I recently completed a month of inpatient pediatrics (taking care of unwell children in the hospital). As the student on the team, I had the privilege of having way less responsibility and way more free time than most everyone else, which meant I could often go play with some of the kids who were old enough and well enough to do so.
It’s incredible how much something as simple as play can reveal about the human mind and its development. One day, a resident and I sat down with a young girl to make shapes out of Play-Doh. I was in awe of the sheer variety of things she came up with and how each object had a story, despite her being sick and maybe not feeling 100% like herself. The multicolored burgers, the bunnies with big tails, the obstacle courses, the games with rules that went over my head (literally–part of it involved throwing things at each other’s heads). Meanwhile, for some reason all I could come up with were long, slender clay tubes that resembled snakes, worms, and centipedes. I felt like I was in a mental rut. Try as I might, the most creative thing I could come up with was a spiral-like boa constrictor. If you think you could do much better, I dare you to sit down with a ten-year-old and try to keep up with his or her creativity.
Some have blamed the education system for the decline in creativity as people age. That may be part of it, but I think part of it is also just the necessary routine of life. This video of babies going through tunnels is the perfect example. Each and every infant depicted in the video has the stereotypical reaction of widened eyes and a dropped jaw–they are just absolutely stunned that a tunnel even exists. But have you ever once seen an adult have such a reaction? The world at some point begins to be less wondrous and more same-old. A tunnel is something to be passed through to get to the other side, as opposed to an experience to be had. And I posit that this is precisely why creativity fades over the years, once we’ve “seen it all.”
But I also think this decline in creativity isn’t inherently a bad thing. Firstly, routine allows survival. Knowing the rules and patterns is absolutely critical in order to earn a living, drive a car, buy a home, or form relationships. Secondly, being able to adapt to our environments by “ignoring” everyday stimuli protects us from information overload. If everything was awe-inspiring (like tunnels to babies), we’d be rendered completely dysfunctional all of the time. Thirdly, I’ve also found that routine leads to expertise. For example, I need to instantaneously be able to recognize that particular combinations of pH, CO2, and bicarbonate imply various states of acidosis or alkalosis in order to make medical decisions. I need to be able to quickly differentiate cardiac tamponade from pulmonary embolism from pneumothorax from myocardial infarction from aortic dissection in emergent situations.
There are rules, and I must know and obey them. Creativity will not get me very far in those situations, but pattern recognition will. Furthermore, I strongly believe that K-12 education is not what made me lose my creativity per se, but time, age, and necessity did.
That said, there is intrinsic value to creativity, and certainly ways to restore it. In addition to being helpful in situations that lack precedent (which often happens in medicine!), creativity creates joy for life. Perhaps it’s this loss of joy and our frustration with the routine (that we do actually need) that lead adults to do risky things–drive too fast on the highway, have one too may drinks, experiment with substances of abuse. I’m guilty of it, too. Driving to work in the morning, I find myself sometimes going dangerously above the speed limit on the highway because that’s the most “control” I have over my day. Crazy, right?
But maybe, just maybe, if we could restore our awe within the mundane instead of at the edge of it, we wouldn’t feel the need to take such risks because the innate wonder of the world would be enough. In college, I took a fiction writing course in which one of our weekly assignments was simply to notice five things. One week I noticed that the light emanating from lampposts at night looks like electron clouds. Another week, I noticed a “Caution: Wet Floor” sign in an area that was (by the time I walked past) mostly dry. The only water there was directly under the sign, probably because the sign itself had prevented that water’s evaporation on an otherwise warm day.
Each of these observations was so un-ordinary. And yet it gave me a glimpse into the beyond. Yes, there is a sign in the way. But by asking myself “Wait, what else is here?” an obstacle in my path suddenly become a source of amusement. I stopped making those five observations per week when the class ended, but after the incident of my very bland Play-Doh creations during pediatrics, I realized that perhaps I should re-institute the assignment just for myself. Even if most of the time my daily life is ordinary and repetitive, I have the power to infuse it with newness. As an aspiring surgeon, I’ll often have to be able to think on my feet and outside the box (in addition to recognizing patterns). But more than just that, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary can transform a nothing-special moment into a source of contentment and even a lifelong memory.
So, for this week, here are my five observations:
- Life comes into existence entirely without self-knowledge. A new person (i.e., an infant) has no recognition of itself or how it got to where it is.
- Patterns of clothing cycle over time. I recently bought a scarf with a houndstooth pattern and then started finding it everywhere, including on Jerry Seinfeld’s bedsheets on TV.
- Train conductors have a really challenging job of making sure everyone has a ticket and gets off at the right place. There are so many people coming and going all the time!
- People choose all sorts of environments in which to live and then question each other’s decisions. (People live here?!)
- When a frozen lake starts melting, it does so in little bursts such that mini-pools with little waves sprout across the surface. It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.
And there you have it. There is beauty in every corner of the world, at every moment. Recognizing that beauty even when our brains become hard-wired to ignore it (for the sake of survival, self surge-protection, and the development of expertise) is the key to creativity and sustained joy.