Practice, Creativity, Emotion, and the Brain

Practice leads to mastery in countless endeavors, from music and sports to business and academics. Further, practice reduces our anxiety and frees us for greater self-expression.

By Matt Norman, President, Dale Carnegie Training in the North Central U.S.

As a professional trainer, I am all too familiar with a common pattern that creates an obstacle to learning and change: Companies train employees on new skills or behaviors. Employees intellectually grasp the new concepts presented during training. They make initial efforts to incorporate the new ideas into their work, but the new practices seem awkward. It takes extra effort to use them. Eventually, they fall back into their old, comfortable habits.

One element is missing from the pattern outlined above: ongoing practice. Lasting change cannot happen without repetition of the new skill. Practice leads to mastery in countless endeavors, from music and sports to business and academics. Further, practice reduces our anxiety and frees us for greater self-expression.

From Awkward to Automatic

With practice, a new skill or behavior, which at first seems awkward and unnatural, becomes automatic. You don’t have to think about it. You just do it. Depending on the complexity of the activity, it may take days or decades, but eventually the new skill will feel natural and become your own.

Consider the first time you drove a car. You had to think about which pedal to push, when to signal, and how much to turn the wheel to keep the car on the road. With practice, the basics of driving became automatic, and you no longer had to think about all the individual steps. When the light turns green, you don’t consciously make a decision to press down on the gas pedal; you just do it.

Moving new skills from awkward to automatic is what learning, growth, and development are all about. Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, has shown that our brains actually change as we practice new patterns, skills, and behaviors.

During the awkward stage of skill acquisition, an area of the prefrontal cortex associated with planned actions, self-monitoring, and self-censoring becomes active. As you practice a new skill, this area of the brain serves as your own internal coach, telling you in real time to:

  • Select your words carefully in a job interview
  • Keep your left arm straight when hitting a golf ball
  • Slow down, signal, and look both ways before turning a car

When the new skill becomes natural, the internal coach takes a break. Functional MRI scans show less activity in the internal critic and coaching area of the prefrontal cortex. Relieved of the necessity of focusing on the basics, you can work on developing the finer points of the skill or activity.

From Automatic to Inspired

A series of studies involving jazz musicians suggests that true creative expression happens after basic skills are acquired and the internal critic signs off. Charles J. Limb, M.D., is a surgeon, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and a jazz saxophonist. He analyzed the brains of six professional jazz musicians in a series of fMRI studies.

The pianist-subjects used a keyboard designed without metal parts so it could be played inside an fMRI machine. During fMRI sessions, each musician was asked to:

  • Play a simple C-major scale in time with a metronome
  • Improvise using the C-major scale in time with the metronome
  • Play a previously memorized blues tune to a recording of a jazz quartet
  • Improvise to the same jazz quartet recording

Limb found that activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex slowed down when the musicians improvised. Lower levels of activity in this self-monitoring and self-censoring region of the brain are related to lower levels of inhibition.

Analysis of the fMRI studies of the improvisation also found higher levels of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex at the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This region of the brain is associated with self-expression and autobiography. It lights up on fMRI scans when subjects are participating in activities such as telling a story about themselves or, in the case of the jazz musicians, creating a solo that sounds uniquely their own.

These studies suggest that creativity occurs when the self-monitoring region of the brain turns off and the area known for self-expression and individuality turns on. With practice, a new skill moves from awkward to automatic. With continued repetition, a skill can move from automatic to inspired, when individuals tap into their own creativity to bring new, personal dimensions to the skill.

This evolution toward greater self-expression also surfaces in professional settings, as I’ve found through my role as a trainer. When coaching a business leader to deliver his message more slowly and with greater emphasis on key words, he initially resisted my suggestion, thinking it to be too unnatural. The feedback he received from his colleagues after he demonstrated the change was so positive, however, that he persisted in the effort toward more controlled delivery. After one week of this demand on his prefrontal cortex, he admitted that was feeling a bit more natural and that he needed to “keep deliberately practicing.”

Roadblocks of Emotional Memory

Memories and habits can be formed through experiences associated with strong emotions, as well as through repetition. In some cases, emotional memories form habits that become barriers to our relationships and performance. As a result, further practice is required to move toward more productive behavior.

For example, we now are beginning to understand the role emotional memory plays in the brains of people who suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other conditions. Researchers studying veterans with PTSD have learned that this disorder involves a relationship between the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The medial prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain associated with autobiography and self-expression that was active during improvisation in the study of jazz musicians. The amygdala long has been associated with emotional memory, a type of unconscious learning acquired through the experience of rewards and punishments.

