Deep in our inner ear are a collection of hair cells called stereocilia. Like long blades of grass swaying in the wind, they bend back and forth as sound waves pass through them. These movements pass electrical impulses of varying intensity to the brain where they are converted into what we experience as sound. When we are exposed to significant noises, such as listening to loud music through headphones, the stereocilia get bent out of shape and we experience a temporary loss of hearing until they are rested enough to straighten up again. However, if we are exposed to extremily loud sounds or persistant noise that doesn’t allow for recovery time, the sterocilia can become irreparably flattened and we suffer effects such as tinnitus or permanent hearing loss. It is probably obvious from my drawing of stereocilia that I am neither a human biologist nor a hearing expert! However, the marvellous workings of our inner ear provide a helpful metaphor for something I am very interested in – spontaneity and creativity.
I think of spontaneity as the ability to notice and be altered by new meaning at the very moment it emerges and creativity as the ability to do something positive with that new meaning in service of people, planet and profit.* Every moment of our waking lives our senses are bombarded with information and I like to think that, as this happens, our ‘spontaneity sensors’ wave about like stereocilia, sending amorphous pulses of meaning to our brain – meaning that has the potential to be transformed into something of value. When we are very young these sensors are flexible and highly sensitive, rippling at the slightest breeze of an experience, causing us to act in response to almost every impulse. However, over time, our creative stereocilia become damaged and de-sensitised. They become bent out of shape and less flexible the more we are exposed to the norms of society and what constitutes growing up ‘normally’. They become gradually de-sensited by the introjects we swallow whole, the rules of life passed on to us as to what is the right and wrong way to get on in the world. And, as we enter the incredibly ‘noisy‘ world of work, they can be flattened by the dominant discourse of rational, corporate normality. This cumulative damage means that we are less able to sense and act on the spontaneous emergence of new meaning. Unless we are able to find ways of nurturing, resting and protecting these delicate little sensors, continued exposure to damaging ‘noise’ can lead to creative tinitus or worse still, creative deafness. We compensate for this damage in later life by seeking safe-certainty; experiences that are predictable and controllable and don’t require us to think on our feet. However, safe-certainty can be a place of dissatisfying stuckness where we are left craving more creativity and adventure.
Developing our own personal day-to-day creative practice is therefore important, not just for growth, but for routine maintenance. If we want to avoid irreparable damage to our spontaneity we need to seek some “quiet” spaces. We need to find ways of escaping the noise of normality in order to allow our spontaneity sensors to recover and grow. This “quiet” practice may simply involve finding time in our day for creative activities (e.g. art, theatre, dance, improvisation, movement) or hanging out with others who are seeking a similar experience of recuperative peace and quiet. Often, the most difficult place to find these quiet spaces is in the fast paced world of work and organisational life can do to our spontaneity and creativity what working with loud machinery does to our hearing. So, if you are seeking to bring more creativity into your life, spare a thought for those happy little spontaneity stereocilia that live somewhere inside of you and consider if your work requires you to wear a metaphorical pair of these…
* The “triple bottom line” as defined by Jonathan Porrit in “Capitalism as if the World Matters”