The thrill of discovery is often trumpeted with a single word, “aha!”, an exclamation of both surprise and recognition. Creativity depends on a combination of curiosity, experimentation and the unexpected. So how is it that some people seem remarkably creative, while others claim not to be?
Due to recent advances in neuroscience, we are able to better understand our creative abilities and, in some cases, improve them.
Why is this significant? Creative thinking allows us to collaborate on resolving some of the more critical challenges we face in society. If we can come up with a vaccine for a global pandemic in under a year, or driverless cars, then surely the spirit of possibility encourages us to confront larger social problems through imagination and inspired brainwork. After all, inspiration can lead to innovation, though the process often seems elusive.
Inspiration does not come as a bolt out of the blue, even if we characterize it as such. This seemingly instantaneous event is actually a reframing of ideas or questions residing in long-term memory, looked at in a new way. Here’s how it works: the brain operates as a series of neural networks working together to generate and evaluate new ideas. The default mode network is the part of your brain that supplies unfiltered ideas, the wildest possible combinations. The salience network assesses these combinations, while the central executive network selects the winning ideas from these possibilities. If an idea excites all three networks, dopamine is released into the reward centre of the brain giving us that rush of success: the “aha!” moment.
The brain may not always be actively working on a problem, but it is always ready for the right idea to come along. In other words, the brain programs itself to be ready for the fusion of memory with a new stimulus — when it appears. The “aha!” moment, inspired realization, is the result of that combination.
You can increase the probability of an “aha!” moment by mindfully configuring what, where and how you think. Creativity researchers have identified an effective strategy, known as priming, which is a way to jump-start our creative thoughts and feelings. It’s a bit like warming up before you work out. Priming stirs up those long-standing curiosities by introducing new stimuli, and, like a dating app, seeks new and intriguing combinations. Looking at images, listening to music or performing mindfulness exercises can be primers, increasing the number of new connections the brain makes.
Interestingly, priming content does not need to be directly related to a creative problem. In fact, the more unrelated the better. Often the most loosely connected ideas result in the most innovative combinations. Mind wandering, the latent state of creativity, plays a critical role. In thinking’s active mode, we deliberately concentrate on a problem, and in passive mode, we let an idea incubate or marinate while doing other work, walking the dog, for example, or taking a shower. Playing with ideas in an unfocused way expands the range of possible solutions that we might otherwise not consider.
What does all of this mean for creativity and inspiration? It shows us that anyone can increase their chances of achieving an “aha!” moment through some specific practices. You can bring that long-standing curiosity into your working memory through priming. Be persistent and open-minded. Don’t reject bizarre solutions right away. Let your mind wander and wonder, playing with ideas when your active brain is at rest.
One day, when that “aha!” moment arrives, you can thank neuroscience for the introduction.
Trish Osler is an artist, educator, PhD candidate and Public Scholar at Concordia University and director of research for the Convergence Initiative, an independent Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the knowledge of neuroscience and art.
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