We hear some people described as very creative, and others as not creative at all. The truth, however, is that all humans are creative beings. Without creativity, there would be no evolution and the human race would most likely have been extinguished by now.
Still, some people find it easier to let the creative processes flow than others. Why is that?
Neuroscientists have been studying how creativity happens in the brain for decades. The brain is the most complex system on earth—so if the question is complex, imagine the answer! In fact, there isn’t an exact answer yet, but there are some pretty interesting findings and hypotheses that give us a clue about how to let latent creativity out.
First, let’s debunk the “left brainers are rational, right brainers are creative” myth
It all started in the late 1800s, when John Hughlings Jackson conducted a clinical study of children who had suffered left-hemisphere lesions and subsequently showed more aptitude for artistic activities. He concluded that under normal conditions, the brain’s left hemisphere inhibited the right hemisphere.
Years later, with the help of imaging technology, another study showed that when an activity becomes routine, neural activity increases in the left hemisphere and remains about the same in the right hemisphere. The researchers concluded that the left hemisphere is predominantly responsible for routine activities while the right is predominantly responsible for curiosity and novelty seeking.
None of these conclusions is necessarily wrong—they are fair observations. But generalizations like this don’t always apply to a subject as complex as the human brain.
What we know about the brain and creative processes today
In 2018, Harvard cognitive neuroscientist Roger Beaty led a study that concluded there are three distinct neural networks that participate in the creative process:
- The default network: Used to wander, imagine and explore new ideas, make new connections
- The central executive network: Used to evaluate these ideas, prioritize and make decisions
- The salience network: Used to facilitate the transition between the other two networks
These networks generally don’t work simultaneously—activity centers within one area at a time. Yet creative people seem to be capable of activating all three networks together or switching from a more linear, convergent thinking state to a more spontaneous, free thinking or “divergent” state.
How can we facilitate divergent thinking?
We’ve all had a great idea that came out of nowhere—in the middle of the night, while you were showering or when you decided to take a break from work. Why does that happen, and how can we make it work to our advantage?
1. Get in the right state of mind
The brain is always prepared to activate survival mode at the slightest sign of danger. Depending on our state of mind, we will perceive a stimulus a certain way, which will then trigger a certain emotion. If that emotion is negative, survival mode turns on.
When in survival mode, the brain prioritizes quick motor reactions and shuts down the networks necessary for creative thinking. With those networks turned off, the connections your brain can make are limited. All it cares about is finding a way to flee, fight or freeze—even when you’re not in an actual life-threatening situation.
If we are always in a negative or stressed state of mind, we are likely putting ourselves in constant survival mode and inhibiting our brain’s capacity to achieve flexible thinking. It’s a vicious cycle that we need to break in order to literally open our minds. Free-flowing cognition requires us to relax!
2. Train yourself to flex your thinking
Studies correlating meditation and creativity are still maturing, but there are a few from which we can draw conclusions. One study conducted by the Institute for Psychological Research and Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition in The Netherlands, evaluates how two types of meditation affect divergent thinking.
For example, in open monitoring meditation, practitioners get rid of judgmental thoughts and accept everything that is going on inside the mind and body as well as the surrounding environment. The goal is to increase awareness of the present moment. By contrast, focused attention meditation is based around intentional focus on an idea, pushing away any thoughts or distractions that could make the mind wander, with the goal of creating a sense of calm.
Both meditation methods can provide a relaxing sensation that can help put a person in a better state of mind. However, open monitoring meditation was found to increase divergent thinking in a more significant way.
Other studies also suggest that practice makes perfect, with long-term practitioners seeing stronger results in divergent thinking.
Whether your creativity comes out in the kitchen, by making people laugh, or in solving complex technical or business problems, creativity belongs to all of us. And like any other part of our body, our brains can be trained. So take a deep breath and see if it helps you find the answer to a challenge you’ve been pondering. It only gets better and easier with time.