Creativity and the Mind Body Connection

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From the time I was a child I dreaded gym class. Gym class was when I had to wear unattractive clothes, get picked on and picked last by the jocks and jockettes, play sports I wasn’t any good at, and ultimately get dirty, sweaty and smelly. As a true child of the arts and humanities (and a bit of a girly girl to measure) gym class seemed to be the opposite of beauty and artistic ideals. Furthermore, as a fairly intelligent kid I tended to (and still do) live in my head quite a bit. My body was there but it was more of a vehicle for my mind and vocal chords. However, as I am getting closer to my mid-twenties with a few too many pounds and a quite a few artistic blocks, I’m finding myself reevaluating the mind-body connection and what it can do for me as an artist.

For centuries in western society people have believed the mind and body were separate and more importantly that the mind was superior to the body (Montgomery). After all, the mind was viewed as the being the center of reason, identity and spirituality while the body was seen as home to untamed emotions and primal urges (Ibid). However recent studies in neuroscience and cognitive science have found that this division is not the case. Mind and body, rather than being like two separate cliques who tolerate each other’s existence, are made to coexist harmoniously. Physical activity can, among other things, boost mood and stimulate brain growth (Siegfried). However, the most exciting discovery is from the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience which showed that regular exercise could boost creativity.

At first glance this might sound like bad news for artists and intellectuals who may still have nightmares about gym class. However there are ways that we can exercise to tap into this potential and none of these have to involve getting picked last for volleyball.

1) Dance: This might be the most obvious way to get physical activity for people who love the arts considering dance is an art. You can either find classes or you can do it at home with video instruction. There are several different branches of dance you can choose from (ballroom, ballet, tap, jazz, modern, belly dance, African dance, clogging…). Dance has been found to boost memory, improve balance and flexibility, increase energy, reduce stress and depression, and help the heart (in fact an Italian study found dancing helped people with heart disease improve more than biking or walking on a treadmill) (Knight). Dance can also help to make friends and expand socially (ibid). After all, knowing a few moves can probably do quite a bit to boost your confidence at the next wedding or high school reunion you have to attend. Of course for artists it can also be an opportunity for performance.
2) Walking/Jogging/Bicycling: I included these together because in many ways they are very similar in their benefits though they have their differences as well. All are aerobic exercises meaning that large groups of muscles are active which requires support from the heart and lungs (Lidor). You can either walk/jog/cycle around your neighborhood or if you’re an indoor type you can do them at a gym or at home on a treadmill. They all reduce weight and can prevent various degenerative diseases though cycling puts less stress on joints and thus is often recommended for people who are overweight (Ibid). However, as an artist you might take different approaches. Some (particularly if you are doing this outdoors) might use the time to gain inspiration from your surroundings or as a time to clear your mind. Others might listen to music or an audiobook for inspiration (safety note: if you are outside try to remain aware of your surroundings, especially be mindful of traffic).
3) Yoga: The term Yoga actually refers to a variety of physical, mental and spiritual practices to transform the body and the mind (Wikipedia). The type of Yoga that spread to the west and is most popular in America is a style known as Hatha Yoga (Ibid). However there are many types of Yoga a person can choose from. They range from the very physical styles of Ashtanga and Power Yoga to the more relaxed Iyenger and Hatha (WebMD). Yoga can have many benefits to health including increases in flexibility and strength, better posture, lower blood pressure, and better breathing (Ibid). It’s also been linked to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and better immune system function (Ibid). However Yoga can also have huge benefits in quieting and clearing the mind which can help artists (or anyone for that matter) relieve everyday stresses and perhaps find the inspiration for that next great project (Ibid).
4) Swimming: Swimming is great for those of us that are especially concerned about the icky sweaty factor of exercise (and considering we only have about one more month of summer, now is a good time to take advantage of it). The benefits of swimming are numerous. First, you can work practically all the muscles in the body with a variety of strokes (Luebbers). Additionally it can develop strength, endurance and cardiovascular fitness (Ibid). It’s great for people who are overweight or have joint problems or injuries since it doesn’t involve as much impact stress on the body (Ibid). There can obviously be social benefits (hanging out with friends at the beach or by the pool). However, like yoga, swimming can also allow for meditation which can lead to an artist being able to clear their mind and gain some inspiration.

I offer a challenge to my fellow artists; let’s get off the couch or up from our desks and truly explore our mind-body connections. Let’s dance, walk, jog, cycle, swim, do yoga, or do something else entirely if none of those work for you. In finding our mind-body connection we can be lead to a better understanding of ourselves as artists. Thus we can become more creative, productive, and can truly live up to our artistic ideals (even if we are a little sweaty).

