Category Archives: Neuroscience

mixed media collage stating creativity takes courage

Creativity takes courage

When I introduce myself and my work, I’m typically met with lots of curiosity and some confusion.

Here’s what I hear a lot: That sounds great, but sadly I’m not creative. I can’t draw for the life of me. That’s so interesting, is it mainly for blocked artists? Do you work with children?

Listening to a conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown, I came across the term creative midwifery. Brené Brown spoke about her inherent ability to tell stories, but when writing her first books she struggled. Only when she realised that her creativity needed a midwife, was she able to fulfil her potential. She simply asked colleagues to join her in a weekend getaway and listen to her stories, as if they were sitting around the campfire. Sharing her stories, in an auditory format, and receiving her colleagues’ suggestions and questions helped structuring her knowledge and research into what, in the end, became very successful books. The term creative midwife resonated strongly when I thought about my work.

Now, you might ask: if we are all born with creativity and it is an inherent ability, why would some of us need a midwife to give birth to it (again)? Isn’t creativity alive in all of us? Well…

Sadly, creativity is something we unlearn.

Putting my researcher hat on, I was delighted to find evidence that this isn’t just a hunch based on the typical answers I get from people who don’t consider themselves creative…. A longitudinal study by George Land, developed for NASA, assessed children’s creativity. Among 5-year-olds, a whopping 98% of kids were categorised as creative and imaginative. This percentage dwindled as the children grew older: 30% when they were ten years old, 12% when they were 15 years old. In a separate group of adults, who have been asked to complete the same test, a shocking 2% remain who call themselves creative. Against the trend we see with most other skills and talents, we don’t expand our creativity as we grow older, we unlearn it. And this explains why some of us need to tease it out again, later in life, when we want to re-connect with our creativity.


I come across three typical reasons why someone has lost their creativity:

Many of us lose our creative confidence and our self-belief. We have art scars from experiences when we were told we had failed at a creative endeavour and that we were clearly not talented in this field. Whether that’s the teacher who criticises a drawing or essay; or the ‘banter’ stating jokingly that we shouldn’t give up the day job; or a parent who, often with good intentions, reinforces other talents over our creative ones.

Another reason why we unlearn our creativity is purely neurobiological. Whenever our brain encounters a problem it searches through our database of experiences and knowledge to find an answer. When we are young, this database is naturally tiny and needs to be built. We play to explore the world, ask a gazillion ‘why’ questions and our brain busily files everything for later use. If all goes well, we emerge from childhood with a database grown in size and complexity, ready for solving the challenges of adult life. And now that it has grown into a substantial knowledge base, our brain develops ways of tagging and filtering this database to rapidly access the information that seems most relevant. This is useful as it makes for faster decisions and saves energy. Remember that the brain represents only 2% of the weight of an adult but consumes 20% of the energy produced by the body. To limit this significant need for energy, we develop automatic behaviours and muscle memory, such as being able to tie our shoelaces without having to think about it every day. And our brain develops narrow search algorithms to find useful information quickly. If we are in the process of learning a new computer program, it’s more useful if our brain sifts through what we know about user interface and software and ignores our memories of family gatherings in the 90s.

And then there’s the conditioning and expectation of being fast and efficient in our problem-solving. It’s easy to understand why very unfamiliar and creative solutions to problems are less likely to see the light of day. They carry a greater risk of failure, push-back or rejection. Our creative muscle weakens. Pathways of ‘tried and tested’ become grooves, then deep canyons. Our brain gets a bit stiffer. And just like we end up unable to touch our toes, we struggle to put pen to paper and scribble away, or we feel inhibited to write a story, even though we write tons of emails, articles, and reports every day.


How can we re-learn creativity?

