How Our Brains Work When We Are Creative: The Science of Great Ideas

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Ah, ideas. Who doesn’t want more great ideas? I know I do.

I usually think about ideas as being magical and hard to produce. I expect them to just show up without me cultivating them, and I often get frustrated when they don’t show up when I need them.

The good news is that it turns out cultivating ideas is a process, and one that we can practice to produce more (and hopefully better) ideas. On the other hand, often times great ideas can also just come to us whilst in the shower or in another relaxing environment.

First, let’s look at the science of the creative process.

How our brains work creatively

So far, science hasn’t really determined exactly what happens in our brains during the creative process, since it really combines a whole bunch of different brain processes. And, contrary to popular belief, it includes both sides of our brains working together, rather than just one or the other.

The truth is, our brain hemispheres are inextricably connected. The two sides of our brains are simply distinguished by their different processing styles.

The idea that people can be “right brain thinkers” or “left brain thinkers” is actually a myth that I’ve debunked before:

The origins of this common myth came from some 1960s research on patients whose corpus callosum (the band of neural fibers that connect the hemispheres) had been cut as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy. This removed the natural process of cross-hemisphere communication, and allowed scientists to conduct experiments on how each hemisphere worked in isolation.

Unless you’ve had this procedure yourself, or had half of your brain removed, you’re not right or left brained.

left right brain

We do have a rough idea of how these processes might work, though.

The three areas of the brain that are used for creative thinking

Among all the networks and specific centers in our brains, there are three that are known for being used in creative thinking.

The Attentional Control Network helps us with laser focus on a particular task. It’s the one that we activate when we need to concentrate on complicated problems or pay attention to a task like reading or listening to a talk.

The Imagination Network as you might have guessed, is used for things like imagining future scenarios and remembering things that happened in the past. This network helps us to construct mental images when we’re engaged in these activities.

The Attentional Flexibility Network has the important role of monitoring what’s going on around us, as well as inside our brains, and switching between the Imagination Network and Attentional Control for us.

You can see the Attentional Control Network (in green) and the Imagination Network (in red) in the image below.

brain

A recent review by Rex Junge and colleagues explained what they think might be happening in our brains when we get creative. It generally involves reducing activation of the Attentional Control Network. Reducing this partially helps us to allow inspiration in, and new ideas to form. The second part is increasing the activation of the Imagination and Attentional Flexibility Networks.

Research on jazz musicians and rappers who were improvising creative work on the spot showed that when they enter that coveted flow state of creativity, their brains were exhibiting these signs.

Producing new ideas is a process

The production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; – James Webb Young

In his book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young explains that while the process for producing new ideas is simple enough to explain, “it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it.” 1

He also explains that working out where to find ideas is not the solution to finding more of them, but rather we need to train our minds in the process of producing new ideas naturally.

The two general principles of ideas

James describes two principles of the production of ideas, which I really like:

1. an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements

2. the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships

This second one is really important in producing new ideas, but it’s something our minds need to be trained in:

To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. 1

To help our brains get better at delivering good ideas to us, we need to do some preparation first. Let’s take a look at what it takes to prime our brains for idea-generation.

Preparing to get new ideas

Since ideas are made from finding relationships between existing elements, we need to collect a mental inventory of these elements before we can start connecting them. James also notes in his book how we often approach this process incorrectly:

Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us.

Preparing your brain for the process of making new connections takes time and effort. We need to get into the habit of collecting information that’s all around us so our brains have something to work with.

James offers a couple of ideas in his book, such as using index cards to organize and distill information into bite-sized pieces. Another suggestion is to use a scrapbook or file, and cross-index everything so you can find what you need, when you need it.

Bringing it all together

The hard work is mostly in gathering the materials your brain needs to form new connections, but you can do a lot to help your brain process all of this information, as well.

In a paper by neuroscientist Dr. Mark Beeman, he explains how we come to our final “aha” moment of producing an idea, by way of other activities:

A series of studies have used electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural correlates of the “Aha! moment” and its antecedents. Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales.

