that people are more creative just after waking.

Apparently, sleep patterns can also impact long-term memory because the brain lays down long-term memory from the day’s experiences when in deep sleep.  The typical adult needs 7-9 hours to harvest this benefit. Also, cognitive capability declines across the day whether you are a ‘lark’ or an ‘owl’ in your sleeping habits. Which made my meandering brain jump to Winston Churchill.

He is one of my personal heroes and two things about him resonate amongst others.  The first is that, like me, he was a very poor Latin scholar (read My Early Life for a humorous description of his school entrance exam – even I could do better than that!).  The second is that he would regularly take a nap in the afternoon, waking refreshed to continue into the night.  Churchill and I have similar body rhythms.  I can recall many a time I would have loved to desert my office desk at 2pm for a nap – I know I would have been far more productive on those afternoons & evenings!

Working with rather than against your body rhythm is, I believe one of the keys to fuelling the brain and I don’t think I’m alone in this regard.  I recall making a presentation one afternoon to about 50 people in a lecture theatre on a business trip to Japan.  They all looked on as I went through my demonstration and sales pitch.  Except, as I looked more closely, I noticed that a handful of the audience had their eyes closed and actually appeared to be sleeping.  My initial reaction was that I was doing a very poor job but on reflection I suspect they were putting into practise this lesson (my presentation may also have contributed}.

Too, at any time of life, you can leverage the brain’s capability by exercising something researchers call ‘flow’ or as I would describe it, focus. If you have a task with clear goals, rapid feedback and the basic knowledge or skill to complete the task, your brain can become ‘supercharged’ and the task becomes relatively easy to perform.  I’ve experienced this many times, allowing me to work productively for hours on end without sleep.  I’ve attributed it to adrenalin flowing – but that’s probably just a different way to describe the flow effect (my record is 36 hours non-stop when I was leading a team completing a prospectus for an Initial Public Offering. The due date was an effective motivation).

Contrary to popular understanding and as pushed hard by political observers in the USA right now, the brain’s performance doesn’t decline from early adulthood. While problem solving ability may be highest in your 20s, other important mental skills (not to mention learned life experiences and wisdom) mature later.  For example, working memory peaks around 30, emotion perception in your 40s to 60s and comprehension and information-processing reach a peak around 50 and remain higher for decades after this.

All well and good. But let’s get back to the creative instinct?  How did Conan Doyle and Mark Twain do it?

The “dual process” theory offers some insight.  This distinguishes between idea generation and idea evaluation. Generation is using existing knowledge as inspiration – something I certainly do – for example Viewforth House in my Emigrant Niece novel is very much modelled on a house I owned at one time.  Free association is the trigger for creativity here as one thought leads on to another.   Then, in the second phase – Evaluation – we select those ideas that harmonise with our goals. For example, developing the reader’s perception of one character only to reveal a very different person as the plot unwinds.

Research has shown that idea Generation and Evaluation use distinct neural networks.  Generation is the default state, typically in effect when the brain is relaxed and ‘freewheeling’ from one thought to another.  Evaluation however relies on the executive network, active when we apply ourselves to specific goals.  A third network – the Salience network – may be a bridge between both.

Research has shown that creative capacity is a function of how well these networks communicate with each other so researchers are currently looking at creative thinking and problem-solving training programmes to stimulate neural network connectivity.  So far, they have concluded that guided practise in idea Generation and Evaluation can help improve creative thinking. They have also recommended involving yourself in different cultures to draw inspiration from new experiences.  I hope the fact that I have travelled widely and lived and worked on 4 continents might be working to my advantage in this regard at least!

I have no plans to buy a couple of steel balls to help with my creativity but I’ll do my best to draw on my life experiences to create work of interest and intrigue.  And on that note, I’ll get back to my unfinished Chapter 50.  Will Rait escape unharmed? 

At this stage, I have no idea, perhaps I need a 20-minute nap.