There are three key ingredients to strengthening our creativity: inspiration, process and encouragement. All of these can be initiated in creative coaching and then practiced going forward. We need to train our brains for a wider search, even though this is harder work and often more time consuming. Making time for divergent thinking is a key step in creative coaching. I cultivate openness and soft thinking around anything that can serve as inspiration and a starting point. That’s why I share books, quotes, TED talks, random questions, or different frameworks, whether from the therapeutic or coaching world, in my sessions. I also have a set of what I call ‘poetic prompts’ which often yield unexpected and delightful results.   

Then we need process – not in a formal, rigid or technical sense, but in a sense of offering a safe space, some structure and guidance. This ensures that every inquiry gets wrapped up safely and captures the new insights. We often begin by exploring our own creative process, where we tend to get blocked and how we most easily achieve the state of creative flow. And it includes a big selection of creative processes and reflective exercises which allows us to remain open without losing ourselves down a rabbit hole and stalling our progress. This is the area where I hugely benefit from my Art Therapy training, bringing together creative process and psychological expertise.

And lastly, we need encouragement, back-up and support, a cheer squad, and someone who can ask the right questions, including those that feel a little uncomfortable to begin with. Creativity requires risk, and it is easier to do something that feels a bit risky with someone in your corner.

Of course, working with a creative coach or art therapist can support you in the process of bringing your creativity back into your life. Especially if you want to explore and heal deeper art scars. But also, because creativity usually brings up fear.

Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of, it is, however, something to be dealt with.

Elizabeth Gilbert

They can offer a safe and supportive exploration of these memories and the emotional risks of creativity as well as the emotional cost of suppressing your creativity.

But re-connecting with your creativity as a hobby is a great way to start. It’s how I started again after years of disconnection. And it’s the reason why I love that part of my practice: delivering creative workshops, workshops that don’t dive more deeply into the therapeutic territory, but a gentle portal back into the world of creative strength. I encourage you to find your portal back into this world! Whether it’s a workshop, a self-paced, pressure-free online course, a guided journaling exercise – anything goes. And as you practice your creative muscle, you might find that it contributes to all areas in life. You’ll be more creative at work, in your parenting, in your relationships and friendships. It makes for a richer, more varied life. It supports you in taking transformative decisions and navigating change with a new resilience and robustness. Creativity certainly takes courage; we need to be willing to take a risk or make a mistake. But it also builds courage through greater self-awareness. It makes us braver in our choices, in asserting our boundaries, in staying true to ourselves.

Start with these two writing prompts:

For me, creativity is ….

When I can be creative ….

And feel free to get in touch with any questions you might have around creativity. The lockdown has proved that Zoom-based sessions are working well! And if you worry about requiring a huge range of art materials to get started with an online session, have a look at this video where I share a glimpse into my studio.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

mixed media collage and the word pinballs

Why we keep busy

I was leisurely scrolling through Instagram this morning and came across a familiar quote:

’Crazy-busy’ is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us

Brené Brown

Brené Brown suggests that some of us are ‘crazy-busy’ because we’re trying to outrun our needs and emotions. We often put our busyness down to our desire and duty to do things for others, for our employers, for our businesses, for our families, kids, communities, pets, clients, friends, loved ones… Being still and quiet can be uncomfortable. It can come with feelings of being bored, overwhelmed, unproductive, inconsequential to the world, uninteresting, not doing anything meaningful, wasting time, not making an impact, not being seen, not being needed.

I can empathise with all these feelings, I have them all, every now and then. As someone who finds neuroscience insanely fascinating, I’m always keen to understand whether anything in our evolution can explain typical behaviours. And – like so many of our behaviours – the tendency to hyperactivity has been hardwired into the human brain when we lived in a hunter gatherer environment. Taking immediate action, i.e running or fighting, rather than reflecting and deliberating kept us alive in an environment of many threats. This cognitive bias is called action bias. The problems of today’s world require reflection and benefit from thoughtful consideration. Yet, our bias is still to act rather than wait. If in doubt, most people will do something rather than nothing. We often jump into action or solution mode before we have fully understood the problem, sometimes we end up making things worse. Acknowledging that there’s nothing we can do is incredibly difficult. The challenge is to notice this bias when it kicks in and press ‘pause’.

