Our very human capacity for creative thought and innovation has enabled people to survive and prosper on Planet Earth*.
Creativity allows us to adapt to change, to produce artworks that move us to tears, to manage complex social relationships, to build civilisations and build Facebook!
*I’m having doubts whether this will continue for much longer.
Creativity: the driver of human civilisation
Our creative endeavours include not only the works of painters and sculptors but engineers, architects, designers, technology innovators, software developers, scientists and medical researchers.
Because creativity is a broad concept, creativity researchers have had to come up with an accepted definition, and they’ve settled on the following:
Creativity is the production of something both novel and useful.
Using this definition, neuroscientists have examined the brain regions involved in creative thought and tested techniques to enhance the creative process.
Where is creativity located in the brain?
One conclusion drawn from brain imaging studies is that creativity doesn’t involve a single brain region or side of the brain.
Instead, creativity is a process that recruits different, interacting brain networks. Creativity involves your WHOLE brain.
“…the entire creative process– from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification– consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.”
So let’s put that creative, poetic, colourful-right brain, analytical-unfeeling-logical left-brain MYTH aside, again!
Writing in the Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kauffman describes the three major brain networks involved in creative thought.
- The Executive Attention Network, which is recruited when a task requires laser-beam-like focus. This network is active when you’re concentrating on a challenging presentation or engaging in complex problem-solving. Structurally, the network includes regions of the prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal lobe.
- The Imagination Network (also called the Default Network) which is involved when you think about the future, imagine alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present, or when you try to imagine what someone else is thinking. This network resides in areas deep inside the prefrontal cortex, temporal lobe, and regions of the parietal cortex.
- The Salience Network which constantly monitors both what’s going on around you and your internal stream of consciousness. It then passes the baton to whatever information is most relevant to solving the task at hand. This network consists of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortices and anterior insula cortex.
“The key to understanding the neuroscience of creativity lies not only in knowledge of large-scale networks, but in recognizing that different patterns of neural activations and deactivations are important at different stages of the creative process.
Sometimes, it’s helpful for the networks to work with each other, and sometimes such cooperation can impede the creative process,” says Kaufman
To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.
Creativity research has also found a lack of concern for criticism to be key.
Silencing the ‘inner critic’ is no mean feat, but involves switching off propensity for logic and social judgment. Doing this allows you to loosen your associations, your mind to roam free, and lets you imagine new possibilities.
This is summed up in the famous quote from Joseph Chilton Pearce,
To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.
Kaufman cautions it’s always a good idea to bring that network back online, to critically evaluate and implement your creative ideas.
Kaufman also offers wise words for those of us grappling with inner self-doubt.
What do I possibly have to contribute to this world? What can I say that hasn’t already been said?
This is the creative dilemma.
I’d like to propose an antidote, the only thing I’ve found to really help me push through. In a word: gratitude. Gratitude for all of those fellow explorers, fellow discovers. There is a middle way between the extremes of euphoric inspiration and crippling self-doubt. The creative dilemma will always be an inevitable part of life, inherent in the search for meaning. To think that you are the only one with the search for meaning is folly. With gratitude and humbleness, we can not only overcome this dilemma, but push all the way through, by treating your fellow travelers with appreciation. Anything worth saying is worth saying again. And again, again, and again.
Seven tips to maximise your creativity:
- Become an expert. Expertise frees up mental resources from mundane tasks. Experts have a talent of seeing immediately what is relevant.
- Go green. Time in nature is a powerful antidote to the constant distraction of our digital lives. More than that, it enhances higher-order thinking, restores attention, and gives time and space for your mind to wander (see point 4!)
- Exercise. Exercise gets your blood pumping and lifts mood, both of which improve creative problem-solving.
- Let your mind wander. Daydreaming and napping allow your brain to make associations between previously unrelated concepts. Intentionally trying to dream about a particular problem, called dream incubation, increases the chance that you will come up with a solution.
- Think about something else. Focussing on another problem or task is a well-known method for overcoming a creative block.
- Put limits on yourself. Dr Suess famously wrote ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ when he was challenged to write a book using only 50 words. Placing a self-imposed limit forces you to come up with creative solutions.
- Embrace extreme moods. It’s well known that positive moods enhance creative problem-solving. But so too does anger.
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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