Your creative brain

Dateline Portland, Oregon, Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: That flash of creative insight comes from somewhere. There are many ways you can cultivate your creativity.

Have you ever had the experience of working really hard to solve a problem—any problem—only to give up to take a walk to blow out a few cobwebs and some frustration? If so, you have also very likely had the experience of a solution to your problem popping to mind when you least expect it. Or perhaps you’ve fallen asleep mulling over a problem, only to wake with the solution in the morning.

These incidents are no accident, in fact the nap is a creativity strategy known since the time of philosopher Rene Descartes, who claimed that the basis of the scientific method came to him in his sleep in 1619. Other scientific advancements have arrived the same way—August Kekule’s benzene ring in 1865, and Dmitri Mendeleev’s design of the Periodic Table in 1869, were said to both arrive in dreams. Famously, Albert Einstein was known to take very short naps in his Princeton office (a habit that apparently did not get in the way of ten hours of nightly sleep), claiming that the liminal state between waking and sleep was critical to ‘loosening the ego’ and tapping into his creativity.

These days, the notion of downregulating the frontal lobes in the service of creativity is becoming well known. And neuroscientists have begun to explore it in earnest. We know that there are many routes to get there. Sleep is one—though Einstein’s micro-naps might be tricky for those who might prefer to curl up and nap for a while. I often encourage my students to take a walk when they are working on a thorny problem—and when they can allow themselves the luxury, they realize it is not luxury at all, but rather a necessary part of flowing into the creative process.

Why does this work? When you are trying to solve a problem, you tend to throw your intellect at it—what do you know that will help, how can you approach it from what you know, and what don’t you know that you might need to know in order to solve it. This is generally a good approach, but sometimes bringing what we know to a problem just isn’t enough.

Sometimes we need to get more creative, and this is where downregulating the frontal lobes can help. Why the frontal lobes specifically? Our frontal lobes do a great job of keeping us in line—they help us order tasks, they help us follow the steps involved in complex endeavors, they help keep our more elemental emotions in check so that we can adhere to rules and norms. That is terrific for following complex steps, for staying out of trouble and for getting places on time (without speeding tickets in hand). It is less good for the sort of loosening of associations and decrease of linear thought that aids creative problem solving. Quieting our frontal lobes promotes this loose, non-linear creativity.

So the next time you have a creative endeavor or a thorny problem you just can’t solve, take a walk, take a bath, go to the gym or zone out to your favorite music. See what comes to mind as a result.