Neurology of a Creative Brain – How Ideas Are Created

Being a creative person, you are already familiar with that blissful feeling that you get whenever a great idea crosses your mind. But, has anyone ever explained to you what exactly is happening inside your brain in that precious moment?

Are ideas created by specific chemical reactions in our brain or are they a result of a divine inspiration that the Universe is sending us? If ideas are products of specific processes in the brain, are there ways in which we can deliberately induce their creation whenever we need them?

photo by dollar gill via unsplash

The Structure of the Brain

As you already know, our brain consists of left and right hemisphere. Generally, but very generally speaking, left hemisphere is more rational, analytical, down to earth, and the right hemisphere is more abstract, irrational, emotional and creative.

There are also differences on the cell level. The left hemisphere is made of neatly stacked vertical columns which allow clear differentiation of separate mental functions but less integration of these functions. The right hemisphere is more structurally mixed. Unlike the left hemisphere which has fewer connections within itself and to the rest of the brain, the right brain hemisphere contains numerous interconnections and strong links to emotional centres and other parts of the brain.

Where Do Ideas Come from?

Traditionally it was believed that ideas are born in the right brain and indeed, neuroscientists have managed to measure an increased activity in the brain’s temporal area, on the side of the right neocortex in the moments when new ideas are formed. It is the same area of the right brain hemisphere where abstract thinking, understanding of art, religious thoughts and metaphors are shaped. It is also part of the brain that is closely connected to our sub-conscience. But it would be wrong to say that this area alone is responsible for our creativity. Although it is the most active during creative thinking, it receives impulses from other parts of the brain that help the mind think of new ideas.

The magic moment of idea creation happens when our brain reaches intense gamma activity of 300 milliseconds. Gama activity indicates the binding together of neurons as brain cells connect in a new neural network.

While thinking about a particular problem, your brain is instinctively trying to combine all your previous knowledge and experiences into a huge puzzle picture that will provide an answer to the problem. During this process, the right hemisphere cells stretch out their branches to connect to other parts of the brain and collect useful information. Electrical impulses that they produce shoot in many different directions until they establish a circuit which connects distant bits of information. The creation of this new circuit is marked with an electric discharge which welds together the branches of neural cells. In a flash (literally), a new idea is born, and a new neural connection is formed. Some creators even experience a vision of bright light the moment they get a new idea. After the lightning and thunder, comes a period of calm when we experience an intense feeling of pleasure, joy and relaxation.

Is there a way to somehow activate this intense gamma activity on purpose and generate ideas whenever we need them?

The answer is: No, but…! You see, gamma spikes come at random and cannot be forced, but the mental stage that precedes this gamma burst can be created on purpose. Gama spikes occur while our mind is in the alpha stage. This is the stage of relaxation, daydreaming and drifting. During the alpha period, gamma spikes are most likely to happen.

From a neuroscientists’ point of view, the best way to reach a new idea is just to let go! Follow these three steps:

1-    clearly define the problem or the subject of your thinking;

2-    try to gather as many information as possible about the topic and …

3-    let go!

If you are continually thinking about the problem, you will create mental tension, and it will become difficult for your brain to reach the alpha stage which will prepare it for the burst of gamma waves.

But what if I don’t have the time to relax and let go? My deadline is due, and I still haven’t got any idea for my project!

If you are in this situation, you should not panic! A stressed-out mind cannot create new ideas. Instead, try to reach the stage of ’relaxed thinking’ about the problem. Go online and visit some interesting websites or browse a magazine but always keep the subject of your thinking somewhere in the back of your mind. Take a walk in the park, go window shopping, have a coffee in a nearby café… and always keep a notebook at hand – you never know when a flash of gamma lightning will strike!

The most important thing is to have faith in your creativity!  You are a creative person and ideas will come to you sooner or later.

If you are interested to learn more about the creative process, please check out the Deciphering Creativity podcast serial where I explain in details how ideas are created, what is Inspiration and what skills and habits you should develop if you want to become a better creative thinker.

Let’s keep in touch.

If you like this and previous posts please share them with your creative friends or visit the NCY Podcast for more interesting stories about creativity.

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