Musing on the Muse

What’s your muse like?

Here’s Shakespeare on the subject: “O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”

And here’s Stephen King: “My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all.”

I’m not sure what my muse is like. I think perhaps it’s a scholarly girl with big glasses reading in an easy chair, glancing up once in awhile to send me a smile.

I wrote this post over seven years ago and thought it was worth updating and posting again. Although I’m not sure my muse is this bespectacled girl anymore. Maybe more like an amorphous cloud with flashes of lightning?

Whoever or whatever your muse is, chances are you struggle like all creative people to tap into its powers. Sometimes the words and images flow, sometimes it’s like that Disney ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” where the pirates keep trying unsuccessfully to lure a mutt to bring them the jailer’s keys.

In the meantime, science has renamed the muse our “subconscious” and discovered some interesting things about that “scruffy little mutt.” For one thing, our muse may not necessarily visit from above as a rare gift from the gods, but could be built into us.

Take a look at these two images for a second.

donkey sunflower.009

According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, odds are good that as you look your brain is beginning to construct a narrative, a story, a reason why these two images go together. And it isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could be joined into a story, but according to Linden you will automatically start figuring out a narrative even if I show you this.

rhino teeth.010

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection. Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories. It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in as we work to make sense of what’s happening around us. If we see a chimpanzee running past us in the jungle, it could be important for our survival to figure out what it’s running from. If we see a panther running by next–that’s one story. If we see a clown car next–that’s a lot less scary story (depending, of course, on how you feel about clowns).

Our brains are putting together a causal link: this is happening because that happened and that happened because of that other thing. And isn’t that the essence of story–connecting one action and to another exploring actions and their consequences?

Another interesting thing about our brain is it often seems to know things before we do. I can remember writing stories where I’d put in what seemed an incidental detail—the white rose on the dresser—in the beginning of a story only to discover that this seemingly arbitrary detail was perfect for my ending. It’s an experience familiar to many writers.

It’s as if some part of our brain knows our story before we do.

And according to science your brain literally does know things before you consciously do. In a study where participants were asked to solve a puzzle, scientists could tell before the participants consciously knew it that they had solved the puzzle. How? They could see that the brain started to form alpha waves. Sometimes they could predict as much as eight seconds ahead of the time that the participant was going to have the answer.

Human head silhouette

There are two types of brain waves associated with subconscious creativity. Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity-that lies just below our conscious awareness – it is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness.

That deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves.The theta wave state is also known as the twilight state something which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep, although theta waves are abundant in experienced meditators.

It’s these relaxed brain wave states that give us access to our unconscious thoughts and images. And there are ways to encourage them. For one thing, those alpha and theta waves like what Emily Dickenson calls it “reverie.”

You no longer need to feel guilty for staring off into space, doodling aimlessly or watching a fly crawl across the ceiling. Next time family or friends look at you accusingly as you sit there chewing on your pencil eraser with a dreamy look on your face, you can tell them it has been scientifically proven that you are working. Even Einstein agrees.

“Creativity is the residue of wasted time,” he said.

One last bit of science: it is still a bit speculative, but there’s a scientific theory that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant wave frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus.

Basically what that means is that your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heart beat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment.

So the creative muse likes rhythmic activities: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

Beautiful women in the hammock on the beach

As Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

The way I first heard it described years ago was “bed, bath and bus.” Do something mindless, repetitive and meditative. In other words, allow yourself to muse and maybe that mutt will bring you the keys.

4 responses to “Musing on the Muse

  1. A couple of thoughts here: 1) the story of the person with short term memory loss who was taught to braid three strands. The next day, he was asked to braid something, but told them he had no idea what braiding was or what they were asking him to do. While saying this, he immediately began to braid the strands. The brain has compartments of knowledge that we may not have knowing, verbal access to, yes!
    2) I listen to a mix of music with binaural beats when I’m struggling with creativity and focus. It tends to help. And always get more ideas as I’m walking or showering or as I’m going to sleep. I’m struggling with starting a new novel right now, and feel like I need to feed my brain more images to get the synapses firing. Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

  2. The music with binaural beats sounds pretty interesting. I had to look it. I might try it. Thanks!

  3. Fun stuff to think about! I’ve found ironing can be a time the Muse comes by — something about the rhythm, the warmth, the fresh laundry smell…
    And I am reminded of William Stafford’s poem:

    When I Met My Muse

    I glanced at her and took my glasses
    off – they were still singing. They buzzed
    like a locust on the coffee table and then
    ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
    sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
    knew that nails up there took a new grip
    on whatever they touched. “I am your own
    way of looking at things,” she said. “When
    you allow me to live with you, every
    glance at the world around you will be
    a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

  4. That’s wonderful, Laura. “I am your own way of looking at things.”
    Thanks!

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