A Neuroscientist Walks Into a Bar

Field NotesStress

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The creative process is one of constant discovery. You’re always looking for new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Along the way, some things stand out and we put them in our Field Notes. This is a collection of ideas, places, people and things that we’ve found that we think are worth sharing and that all loosely fit within the theme of the issue.

A scientist and standup comedian makes sense of what’s really happening in our brains

Written by
Michael Gormley

Dean Burnett started standup comedy as a university student while working part-time as a cadaver embalmer at a medical school. To find something a bit more cheery, he found his way to a local pub’s open mic nights.

“My first-ever standup set was a stress-inducing nightmare. I’d agreed to try a brief set. When I turned up on the night, there was a decent audience, but one of the acts dropped out. Then another did. And another. I was essentially promoted from open spot to headliner in the space of 10 minutes for my first gig.”

But Burnett is not your typical comedian. He’s able to look back on his first performance of many, the stress it induced, and his response to it, in an unusual way. That’s because he has a doctorate in neuroscience.

“Despite appearances, both practices do share some features, at least they do to me. Both rely on a tendency to observe and dissect, question how and why people do the things they do, and come up with interesting explanations. You’d be surprised where such thinking can take you.”

For Burnett, it’s made him a bit of an outsider.

Writing on the brain typically divides into two groups: academic articles detailing scientific studies or the populist literature filled with digestible factoids. The first can be difficult to read (and boring to the general public), while the second oversimplifies what’s happening (what does it really mean that we can only use only 10 per cent of our brains?).

In his recent book The Idiot Brain, he approaches the subject in a way that doesn’t treat the brain as some unknowable thing. “In reality, as impressive and complex as it undoubtedly is, the brain is still an organ, something physical that exists within the sticky confines of the human body, and we do know a great deal about it.”

Just nudging you outside of your comfort zone that stress causes can help creativity.

He shares his research on how stress and motivation play into how we approach tasks. “When the brain has to do something, particularly if it’s a monotonous or laborious task, it works better when it’s motivated. Our brains’ attention systems simply haven’t evolved to focus on one thing for prolonged periods when there’s no clear benefit of doing so, so our mind ‘wanders’ and we check Facebook rather than do our job.

“But stress has many effects on this. A looming ‘threat’ (your boss, a crowd watching you, an imminent deadline) causes you to associate doing the task with definite consequences (public embarrassment, job loss). So suddenly you have the motivation to do the task and a goal to achieve.”

The same is true, says Burnett, if you’re talking about how stress affects creativity.

“When stressed, you’re more panicked or under pressure, and you’re more likely to feel the ‘usual’ way of doing things is insufficient or too slow, so you are more prone to trying new things or thinking in new ways. Just nudging you outside of your comfort zone that stress causes can help creativity.”

For Burnett, telling jokes in front of strangers is his way of doing that. But there’s a limit. “Of course, push this too far and it actively interferes with your ability to perform tasks, hence the increase in stress leading to performance, [but] declining after a certain point.”

For his first standup performance, Burnett was on the brink of hitting that limit. But he says his brain was able to keep him from succumbing to the pressure. “I was nervous, but I think that sent me into such an intense stress tsunami that my brain essentially overloaded on its ability to recognize it, so I ended up feeling weirdly calm when I went up. It all went fine.”

Michael Gormley

Michael is the Business Director at Frontier. After completing his Bachelor’s degree specializing in international business and marketing, Michael attended the Master’s Grande Ecole program at NEOMA Business School in Rouen, France.

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