I love the way that John Cleese talks about these aspects of creativity and how our minds work. He gave an excellent talk years ago about how our brains develop ideas and solve creative problems, wherein he discussed the idea of our brains being like tortoises. Here’s how I explained his theory when I wrote about it earlier this year:

The idea is that your creativity acts like a tortoise—poking its head out nervously to see if the environment is safe before it fully emerges. Thus, you need to create a tortoise enclosure—an oasis amongst the craziness of modern life—to be a safe haven where your creativity can emerge.

He offers a couple of useful ideas to help you achieve this, as well:

Set aside time

John says your thoughts need time to settle down before your creativity will feel safe enough to emerge and get to work. Setting aside time to think regularly can be a good way to train your mind to relax, eventually making this set time a safe haven for your tortoise mind to start putting together connections that could turn into ideas.

Find a creative space

Setting aside time regularly sends a signal to your brain that it’s safe to work on creative ideas. Finding a particular space to be creative in can help, too.

This is similar to the research on how the temperature and noise around us affects our creativity.

Let your brain do the work

This may be one of the hardest, yet most important parts of the process of producing ideas. I think James Webb Young says it best:

Drop the whole subject and put it out of your mind and let your subconscious do its thing. 1

Something else John Cleese talks about is how beneficial it can be to “sleep on a problem.” He recalls observing a dramatic change in his approach to a creative problem after having left it alone. He not only awoke with a perfectly clear idea on how to continue his work, but the problem itself was no longer apparent.

The trick here is to trust enough to let go.

As we engage our conscious minds in other tasks, like sleeping or taking a shower, our subconscious can go to work on finding relationships in all the data we’ve collected so far.

The A-Ha moment

James Webb Young explains the process of producing ideas in stages. Once we’ve completed the first three, which include gathering material and letting our subconscious process the data and find connections, he says we’ll come to an “Aha!” moment, when a great idea hits us:

It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night. 1

How to have more great ideas

Understanding the process our brains go through to produce ideas can help us to replicate this, but there are a few things we can do to nudge ourselves towards having better ideas, too.

Criticize your ideas—don’t accept them immediately

The final stage of James’s explanation of idea production is to criticize your ideas:

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

James says this will help you to expand on the idea and uncover possibilities you might have otherwise overlooked.

Here it’s especially important to know whether you’re introverted or extroverted to criticize your ideas from the right perspective.

Overwhelm your brain—it can handle it

Surprisingly, you can actually hit your brain with more than it can handle and it will step up to the task.

Robert Epstein explained in a Psychology Today article how challenging situations can bring out our creativity. Even if you don’t succeed at whatever you’re doing, you’ll wake up the creative areas of your brain and they’ll perform better after the failed task, to compensate.

Have more bad ideas to have more good ones

It turns out that having a lot of bad ideas also means you’ll have a lot of good ideas. Studies have proved this at both MIT and the University of California Davis.

The sheer volume of ideas produced by some people means that they can’t help having ots of bad ones, but they’re likely to have more good ones, as well.

Seth Godin wrote about how important it is to be willing to produce a lot of bad ideas, saying that people who have lots of ideas like entrepreneurs, writers and musicians all fail far more often than they succeed, but they fail less than those who have no ideas at all.

He summed this up with an example that I love:

Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, “none.”

If you liked this post, share it on social media with Buffer. Oh and I think you might also like the article on “Why we have our best ideas in the shower: The science of creativity” and “10 of the most controversial productivity tips that actually work“. They build on a lot of ideas (d’uh!) from this article.

How do you come up with ideas every day? I’d love your thoughts on this in the comments below!

Image credits: Scientific American

  • Jo Gifford

    Great post, thanks so much Belle :) I teach an e course, Idea Generation and Creativity for Bloggers, and talk in the course about the process of the raw data collection, smart filing existing information, then creating the correct environment to trigger the creative process and illumination. I am fascinated by creative thinking and how we foster it in daily life and in business. I use the morning pages from Cameron’s The Artists’ Way as a daily staple, and also try to implement a source of new stimulus every day, be it something as simple as a new blog, different walk, new type of coffee, new music, anything to go right instead of left or to expose my brain to new surroundings.
    Finding space is so important in the ideas process too, as those “aha” moments will and do strike during a shower, a walk, or before bed, and finding a process to log them until later is all part of the management of creativity and ideas.
    And yes, all ideas should be encouraged, goodness knows I have had plenty of bad ones!
    Thanks again, Belle x

    • Belle

      Thanks for this great comment, Jo! Morning pages is such a great exercise, I’m glad you mentioned it! Have you tried 750 words for this? It’s a pretty neat tool: http://750words.com/

  • http://naomirochellegarnice.wordpress.com/ Naomi Garnice

    Love this post. Thanks for sharing — loving the Ah-ha moment!

