Brain Gains

Let’s call it the ancient brain. That part of us that keeps vital bodily systems functioning day in and day out. Making adjustments to our heart rate and our breathing to keep us upright. I actually think it is much more than that. It is probably aware of our surroundings and can warn us of danger, always ready to engage our ‘fight or flight’ response if need be. None of these activities need to be taught, they are programmed into our native operating system.

We don’t have much control over most of those involuntary ancient brain activities, not for long periods of time anyway. But we can, with some repetitive actions, upload new modules.

Take driving. When we’re learning to drive we have to think about every action we take as we make our way down the road. It takes all our attention to stay in our lane. But after a while we can carry on a conversation, and even operate the radio without driving off the road. Eventually, driving for most of us becomes second nature.

I have a painting I’ve been working on for a few weeks…it’s been sitting on my easel in my studio, waiting as I consider my next move. A few days ago I found myself standing with brush in hand, and to my surprise, a full hour had passed — I realized that I had been painting in that magical place between conscious thought and the working of that involuntary ancient brain.

I felt rather euphoric, and I was reminded of something that the great jazz pianist, Bill Evans, said of playing jazz and the creative process.

“Now the whole process of learning the facility to play jazz, is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense conscious concentration level, until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now, when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more, and so on, and so on.” –Bill Evans, Universal Mind of Bill Evans (Documentary film, 1966)

I write a lot here about the problem solving fortitude it takes to make art. The principles of composition alone are enough to keep me awake at night! Add to that the technical facility and control we need over our tools and materials so that we can execute the work we want.

By making our art regularly, daily even, year after year, we begin to upload new skills to our ancient brain. Hopefully then we can (as Mr. Evans says), “…begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more, and so on, and so on.”

Can we ask for much more?

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