I’m no stranger to busyness and seeing existential concepts of success, meaning and self-worth tied to my level of busyness. In my own exploration of being overly focussed on work I came across the Map of Meaning (© Marjolein Lips-Wiersma). I now use this framework in my client work to explore what a meaningful (work) life might look like. More than a decade of research has gone into developing the Map of Meaning and it has established four ways to infuse our lives with meaning. They are:

  • Self-awareness and developing the inner self
  • Being in unity with others
  • Expressing your full potential
  • Being of service to others

I find it comforting that there are four ways to bring meaning into my life. Interestingly, the work of the team behind the Map of Meaning has also revealed that being of service to others is commonly believed to be the only way that leads to a meaningful life. That’s why professions to which being of service is central are often seen to be meaningful per se. Yet, we see a burnout crisis amongst health care providers and teachers are abandoning the profession. These two examples show that there is more to meaning. Organisations want us to focus on being of service when we assess whether our work makes any sense and gives us meaning. For an organisation, we are at our most productive when being of service to their agenda and goals. From an individual’s perspective, it’s also understandable to look for this direct feedback loop. We get direct and often the most rewarding feedback to our contributions when we are doing something in service of someone else. We might get a heartfelt thank you, witness visible change or improvement, see someone expanding their skills or knowledge, we might see a rise in safety, quality or standard of living through the work we do. To keep us going, it makes sense to pour our energy into an area that is most likely to provide us with feedback and encouragement. But we need all four areas of meaning to play a role in our life. Just focusing on one won’t be sustainable.

This shows that the hyperactivity we see in the world can be down to a range of reasons. We might not feel up to facing our needs and emotions in all their depths and complexity. We might simply act based on a cognitive bias that tells us doing something is safer than doing nothing. Or we might seek meaning for our lives by striving to be of service to others because this is what is being most rewarded, whether by our workplaces or the individuals we serve. It is, however, vital to understand that meaning can be shaped and being of service is only one way to bring meaning to your life. Taking reflective time to further your self-awareness, being in unity or community with others and expressing our full potential all contribute to a meaningful life.

You can use this journaling prompt to explore what meaning might look like for you: What is bringing my life meaning right now? Importantly, take note of the two little words ‘right now’. If we ask this question at a general level, it is impossible to answer. Meaning is about noticeable everyday experiences. It’s never accomplished, it’s not a goal that we can tick off, it ebbs and flows, but we can shape it. If you are interested to find out more about the Map of Meaning, please get in touch. It’s a fascinating and insightful tool!


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

a collage card titled gratitude showing two women hugging

On gratitude

The idea of practicing gratitude is becoming more widespread these days. Positive Psychology research has linked gratitude with happiness. And even though research cannot necessarily prove cause and effect, not leveraging gratitude for our wellbeing seems like a missed opportunity.

As 2019 comes to a close, it feels natural for us to look back, reflect, acknowledge and be grateful for events, experiences, relationships that have made our lives richer.

Research suggests that practicing gratitude has a range of benefits; it is believed to positively impact on our physical health and improve sleep. Its benefits for our mental health have also been highlighted: gratitude can support a more optimistic outlook on life and hopefulness, it can foster resilience and empathy. Importantly, gratitude also strengthens relationships. For us humans, hard-wired for connection, this is a crucial benefit we should leverage. If gratitude becomes an everyday ingredient in our relationships it creates a positive ‘give and take’ spiral. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude and a professor of psychology at the University of California says, ‘gratitude is the antidote to entitlement’. When we practice gratitude, we’re more likely to appreciate our relationships, not just for the big favours and outstanding acts of support, but the everyday presence people have in our lives, and the small gestures of love and support. It’s also encouraging to read Emmons’s research that gratitude works at work. It’s easy to think of gratitude practice as a somewhat spiritual idea, and often we think spirituality doesn’t belong into the world of business. But as gratitude strengthens relationships and helps to restrict behaviours that are prevalent in toxic workplaces (gossiping, entitlement, negativity, any kind of bullying or aggressive behaviour) it is definitely a concept more and more companies are keen to integrate in their workplace culture. 

