In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I was surprised to read a claim that anyone could learn to draw, and that the book had the requisite information to teach it. It sounded something more like clickbait for a cheap online advertisement than a part of something considered a classic in the field of drawing. Yet its author, Betty Edwards, taught even experienced artists, who admitted they never really ‘knew how to draw.’ Her method rests on the distinction between the left and right brain. We use our left brains too much, she said—through schooling and other aspects of life, we come to focus on them so much that they dominate in everything. And normally, they’re efficient, but are lousy at understanding figures and patterns. When we draw with them, say, when we try to draw a lion, we revert to some logical schema of what a lion is: head, ears, tail. In contrast to this, the right brain can reproduce an image much more efficiently, in the form of lines, shades, and colors. As Edwards said, if we can utilize it, we can draw. And its use would encompass more of our lives, benefitting us in other creative pursuits but also in living in general.
Edwards suggests drawing-exercises over which one’s left hemisphere has no understanding, so that he is forced to use his right. For example, some of the exercises include reproducing upside-down line-drawings, perhaps faces; when they’re upside-down, the left brain cannot see the typical pattern of nose, eyes, and mouth, so that one is forced to see the picture as just a series of lines. What she taught was an important mindset. She urged the reader to remember the feeling associated with it, so that the feeling may be reproduced and the mindset may be summoned on command. After following her exercises, I think she was right. Graduating from the elementary stick figures which she said most adults draw (because elementary is when schools stop teaching us how to draw), I could purposefully focus on seeing and drawing forms.
This method is one way for inducing oneself into a state of creativity. It is similar to the idea of kinesthetic intelligence; one may fail to move a muscle over which he has no awareness, but once its feeling is known to him through physical therapy, he will not fail to command it in the future.
This makes me think: Along with this sort of creativity, what other mindsets might we want to have ready? When I consider creativity, which is characteristic of the right side of the brain, then it is natural to consider analytical focus, which is characteristic of the left. Together, they hold high praise for the kind of problem solving we are eager to acquire, so being able to summon each would provide one with a powerful lens to thinking.
The Mindset of Focus
Unlike learning to use the right side of the brain, commanding focus is much simpler. This is because it is an activity primarily of the left brain, which Edwards says is usually dominant anyway. Therefore, we are already used to a similar feeling. So rather than requiring creative methods of teaching, I think it can be learned simply by reading or listening to those with focused mindsets.
One figure who’s been influential in my reading is the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. When I read his Mediations, I feel calm and focused; to go through his words is to understand the mind of the man behind them. It is the mind of the Stoic philosopher, who calms her anxieties yet does not retreat from acting. Rather, she trains her mind to focus just on acting, and to forget distractions from her goals. Like the one offered in The Art of War, there is much value in feeling and commanding this mindset. It’s one that’s ready to tackle life, with first careful analysis, and with calculation thereafter. This kind of mindset absorption by reading is more easily done with stream-of-consciousness literature than with carefully refined analytical ones, where mindsets may be altogether opaque. There are many kinds of this literature, each of which carries its distinctive tone and line of thinking.
When we rest in the mindset of the Stoic philosopher, we can feel a focused calm and act accordingly. Aurelius instructs himself to embrace this mindset in this quote to himself:
“And not to think of philosophy as your instructor, but as the sponge and egg white that relieve ophthalmia—as a soothing ointment, a warm lotion. Not showing off your obedience to the logos, but resting in it.”
When we understand the mindset of the artist, we see visual forms, and perhaps feel them too. The musician, rhythmic patterns; the warrior, fierceness.
Edwards instructs us to remember the feeling of using the right-brain and reinstate its use by recalling this feeling; once we learn the Stoic mindset, how can we reinstate that? Short quotes are a great way to do so. They must first be learned in a context, and afterwards, serve to remind us of that context. Aurelius emphasized the power of short aphorisms to himself, in repeating similar lines like ‘no random thoughts.’ Confucius emphasized the importance of memorizing the Odes, an anthology of 300 poems, to his students. Longer forms of advice are not useful because we do not realistically conjure them when acting. The OODA loop (observe-orient-decide-act), used in the military, is one such example; Eric Greitens describes it as a “perfect example of how a once-valuable concept can be complicated to the point of irrelevance.” Keep it simple.
I think a mindset is one of the most valuable gifts one can receive through learning. We often shoot for little listicles, wanting to absorb as many ‘facts’ or little practical points as possible. ‘Just teach me how to play the piano,’ I can imagine a student saying. ‘Tell me the correct posture, and how to read notes.’ Yet, a mindset is so much more: Like an ideal, it helps us act in efficient ways which are subconscious to our thinking.
An analogy is with piano playing. Great teachers may say one needs to feel the music he plays, because his feeling will somehow translate into a certain sound. His feeling of happiness while playing piano may translate into its sounding happy, for example. If we were to observe what the pianist did differently when playing happily, we could say his arms were looser, his wrists more flexible, the strength of his keys hit in this way, and so on. But the feeling of happiness could translate into more subtle cues we might skip over in observation, which would yet help his piano playing. It is this unconscious guiding quality that mindsets bring.
Stoicism and right-brainedness are two good mindsets to have; I would not suggest piling up as many mindsets as possible, acting as if the more one had, the more versatile he would become. But it is worth finding some with which you resonate, truly understanding the mindsets that made the people with your interests successful.