When you paint you are using two distinct areas of your brain. One is the up front, active brain known to neurologists as “task positive.” This is where you try to paint well, get the anatomy right, master colour, achieve a decent design as well as other practicalities of the moment.
The second area is farther back in the cortex and is more the resting brain — what is known as “task negative.” Neurologists also call this the “default mode network.” This is where attention wanders when the task positive brain is not being fully used. Here are daydreams, memories, fantasies, fictitious conversations and even thoughts about things that have nothing to do with the job at hand. To their surprise, neurologists found that this wandering mind uses almost as much energy as the one that gives the appearance of getting things done.
Average people are in their task-negative brains more than a third of their waking hours. Apparently, artistic and inventive folk are even more into it. As such, the default mode network is thought to be the buzzing beehive of creativity.
I’m not a neurologist, but I’ve knocked about in a few artists’ brains. Beginners tend to favor the task positive — fairly obviously because they are figuring out how to do things. Mature artists, on the other hand, can often slip into task negative for entire works. Having mastered the nuts and bolts, they now trust the felicitous takeover of default mode. Their paintings paint themselves. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu figured it out 2400 years ago. He called it “Doing without trying to do.”
Here’s the rub: Some artists stay permanently stuck in task positive. “Without wandering minds,” says psychologist Jonathan Schooler, “they stay shackled to what they’re doing at the time.” On the other hand, there are artists who are all wandering mind and show little evidence of practical technique or self-managed application.
Left on its own, neither mode works properly. Working together, they are like a couple of characters in an old silent movie — they can’t help but make interesting things happen.
If there is a secret, it may lie in achieving a balance and teaching yourself to switch back and forth. Constant stopping just to think won’t fix a work that is already over-thought. Over-thinking leads to one of our most vexing goof-ups — overworking. Conversely, a persistent state of wandering mind can turn fine work into a fine mess. You need ’em both.
PS: “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” (Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel)
Esoterica: Now here’s the interesting part: Apparently, boredom is a significant springboard to creativity. Neuroscientists have also found boredom to be a source of feelings of well being and a strong sense of self. In boredom, the brain continues to fire away in those regions that conjure hypothetical events and new possibilities. The wandering mind, the dream world, can be a better world than the real nuts-and-bolts world and for the artist, with the addition of task-positive skills, it can transform into the joyful business of making it happen.
Rock and roll
by Ruth Rodgers, Lakeside, ON, Canada
As an artist who also teaches psychology, I have given a fair bit of thought to this idea of “two brains,” mostly with respect to the left brain/right brain model espoused by Betty Edwards in her famous book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Whether we are talking two hemispheres, conscious / unconscious, or “positive and negative,” the idea is the same — the need for balance between the analytical, task-focused, symbolic-language based part of us, and the more abstract, graphic, explorative aspect.
I have developed a rhythm in my painting that alternates between stepping back and engaging my analytic brain (rocking) to make decisions about the work, and then stepping forward and engaging my free-flowing, unconscious aspect (rolling) while I actually make marks on the painting. I try to alternate between these two modes fairly regularly, paying attention to any decrease in flow while painting (time to rock!), and the urgency to “get at it” (time to roll!) when I’m in the step-back mode. It’s fun!
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Painter needs to ‘leave the room’
by Shelley Mitchell, Halifax, NS, Canada
When I get past the planning stage of a painting and have set down the basic design and values I always put on loud music, a TV or listen to books on CD while I actually lay down paint. This seems to force me to keep part of my attention off the work and that allows for a certain amount of automatic or unconscious creativity to take over. I never really knew why this worked for me but as you explained, it allows that “task negative” part of the brain to take over more easily since the “task positive” part is busy listening to the music, books or movies playing. I remember reading a quote by Manet to the effect “If I’m lucky, when I paint, first my patrons leave the room, then my dealers, and if I’m really lucky I leave too.”
Using the conscious part of mind is simple
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
The labels, “task positive/negative” disturb me. It gives a false impression of the whole process and has definite value judgments attached. The consciousness is 12 % of the brain, the other 88% is very busy and indispensible. For creative people the conscious part; mastering techniques, having a sense of self-criticism, not to mention a minimum of marketing and relational skills, is relatively easy. Using the conscious mind is simple. That’s what it is there for. Accessing the deeper levels is the real adventure and where great art begins to take form. It is like the journey to the center of the earth.
The wisdom of ‘technique first’
by Linda Hudgins, Tryon, NC, USA
I find that the best days are those when I work in default. Recently I have been revisiting the message from my Pennsylvania Academy trained professor in undergraduate school. He insisted to me that I needed to learn to see and to understand technique as I was too young and inexperienced to know what I wanted to do with art. As I experience life and bring myself to the painting I find that he was right. I rely on techniques and skills learned by that “task positive” brain as I go “task negative” where I find the joy.
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The illusive smile on the brush
by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA
I would like to talk about the buzzing beehive of creativity, as you should, coming from a clean source of one’s personal intimate approach to art. Instincts is all we have to show for when it comes to answering the poke that finds its way to irritate the surface of our skin, it is like the shrine of our soul filled with prayers and well wishing of the entire universe stretching through the entire history of man-kind that does not materialize to become more than another detail that is, somewhat, useless in the quest for creativity. The significance of science and its revelations, studies and their value is empty of value when it comes to a thousand questions racing towards your brain, all expecting to be answered. I would like your scientists to answer this question: Is the grin on the face of my brush a smile or a sign of exhaustion.
The accession of outside information
by Helen Musser, Terrell, TX, USA
During my days at Southern Methodist University, our professor came into the studio talking about Christopher Columbus and how he discovered our country. We were all busy painting a nude and I was puzzled why he was talking about Chris. We finished painting that day and I was going to take my work home but, he would not let me.
