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Creativity- Glass, Flow & A Hot Brain- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity- Glass, Flow & A Hot Brain- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity: Glass, Flow & A “Hot” Brain


Creativity is like glass. Bending, flowing, breaking.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, we’ve raptured extensively about a recent backpacking trip we took on the Lost Coast of California, about 200 miles north of San Francisco, wild and beautiful. 


Morning on the wild coast


Adventure & The Creative Life


This adventure continues to have lessons for the pursuit of a creative life.

It is a trip we never thought we’d really take.

Almost a year ago, in October of 2021, Bruce logged on to a government reservation site to get a permit for the hike, having read that they’re all released for the entire following year on October 1.

It required some advance thought, as successfully completing the walk requires a knowledge of tides, as many miles of the walk are impassable (and extremely dangerous) at high tide. Bruce found tide tables online, selected a date, and got a permit. 

The entire year’s quota of about 15,000 permits was gone in two hours, kind of like a rock concert or some other major urban sociological event.

The numbers were limited to 60 people a day in the warm months and fewer in the winter, which didn’t seem like much of a limit when one thinks of backpacking as a kind of isolated activity, maybe seeing a handful of people a day.

We imagined a conga line down a beach at the end of the world.

When we went on the hike, we did not see 60 people a day, more like five or ten. We figured most people pay the $6 for a permit and then never use it and never properly cancel.

There’s something to be said for commitment.


A Backup Plan


The whole reason to have even thought about this trip was as a backup in case our first choice plan didn’t happen.

The first choice plan was a walk in the Western Highlands of Scotland, ten or so miles a day from inn to inn with a small daypack, one’s luggage forwarded to meet one at the next inn so that one was never without cozy slippers and pajamas.


Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands


Perhaps we would retire to a fluffy bed after a hearty supper of haggis and a wee dram.





True backpacking it was not.

Through a combination of events too uninspiring and banal to explain here, the first choice trip didn’t happen.

When we first became aware that the Scottish Highlands hike wasn’t going to happen, we realized we had a backup plan from many months before, almost like an academic exercise, but it seemed remote and un-relatable.

We hadn’t backpacked in years.

We had gotten older at the nominal rate, one year per year. Our previous attempts had been much less ambitious, only one night out.

Those weren’t even long enough to get properly dirty and smelly and have Medusa hair and get respect from bartenders, “Sooo, where you folks walk in from? See any bears?”



Medusa- Apollo Temple


But a strange thing happened over the intervening two months.


Dreaming Into Existence


We turned the idea over and over in our heads, dreaming it into being, like a river stone in a recirculating hollow being worn smooth and round.


river stones

River stones


We imagined walking along the wild shoreline. We dug for dusty gear in the Augean Garage, a Herculean effort, unearthing fossilized M&Ms and other chaff.

Santa Cruz had a newly opened store called REI (Recreational Equipment, Incorporated aka Religious Experience, Incorporated) that had the magic ability to turn green rectangular pieces of paper into sleeping pads and water bottles and freeze-dried food.

We exercised this capability rigorously.

We made cancellable reservations for before and after, turning the whole thing into a multi-chaptered adventure full of options.

We sidled up to this excursion because it might have scared us off if we had marched straight into it. I’m reminded of the fox in The Little Prince insisting on being tamed before acquiescing to friendship.


Little prince

Little prince


We had to tame our psyches.

So by the time we actually headed north on a fine May day, we were fully ready. A little nervous, but well prepared.


Annealing & Phase Transitions


I believe there is a physical analogue to this mental process of incorporating a new and unfamiliar reality, and it’s called annealing.

We have often spoken of phase transitions and the power of their metaphor and concept in the creative life. But, just as in many other aspects of life, there’s some fine print.

Phase transitions describe transitions between different states of matter, clearly delineated: Solid, liquid, gas.  

But there are some unusual materials that can be more than one thing at once! 

Glass is such a material.





The Amazing Properties Of Glass


We think of it is as solid, but over long periods of time at elevated temperatures, it can flow and distort.

At one time it was believed that the ripples and nonuniform thickness of old stained glass windows was due to very slow flow, but it is now generally believed that even centuries would not suffice for that effect and that the effects were due to manufacturing methods.


Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral


Heated up, glass can flow and distort much faster than when it’s cold, the timescales ranging from seconds to millions of years, depending on temperature. If you try and distort it at a rate too fast for its natural rate at a given temperature, it can shatter.


Broken glass


Flow-y and solid at the same time- physicists call glass an amorphous solid, and mathematical models of glassy substances have a wide range of applications to complex systems including genetics, computer science, and economics.

Understanding these “glassy” phenomena resulted in the awarding of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics to Giorgio Parisi.




Perhaps incorporating a new and uncomfortable idea is a glassy phenomenon. It can be easily done if there’s enough time for adaptation, but if forced too quickly yields a pile of shards. 



Incorporating The New & Surprising


In the creative life, one can surprise oneself, a different painting, a strange melody. But what happens after that? How does this newness become part of one’s reality?

This is why it is important to not throw away things that do not fit in your current worldview. The process of incorporation is like the flow of glass. Pushed too hard, it shatters and no incorporation occurs.

It takes time.




Molecular Relaxation: Incorporating New Ideas


This is where annealing comes in.

Annealing is a process used in the manufacturing of glass objects that is a kind of molecular relaxation.

When an object is created from molten glass, the molecules are not necessarily in a stable arrangement. If a molten glass object is cooled too quickly, stresses and fractures get “frozen in” to the molecular structure.


Molten and solidifying glass


These stresses can be released by cooling the object carefully, starting at a temperature where the glass has both solid and liquid characteristics, i.e. it is malleable. If it is cooled too quickly, it is brittle and easily shattered.

If cooled gradually, it is strong and stable.  


Perhaps our incorporation of new ideas is like the resolution of stresses in molten glass. If they are incorporated carefully and gradually, they do not have a destabilizing effect.


Time and heat are key aspects of this process. 

We also know that the brain is malleable, particularly in younger people but also throughout life, and that the connections between the neurons can be trained and influenced by external input.

Your brain can and does rewire itself continually.

This adaptability of the brain is similar to the annealing process of glass, the material rearranging molecular connections, a slow adaptation and rationalization of structure. 


Keep Your Brain “Hot”


keep your brain hot

Keep your brain hot


Perhaps the creative life is all about keeping one’s brain “hot,” in a childlike state where it can fluidly adapt to new influences.


How to do this?

A steady diet of new influences!

And the benefits can be seen by giving ideas time. 


With gratitude from my studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


Nancy was interviewed by her publishing mentor, Chandler Bolt, on his Self Publishing School Podcast.

It was auspiciously published on July 7, 2022- our daughter’s 20th birthday.

Tempus fugit. Time flies.

Watch the podcast HERE.


Nancy Hillis Interview with Chandler Bolt

Catch the podcast here: https://youtu.be/PwVDSOKDWmc







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