    • Belle

      Thanks, Naomi!

  • http://www.einsteinssecret.net/ Deborah Owen

    I always look forward to the Buffer blogposts! I learn so much that is immediately useful. Thanks for sharing!

  • cathy

    Nice post!

  • http://www.thefapman.com/ Bruce Kent

    Hey Belle, this statement was excellent: “we need to collect a mental inventory of these elements before we can start connecting them.” I have been trying to settle on a brand message for the last few weeks and have been struggling to get it right. I even tried Derek Halpern’s method, but to no avail. I decided to go about it by just listing out everything I know about my area of expertise and trying to connect ideas. Amazing to have read this post now, as it is exactly what I’m doing! And it works ;)

    • Belle

      Awesome, thanks for the feedback Bruce!

  • nosygirl

    Want to know the relation between creativeness and motor skill. I am left-handed, I am considered fairly smart and creative and I can multi task well. But I cannot do sport which requires multi task skill and motor skill. I cannot even ride a bike as I cannot balance with my left and right arm at the same time.

  • geeklab

    You guys are awesome. I love the fact that the buffer team recognize understanding human cognition is an essential element of running a successful business. Because of you guys I’ve started digging deeper into studying human psychology. I encourage every aspiring entrepreneur to make it a task to learn how their brain works as part of running their startup.

  • johnny

    Using many different parts of your brain at one time is akin to using several different modalities in your receipt or expression of any information. For example you cannot be an entirely visual learner. However, as with predominant learning strategies, the right barin/left brain thinking scenarios should not be so easily dismissed. While it is so too, impossible for a person to be exclusively thinking with one side of the brain at a time as you have rightly pointed out, right and left brain dominance is well documented and should not be ignored. If it is ignored, there will be no hope for a better, more inclusive, more open, less rigid, less fearful, and more actively creating communities.

  • http://danpresources.wordpress.com/ Dan Pedersen

    Very thoughtful and informative post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and research about how our brains work during the creative process. I can really identify with the two principles Young mentioned, “an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements” and “the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.” Very true.

  • http://twitter.com/theirmind theirmind

    My inspiration comes unsolicited.

    • Diana Miriam Fagadar

      My kind of inspiration.

  • Bhupendra

    I DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE PROCESS OF COMING BRILLIANT IDEA, BUT NOW I CAN CO-RELATE AFTER READING THE ARTICLE, MOST OF THE TIME THE BEST IDEA PERCEIVED ONLY AFTER LOT MANY SMALL,HALF COOKED, SILLY, NAUGHTY, FUNNY IDEAS ( BAD IDEA)

  • amanda

    Thank you so much for this blog. I’ve been struggling for the last few weeks to get going again and was feeling really depressed. My partner found this page a few weeks back and I’ve only just got round to looking at it. It’s incredibly helpful and I now feel I can go into my room without the cloud of doom descending which is a huge relief :)

  • Margaret Mariela Consuela Brit

    I love how research in neuroscience brings a scientific perspective to the somewhat mystical process of thought. I’ve been thinking about though a lot lately because I’m writing a book on it. If you visit me on Facebook you’ll see a short excerpt there entitled “Responding to the Creative Ding!” I’d appreciate your comments and feedback on the short piece I’ve written so far. Maggie

  • Julie Kitzenberger

    Excellent article! Good mental exercise, leading to more good ideas! Julie Kitzenberger juliek@JulieKSnaps.com

  • Manal

    Excellent!

  • davidmcmenemy

    Hi Belle, thanks for the post! It was really insightful, the idea about being able to see relationships between things is something worth noting for sure. I think it’s important to set aside time away from distractions like the internet to focus on thinking, but it’s also important not to try and force yourself to come up with an idea sitting in an empty room, it’s like you’ve said, ideas are about building upon what already exists, about observing things and finding new connections between them. Also being relaxed and trying not to force it helps :-)