The next day he came in and said to the class, “Helen is accessing information as she paints.” I did not know what he was talking about until I took the painting home that day and looked at it closely. There it was in her hair a tiny little seashore and three tiny little ships anchored there. So how did that happen? I hope you can help explain it to me. I never talked to my professor about it. Too shy about my art.
The value of boredom
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
From this description it appears I was born mature LOL! I do agree that boredom is a major motivation to get me Task Positive in the studio. I do feel that thinking, or letting the brain think, is a great thing. Some would argue that too much Positive Tasking is life-negative in general – I’ve noted that those who thrive only in concrete reality do tend to hold the opinion that anyone appearing to be lawling-around not doing is flakey or lazy (bad bad words!). What I would describe the background prep work is like being pregnant — I don’t task every day in my studio because I know when I need to be doing and when I need to be not doing. Chop Wood Carry Water — a great meditation on Life. I live in a pretty near constant state of gestation — multi-tasking — I’m really really good at washing dishes, laundry, day to day stuff including a day job and carrying on full conversations while in Negative Task mode!
The larger and smaller self
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
Well this is just another “atta-boy” pat on the old back Robert. This region mentioned in your letter called “default mode network” seems a lot like what I’ve referred to now for quite awhile as the “larger self” riding in the back of the brain and that which is responsible for those bursts of creative insight that come along every now and then. Historically referred to as a visit by the “Muses.” I usually think of what is referred in your letter as the “task positive” arena as the “frontal brain” or the “little logic man” that likes to think he is the driver but is in reality just the cat posted on guard duty… as crucial function but not “headquarters.”
Surprises in tracking mental activity
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
I’m absolutely fascinated by how the Jello Upstairs shapes experience, purpose and consciousness. A wonderful source of information of this type is to be found on RadioLab, a production of WNYC. NPR broadcasts it, and their astonishing collection of podcasts is available both online at (wnyc.org) and at the iTunes Music Store. “This Is Your Brain On Love” is a great place to start. In another episode (sorry, the title eludes me) they talk about an experiment in volition, using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans of the brain. These scanners can detect areas of brain activity as they occur, a remarkable achievement.
In this experiment, the subjects were told to wiggle their finger anytime they wanted to. That was it. The scan revealed that, a few milliseconds before the finger moved, there was a brief spike of activity in the motor area. No surprise there. What WAS surprising was that, about a half second before that, there was another burst of activity, unbeknownst to the wiggler and not readily explained by the scientists. It seems that, when we make a choice, something unconscious chooses to permit us to choose, first. Now get past that and into how dopamine draws us to the pleasures of making art, and then factor in the Default-Mode network.
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by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I got a call from my brother the other day. Bill is an interesting fellow. He suffers from ‘schizo affective disorder.’ That means he is schizophrenic with an added ‘bonus’ of bipolar mood swings. He is disabled and has a lot of time on his hands so he surfs the Internet seeking hope and inspiration. I get regular reports on his recent discoveries, that he usually is excited about for a day or two. He was telling me about a therapy called EFT which stands for ’emotional freedom techniques.’ I looked it up and have become interested in it myself. I believe it would interest you as well. EFT borrows from ancient Chinese medicine that views the body as an electrical entity. Energy fields in the body are plotted out as ‘meridians’ running through us. Pressure points along these meridians are vital for healing. Acupuncture involves these sticking needles into these pressure points. The theory behind EFT is that we are all slowed down by past emotional and physical traumas… feelings that are evoked over and over based on external events. These traumas are stored in our bodies, blocking our energy flow and creating many of the illnesses that are manifested on our bodies. Where psychiatry focuses on these memories, EFT focuses on restoring the energy flow in our body. EFT therapy involves tapping on the pressure points on your body, while reciting affirmations about whatever it is you are wanting to change. I am a skeptical person and this sounds odd as can be, yet there is really no denying that this method creates some amazing results for a host of human ills. These healings defy modern medicine and render much of its ideas obsolete. People who have suffered crippling pain for years are ‘cured’ in just minutes in many instances. Soldiers stuck in a terrifying post traumatic stress regain their sanity etc, etc… all by the simple act of tapping on their bodies on these pressure points. Very strange. Check out the website. I think you will find it oddly fascinating and could imagine how artists could use this form of therapy to improve their lives and performance in their art.
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Laurel and Hardy misquoted
by George R Robertson, Mississauga, ON, Canada
I’m afraid your film quote is just a little off. The actual line, repeated in several early films, would come after some scheme of Oliver’s had gone awry. He would pull himself up to full, outraged height, glare at Stanley, and declare, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” I felt I had to correct this undoubtedly misremembered statement because as Stanley famously said in “Sons of the Desert,” ‘Honesty is the best politics.’
(RG note) Thanks, George. And thanks also to the dozen or so others who set me straight on this one. I got myself into a fine mess. We’ve fixed it on the website and for any future publications. I met Stan Laurel several times when I was living in Los Angeles (1960). He frequented a bar on Van Nuys Blvd that had some of my work. One time he told me that the pair (Ollie had already passed away) didn’t own any of the rights to their movies. Their thinking was that the movies were so quickly and effortlessly made that they were just temporary amusements, and not worth hanging on to.
Warm Summers Eve
oil painting by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Debra Gow of Langley, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Robert, that is the best assessment of being an artist I’ve ever heard. I am so grateful that I’ve been in the mode of creating pieces that just fall off the brush so to speak.”
And also Kathy Hirsh of Beijing, China, who wrote, “There’s a business paradigm that I often think about when painting and teaching. I’m trying to get to the fourth level myself:
And also Knut Hansen of Denmark, who wrote, “Today’s overreliance on task negative is the reason there is so much poor art around.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Accessing the default mode network…