Paralyzed From the Brain Down - April 3, 2020

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To say the past weeks have been weird is an understatement. I have been trying to work from home, but it's difficult. What's worse is that I'm home more, but am completely unable to paint! I'm paralyzed and I can't figure out what's wrong. My husband says all psychological problems are inherently fixable if you can articulate what the problem is. So when I can't articulate it, I feel worse, like it's only ME standing in the way of feeling better. If only I were smarter.
One fun thing is that my siblings and I are all talking more online. Yesterday we had the best conversation because one never-available-when-we-group-call sibling actually took part! Unfortunately, they also got mad when I took a (lot) screenshots. I touched up one of the screenshots to show how they should really feel about me. 

I'm thinking of downloading some filters for my next meeting at work and looking like the potato lady I can't stop laughing at this picture. 

And laugh…

Josie Lewis' TEDx Talk - February 1, 2020


[Enjoy my transcription of Josie Lewis' TEDx talk]

I am an artist. I make process videos of my work on the Internet. My videos have had more than a billion views.  My work looks rainbow-y and bright and colorful and joyful but I made it out of the darkest time of my life. I made this work to process my grief when my baby died.

 It took a massive personal tragedy for me to totally change the way I made art and, as an accidental byproduct, I uncovered a phenomenon that resonated with millions of people. It became clear that, for me, the process of making art is far more important than the results. 

A few years ago I was in a magical but also difficult stage of transition. I was newly married and a new mom. I was adjusting to family life while simultaneously trying to push forward an art career that was feeling increasingly lackluster. 

I had been an artist my whole life. I did all the things you are supposed to do to have a successful art career. I went to grad school and got an MFA. I was exhibiting art; I was selling art, but something didn't feel quite right. I didn't feel like I was fully resonating with my audience.

On a more personal front, after our first daughter was born, my husband and I decided to expand our family and I descended into several years of devastating pregnancy losses. Our daughter Esther was stillborn and then I made the scariest possible decision to try again and I went on to have four miscarriages. 

There is a parallel between creating a human life and creating an expression of art. And for me, it felt like my unfulfilled professional life was mirroring my inability to sustain a pregnancy. So after a few years of losses and disappointments and sorrows, I quit. I gave up. I gave up trying to have another child and I gave up on my art career. I stopped trying to make work that I thought was "important" either in support of my cutting edge art career or even just something nice to put on the wall, but I did not stop making things.

I found myself needing to make art just to survive. I found that when I was working very simply, 
just with colors and repeated shapes, it was the only time I felt normal. There was nothing that compared to the feeling of relief I had when I was painting. The effect was so powerful it verged on pharmacological because I felt like I was high. I felt like in an altered state.

I did not have any idea what was going on. As we often do in times of turmoil and confusion, I turned to the Internet and the Internet led me to some scholarly articles which led me to some excellent books and I found out that what I was experiencing was something called "flow".

Flow is a pleasurable state of deep concentration. It's a heightened focus. It's a documented neurological condition. There's actual brain changes that they can track in your brain during flow. 

There's amazing research on flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee) out of the University of Chicago. What Csikszentmihalyi will tell us is that we will know we've been in flow when we lose track of time. Have you ever been engrossed in something only to pop up and discover, to your surprise, that four hours have passed and your neck hurts and you're hungry and you have to pee? Congratulations! You've just been in flow.

Everyone finds flow in different ways. There are as many different flow channels as there are unique individuals. For me, painting gets me there. For some people it could be needlepoint or snowboarding. It could be accounting. It could be recreational auto repair. I have even heard it said - it's been told to me, although it certainly has never happened to me - that a common flow channel for people is cooking.

There are some amazing brain changes during flow. I actually had a brain scan done and the medical team told me that I had a very common, but frequently under-diagnosed problem - you might have it, too. (shows picture of rabbit inside a person's head instead of a brain). It's called hare-brained. 

Ok, for real - I'm going to give you a little brain anatomy. There's a part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. It's often called the "executive" brain. It's in charge of high-level human stuff. We need it - it's important. It's in charge of judging and self-awareness and high-level planning. I like to think of this part of the brain as the strict librarian of the brain. 

She's hyper-aware, super diligent. She's a big fan of lists and time management. She's also our inner critic. She wants to keep us convergent, conventional and unremarkable because that's the safest course of action. This is our brain without flow, but here is the magic of flow.

When you experience the brain changes of flow, the strict librarian goes dark. She goes quiet. Dr. Arne Dietrich out of the American University of Beirut calls this transient hypo-frontality - it's a well-known marker of flow, very well-documented - what happens is when you're in flow, the activity in your prefrontal cortex slows down. It just winks out and other parts of the brain light up. 