Gratitude also helps us grasp the narratives of our lives. I love this quote from Melody Beattie: “Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” With a focus on the past, gratitude shows up in our memories, reminding us to celebrate moments we are grateful for. When it comes to the present, gratitude is a form of mindfulness. To notice the small moments, we need to be mindful and connected to the present moment. And as gratitude brings hope it becomes a way of maintaining an optimistic and hopeful mindset to support us through tough times and set a vision for the future.

So far so good. Reaping the benefits of gratitude requires practice, and this means some work on our part. Merely thinking about it or having a grateful attitude isn’t enough. To cultivate gratitude and turn it into a practice we need to find a way of practicing that works for us. You can easily find suggestions for gratitude practices; a daily gratitude journal, a gratitude meditation or mindfulness exercise, prayer, counting one’s blessings, writing thank-you notes. Emmons has some practical suggestions here. To make any practice ‘stick’ you need to consider how much time you can realistically spend on it, your personality and preferences. We all know – if it isn’t easy and doesn’t come (fairly) naturally, we probably won’t do it. If you’ve been part of my community for some time, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of tailoring and creating what truly works for you. We can steal with pride from other people’s practices or ancient rituals and make them work for us and our life circumstances.

And finally, gratitude needs to be felt. It has to be practiced with the mind-body connection in mind! Writing a gratitude journal is a good start. But if you simply jot down some bullet points without connecting with your body and feeling your gratitude it won’t have the desired effect. So whatever practice you choose, take the time to silence the noise around you and connect with your gratitude through your body and senses. 


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

therapy room with art materials

What happens in Art Therapy?

Sometimes I get asked the simplest of questions: what happens in Art Therapy? It’s such a straightforward question, and very appropriate one, because Art Therapy is still on the fringes of the therapy field with its various approaches. As we all like to know what to expect when we engage in something new this question deserves a simple answer. I hope this article will help engage more people with Art Therapy and its rich opportunities for self-exploration and healing.

In a nutshell, Art Therapy and Creative Coaching use various creative approaches to explore experiences, emotions and thoughts. This can but doesn’t have to include verbal expression. Through this creative expression of one’s inner world, Art Therapy can unearth deep and strong emotions, some of which might have been hidden or shut away inside us for a long time. It’s useful for a broad range of mental health issues and life challenges, but due to its ability to stir up and explore deep-seated emotions it is important that anyone engaging with Art Therapy has (or is willing to learn and practice) skills of emotional regulation. 

The beauty of Art Therapy is that it (re-)engages our imagination and playfulness. As humans, we are born with these but when life gets really tough we can easily get stuck in the difficulty of our situation, struggling to see a way out. We risk losing our abilities to create, imagine and play and anything that can nudge us towards these abilities can contribute to our wellbeing.

Conny Weyrich

collage saying The Art of Learning

Some specific questions I have been asked:

Will I be painting and do I need to be good at art?

Art Therapy uses creative approaches and techniques to express our inner world, our emotions, thoughts, experiences, concerns, beliefs. This can include visual art making like drawing or painting, sketching or doodling; it can include movement, exploring gestures we use frequently, sounds and music, or role plays. We might arrange random objects in sandtrays or on tables, arrange images into collages or construct 3D sculptures. We can use clay, fabrics, weave threads and wool. There literally are no limitations to what we can use. I have witnessed wonderful explorations using paper bark, an air conditioning duct, broken sunnies, bent paper clips and a rock. Therefore, anyone can do it, because you don’t need to be an artist, you don’t need art skills or previous experience. You just need to embrace your creativity and your innate desire to play.