Bibliography and Works Cited
Chan, Amanda L. “Regular Exercise Could Boost Creativity.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 Dec. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Colzato, Lorenza S., Ayca Szapora, Justine N. Pannekoek, and Bernhard Hommel. “The Impact of Physical Exercise on Convergent and Divergent Thinking.” Frontiers. N.p., 02 Dec. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Davis, Jeffrey, M.A. “Science of Creativity Moves Into the Body.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., 07 Nov. 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Dean, Jeremy. “20 Wonderful Effects Exercise Has on the Mind.” PsyBlog RSS. N.p., 09 Oct. 2013. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Knight, Madeline. “9 Health Benefits of Dance.” EverydayHealth.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Lidor, David. “Running Vs Cycling – The Similarities and the Differences.” Running Vs Cycling – The Similarities and the Differences. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Luebbers, Mat. “What Are the Health Benefits of Being a Swimmer?” About.com Swimming. N.p., 02 June 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Montgomery, John, Ph.D. “The Body in the Mind.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
Siegfried, Juliette, MPH. “How Exercise Affects the Brain.” How Exercise Affects the Brain. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .
“Yoga Health Benefits: Flexibility, Strength, Posture, and More.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 01 Aug. 2014.
“Yoga.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Jan. 2014. Web. 02 Aug. 2014. .

Is Competition Good For Artists?

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From the time I was a child I’ve always felt a great need to please, to achieve and succeed, in short to win. While the reasons for this are probably a result of multiple factors and a bit too complex to go into here, I can say the need to achieve is a blessing and a curse. On one hand I feel that I strive to do the best I possibly can at whatever I’m doing which has led to achievement in many cases. On the other hand it can also cause crippling self-doubt, the constant feeling that I haven’t truly done enough and situations that, when I really think about them, can only be described as absurd (such as being upset when I don’t perform well in a harmless pickup game of volley ball when I don’t even like volley ball or sports in general and was probably dragged into playing the game in the first place). As a result of this, I find myself reflecting on my competitive nature and by extension competition.

Competition plays a large role in American society and there is certainly a fascination with it. There is the political realm with the competition between the parties as well as with other countries (think Sputnik or in today’s world the fears of the rising power of China). We’ve passed from Superbowl obsession into March Madness on the sports front. The world of the arts and entertainment is certainly not immune with shows like American Idol, The Voice, Project Runway and So You Think You Can Dance just to name a few. However, as an artist, I have certain qualms about competition particularly when applied to the arts.

I won’t deny that there can be benefits in competition. Artists can gain exposure, network with fellow artists, and receive feedback on their work. Winning a contest can provide a major boost of confidence while losing can help you learn what you need to improve on. There is also an argument to be made that artists will have to compete no matter what. After all, not everyone can be the conductor or star in the leading role. In short, there will be in everyone’s life “a time to win and a time to lose.”

Unfortunately, there are definite problems with competition in the arts. The most obvious being that art is by its very nature subjective. An individual’s favorite musician, artist, or writer might be (or heck, forget might be, probably IS) someone else’s most loathed. I remember a talent show I took part in where I played guitar and sang “19th Nervous Breakdown” with a friend accompanying on drums. We lost the talent show but the feedback was a definite example of subjectivity at work. The one judge that had experience in rock bands and enjoyed rock music gave us very high scores. Conversely, the other judges, who were most likely not of the same musical persuasion, were not as enthusiastic in their responses. Of course there are numerous examples of talented people who were overlooked and misunderstood by critics and peers. Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most well-known examples of this phenomena though he is by no means the only one.

Of course the issue of subjectivity does not account for general bias, favoritism, and nepotism which can be just as pervasive in the arts community if not more so. Shows with audience choice to determine a winner can simply lead to the most popular competitor winning instead of the most talented. Perhaps some of you reading this have seen examples of these factors in your own lives and careers; for instance, the mediocre actress who achieved a leading role while sleeping with the director or the arts council headed by people that have ethics more akin to members of the mafia.  

I believe that artists can benefit from competitions but we have to utilize them appropriately. We should not enter a competition to win but instead to learn whatever the outcome may be. Believe me I know this is harder than it sounds and even with this mindset I’ve still felt upset after a loss. However if we can master looking at competitions as a learning experience rather than a game that we must win, it will benefit our happiness and sanity. In conjunction with this we should take the opportunity seek feedback from reliable sources. This can be a contest judge or truthful friends and family members who appreciate your work but can be honest about any shortcomings. Ultimately, we should remember that our work is subject to opinion and interpretation which should liberate us to focus on our development as artists instead of trends or non-constructive criticisms. In the words of the Sue Sylvester of Glee (played by the amazing Jane Lynch) “There’s not much of a difference between a stadium full of cheering fans and an angry crowd screaming abuse at you. They’re both just making a lot of noise. How you take it is up to you. Convince yourself they’re cheering for you. You do that and someday they will.”