The emotional memory of receiving a treat is what made Pavlov’s dog salivate at the sound of a bell. The emotional memory of the horrors of war is what triggers PTSD symptoms in many veterans. Emotional memory is a primal type of experiential learning, and memories acquired this way are not easy to change. Telling someone with PTSD that they should get over their nightmares because they are no longer in danger makes logical sense, but does not make a difference to the vet, whose brain literally has been changed by the traumatic experience of war.

Neuroimaging studies at Tufts University have shown that the amygdala is turned on in veterans who suffer severe PTSD symptoms while the medial prefrontal region is turned off. The medial prefrontal cortex is also smaller in volume in people with PTSD than in others. Anyone who has suffered even mild or temporary depression understands the sense of losing your old self. It makes sense that the area of the brain associated with autobiography, individuality, and self-expression becomes hypoactive and smaller in people with PTSD, while the area linked to emotional memory becomes active.

How can the damaging emotional memories be changed? With practice. Therapists have had some success treating PTSD with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT involves recognizing a recurring negative thought and replacing it with a positive one. It can reprogram neural pathways and help break the spiral of anxiety, turning negative thoughts into positive actions.

From Roadblocks to Positive Change

What does emotional memory have to do with our work lives? I know from personal experience that you don’t have to go to war to suffer the effects of PTSD or anxiety. A series of stressful and traumatic events in my life left me paralyzed with anxiety and unable to fully execute my role as a business leader—particularly when speaking to groups of people. I had no idea what was happening in my prefrontal cortex or amygdala. All I knew was that I was no longer myself and I needed help.

An essential component of my recovery was a Dale Carnegie course in reducing anxiety and increasing self-expression in relationships and communication. It was an intensive multi-session course that involved practicing storytelling and a series of frameworks for communicating and strengthening relationships.

The storytelling, practice with coaching, and the frameworks gave me something actionable to hang onto at a time when so much in my life seemed out of control. The practice felt awkward at first, but with time, the skills became automatic. The practice of frameworks not only helped me recover, it inspired me to make a huge change in my life. I left my position with the large corporation and joined Dale Carnegie as a consultant.

Four key ingredients were present in my Dale Carnegie experience that could be considered for anyone moving from awkward and emotionally constrained to automatic and inspired:

  1. Attitude about Change: Lack of effectiveness often can be left unaddressed through avoidance, low self-awareness, and obscuring reality. Progress must begin with substantial discomfort, desire for change, and belief that change is possible.
  2. Principles, Techniques, and Frameworks: Whether it’s laws for driving a car, chord progressions, or a framework for dismantling irrational thoughts, practice is best executed when we have a clear recipe.
  3. Practice with a Coach: Entering into regular, trusting coaching sessions with a mentor, boss, professional, or friend increases our self-awareness, accountability, motivation, and ability to execute.
  4. Sustained Effort: Sometimes individual persistence is enough, but frequently we need conditions to support ongoing progress. These conditions could include a culture of encouragement from others, opportunities for continuous application of the practice, and the need to perform the skills to fulfill a role or obligation.

I have trained thousands of people at corporations across the country and around the world, helping them learn and practice frameworks for overcoming obstacles and achieving success. Few of them would believe I ever had difficulty speaking in public. Fewer still would suspect that more than once I had to lie on the floor of my office doing deep breathing exercises before speaking to a small group.

My anxiety will always be there, just around the corner, but I have overcome the worst of my fears. I’m here to tell you that lasting change is possible in one’s personal and professional life. All it takes is awareness of how the brain works and willingness to learn and practice.

Matt Norman is president of Dale Carnegie Training in the North Central U.S. Dale Carnegie Training is represented in all 50 states of the United States and more than 80 nations worldwide. As a senior consultant, Norman has delivered transformative results in Fortune 100 corporations, government agencies, and small- to mid-sized firms. He has trained sales leaders across the world on coaching and developing their salespeople; coached physicians and clinical staff on leadership and teaming skills; enhanced the marketing and business development skills of attorneys, engineers, and commercial bankers; and led a Web development firm to significantly increase the quality of its production. Last year, Norman was named to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal40 Under 40 list, recognizing the community’s top young business and civic leaders. He has led his organization to double-digit revenue growth over the last two years, and the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journalnamed Dale Carnegie Training Minnesota a top small company in its Best Places to Work awards for the third year in a row.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.