What this meant for me, practically speaking, is that the Twitter-feed that's constantly of fears and shopping lists and worries and to-do's and rehashing the stupid thing I said at a party four months ago melt away. In flow, I have an out-of-self experience. It's a complete loss of ego and let me just say, it's a welcome change. I deeply appreciate getting a break from me. 

I had always enjoyed flow as an artist, but I had not needed it until my baby died. I had a friend who suffered a major loss and she was very offended when someone suggested that she "craft" to manage her pain and, indeed, crafting or watercolor painting or whittling sounds hopelessly trite as a way to manage the crushing losses of life.

What I can offer you is my deeply lived experience that finding flow through painting created a space for healing that nothing else could provide. 

Flow is also addictive. The pleasurable qualities of flow make us want to return to it again and again. When somebody, if she achieved something extraordinary, we like to think "they must have remarkable self-discipline" but I think they found their flow state and they'll do anything to stay there. 

Achievement is a byproduct - ti's a natural byproduct - of an addiction to flow. 

However, in my dark hours, I did not are about achievement. I cared about survival. When I went through those years of loss, I had to revert my art practice down to the simplest possible exercises of color and pattern because that was all I had in me.

It is not just about trying to zone out. A certain amount of active engagement is required to get into flow, so (sorry) Netflix doesn't cut it. Flow requires moderate difficulty, but the challenge must be well within our abilities. Steven Kotler of the Flow Genome Project has actually calculated an exact flow-inducing difficulty percentage. If  your flow difficulty is 0%, you will be bored; you won't get into flow.



If your flow difficulty is a 100% you'll be very frustrated and angry and enraged! We've all been there. 


When I ask people what they think that difficulty target might be, people usually say 50%? 60%? 85%? But it turns out...


...it is 4%. Four percent my friends! That is the percent we are targeting to get ourselves into flow. If you are doing something and you're frustrated, you're probably trending towards a 10 or 11% difficulty and you need to dial it back down. 

My friend says that the only difference between wrestling and dancing is cooperation. Cooperation is what's required in flow. If you're at 15% difficulty, you are likely wrestling. 

A few years ago, I had a couple hundred Instagram followers, all of whom I knew personally. I  posted a simple time-lapse video making a painting fully expecting it would get 37 views. To my surprise, it got 20,000 views! I thought that must be a fluke, so I posted another one and the same thing happened. 

So then I started posting a video every day and now, more than a billion views lager, I guess it's safe to say I was on to something. 

When people watch my videos, they tell me that they lose track of time. They lose themselves in my feed. Their anxiety diminishes. In fact, the people who watch my videos are showing all the markers of flow just by watching my flow videos. I also hear that my videos give people the courage to follow the tiny and terrifying dream to pursue their own creative spark. My videos seem to introduce people to their own creative hearts. 

I also have what I consider to be the ultimate pinnacle of Internet success and that is - I have haters!

My haters' main complaint seems to be that I am "wasting art supplies" and that I'm "doing it wrong". The thing that's most interesting about the haters - by the way, I love the haters; I don't cry myself to sleep; I invite them in; I love dissent - but the thing that's most interesting about the haters is that the things they say to me sound an awful lot like the things we say to ourselves when we're considering a creative risk. 

We are reared to be results-oriented achievers in a merit-based society. When we start something new and  are learning a new skill, we will - the results will be kinda lame. When we're so focused on the results, we will immediately lose heart when the results are mediocre. When we're feeling self-conscious and perfectionistic, it's important to remember that that is the strict librarian on duty. 

She is here to remind us that we do not have time for these shenanigans and as soon as anybody sees what we're up to we will be revealed as complete impostors. That is her job and she does it well. 

We can't just turn off the strict librarian with willpower, but we can lull her with flow. We can calm and soothe the prefrontal cortex in flow. When we're in flow, we'll strop trying to monitor our progress and lose ourselves in the process. Then we'll be able to access our creative, intuitive and spiritual selves and we also will be able to heal. 

Mysteriously, like a wound covered by a bandage, healing the trauma of grief and loss is possible in the background of flow. 

For me, healing happened gradually as I continually search for that 4% sweet spot while exploring color and pattern. 

We do not need to produce something of lasting permanent value every second of the day. We also do not need to be practical all of the time. Sometimes the value is the minute that we give ourselves to flow. I think that flow is the mechanism that we can [use to] introduce ourselves to our deeper selves. I would argue that those ephemeral moments in flow are some of the most fulfilling and valuable of our lives. Thank you.

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