What are key principles of the therapist-client relationship?

Like all therapies, it is based on building an open, transparent and trusting relationship between client and therapist. It is my role as therapist to provide a safe space, where we can explore and name all our experiences without fearing to be judged or told what to do, think or feel. I often use mindfulness techniques to support the feeling of safety. Mindfulness helps us to stay in the present moment and can help calm down our amygdala, the brain’s smoke detector which will naturally feel alarmed every now and then when we do important and deep work with our innermost experiences. Another fundamental principle is my belief that everyone is the expert in their own life. No one can know or understand your life, your emotions, your fears and worries, your values and goals, and relationships better than you. My role is that of a guide, not a teacher.

When is Art Therapy beneficial?

Art Therapy can be beneficial in supporting people through any challenging life experience, including mental health challenges, complex trauma, traumatic events, chronic illness. As Art Therapy doesn’t rely on language and the spoken word to communicate, it can be beneficial for those who struggle with articulating their experiences through language. Anyone who is non-verbal, doesn’t speak the local language well or at all (this can for example apply to refugee communities) or those who have lost the ability to speak through illness or injury. Children also find it often easier to articulate tricky experiences through art and play. When language is accessible, I like bringing the exploration back to language. At the beginning, however, suspending our analytical and cognitive problem-solving skills can be particularly beneficial for those who use this part of the brain a lot. 

Finding ways to name experiences enables sharing, creates connection and gives us a different kind of control. Being able to summarise what we have discovered helps us implementing it in our everyday life and using it to inspire change. Sometimes, people come to therapy with a specific question or goal. They know which area in their life they want to work on. But when we start walking on this pretty clear path we might still encounter a fork in the road that needs to be investigated or looks intriguing enough to follow. Often, however, the path is less clear, and all we know is that something isn’t working or doesn’t feel good and that certain patterns keep showing up again and again and interfere with the life we would like to lead. A good therapist will guide you along the path and support you in exploring the detours.

What can Art Therapy provide that talk therapy can’t?

A slightly sticky question as I don’t believe in pitching different types of therapy against each other. Ultimately it’s down to what works for the individual. In our complex world, there is room for a vast range of approaches, and often they are complementary and a holistic approach can be most beneficial. But there are some areas where Art Therapy can achieve things that are less accessible through talk therapy. Apart from being a form of therapy for those unable to speak or uncomfortable with talking, Art Therapy can also be effective in exploring traumatic and deeply emotional experiences. During traumatic experiences, the Broca’s area, the language centre in the brain, shuts down (as do various other areas in our brain, especially in the frontal lobes, our rational or executive brain). Subsequently, these experiences simply cannot be expressed in words leading to expressions such as ‘speechless terror’. But creative processes allow us to give them some form, work with them and ultimately integrate them as part of our story. The creative expressions used in Art Therapy also enable us to communicate emotional experiences that we might simply not have words for. Difficult experiences are hard to articulate, sometimes because they come with the choking emotions of shame or embarrassment; other times because they are linked to topics that have the aura of being secretive and something that cannot be shared, whether that’s due to family secrets or perceived or real social norms – as John Bowlby, an important contributor to the fields of child development and attachment theory, said, “What cannot be communicated to the [m]other cannot be communicated to the self.”

In summary: Art Therapy and Creative Coaching can use literally any creative endeavour or activity, and be tailored to the client’s abilities, preferences or interests. Therefore, it can bypass the need for language when this is necessary, desired or beneficial. Like other therapies, a respectful, transparent, safe and trusting relationship with the therapist/ coach provides the sound foundation needed for this courageous work. While it can provide support for a broad range of life challenges its appropriateness and how it might support other treatment approaches always needs to be discussed on an individual basis.

If you have specific questions or are curious, get in touch!


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space