We’ve all been there. You’re at your desk. The coffee in your mug is piping hot but cooling by the second so that the caffeine can be poured in slugs rather than taken in sips like cough medicine. The house is so quiet you swear you can hear the television emitting electricity. Needless to say, in this moment, there are no underlying factors to limit the time for “work” that has been set aside for one’s noble pursuit. However armed you think you may be, the so-called “creative juices” feel sapped or nonexistent all together. But it isn’t for lack of trying, desire or preparation. So what gives?
Whether you’re 18 years old and just beginning to figure out what you’re passionate about, perhaps it’s starting a clothing brand, or you’re closer to retirement age and can use the downtime to rekindle the younger pursuits that got in the way when “life” happened, human beings – regardless of race, gender or economic status – share a unique bond to want to create. Hell, it’s a major factor on why websites like Highsnobiety exist; it’s a curation of creativity above all else.
For some, creativity comes easy. For others, it’s like the drilling from a root canal where all the pain ultimately results in a sense of relief when it’s all over.
In our attempt to understand how to get from the desire to create – whether a new T-shirt graphic or cutting-edge gadgets – to that “eureka” moment when everything clicks and suddenly what was once a small and narrow purview is now seen in a large and vivid scope, we must understand how our brain’s fundamentally work.
The idea that creativity relies on the “right brain” is an antiquated notion which looked to make simple sense of a much more complex union of cortices which help us interpret and make use of visual, auditory, sensory and motor region information.
“Specifically how and why the hemispheres differ remains a mystery,” cognitive neuroscientist, Kara D. Federmeier, told NPR. “There are certainly individual differences in hemispheric specialization across people, but they are very difficult to reliably determine.”
The general scientific consensus is that creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain.
There are three so-called “networks” in the brain that contribute to our ability to be imaginative. The Attentional Control Network gives us the ability to concentrate and access one’s working memory. The Imagination Network allows us the ability to brainstorm and actually picture what something might look like even though it doesn’t actually exist (mental simulations). Finally, the Attentional Flexibility Network is what causes us to bounce between the aforementioned ability to concentrate on a specific task and more esoteric elements like brainstorming.
Although things like fixing a lawn mower or painting a portrait may be viewed as the antithesis of one another on the creative spectrum, the brain views them as equal tasks that draw from the necessary networks when venturing toward whatever is deemed “completion.”
The scientific community has broken the stages of creativity down into four segments: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. Depending on where a person is in the process, that determines which part of the brain and which individual networks are accessed.
During the preparation stage, a person has considered a problem that is plaguing their particular area of pursuit. Let’s assume it’s something sneaker-centric like how hard it is to purchase a “hype” item at retail price given the growing sector that is “resale.”
With the problem identified, this is the time to feed your brain information which could possibly solve your problem.
The aforementioned scenario boils down to the idea of “supply and demand.” Thus, that would seem like an area to explore as the phenomenon is certainly not something that humans haven’t encountered in the past.
As you begin exploring supply and demand cases in the past, you’re arming yourself with knowledge bullets. But a person doesn’t necessarily know how to solve the problem of purchasing a hype item without paying exorbitant prices just yet.
Although soothing things like taking a nap or taking a hot shower can feel like miracle drugs simply for their restorative benefits, these periods of “incubation” are some of the most vital times for people wanting to sharpen their mind’s eye.
Consider examples like Beatle Paul McCartney saying that he came up with the melody for “Yesterday” in a dream, and that Nobel Prize winner Otto Loewi woke up with the idea for how to experimentally prove his theory of chemical neurotransmission after slumber.
Research has shown that people are much more effective in solving a problem when taking an incubation period as opposed to people who work continuously for the same length of time.
As an example, a study done by Dutch researchers Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs asked participants to invent new pasta names, after being prompted with five examples of fake names, all ending with an “i.” The researchers found that participants who were given three minutes of a distractor task were much better at generating original pasta names that didn’t end in “i” than those who were simply asked to sit and think of new pasta names for the same amount of time.
In the aforementioned sneaker resale analogy, trying continuous, linear thinking doesn’t bare as much fruit as someone who breaks from the task and incubates. There’s a reason why the “answer” always seems to come out of nowhere. It’s because on the subconscious level, your brain is still sorting through the problem when you’ve seemingly moved on to a new task/experience.
Additionally, renowned neuroscientist, Alice Flaherty, theorizes that the key biological ingredient in incubation is dopamine. Thus, when a person is seemingly “away” from the task at hand, they are actually being pumped full of pleasure-enduring chemicals which often trigger the first steps to solving the original problem.
The illumination stage could also be referred to as the “eureka” moment. After letting your brain be “off the hook” for minutes or hours, the research that you’ve already done allows your brain to start making vital connections. Suddenly you’ve gone from “I don’t want to pay resale prices,” to “I don’t want to wait for hours for those shoes at retail,” to, “I’ll get someone else to wait for them.”
While things like bots, StockX, and professional line-waiting services all seem as commonplace in the sneaker industry today as shoelaces, each is a direct reflection of the original problem of supply-and-demand and meets the criteria for forward thinking.
Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, insists that after having that big breakthrough, you’re still not done with the process quite yet.
“Some of the greatest creative ideas of all time can easily be lost because they’re not packaged in the right way or consumable,” Kaufman warns.
Even when armed with a problem and the solution, it’s vitally as important to consider the best possible way to get from beginning to end.
Alex F. Osborn is considered to be the godfather of brainstorming, having notably said “it is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.”
Much like the incubation period which precedes the eureka moment, Osborn encourages thinkers to imagine the most ludicrous solution because very rarely does the right answer come at the genesis of deep thinking. “Kill your darlings” is after all a mantra that many in the writing community use for trimming the fat – no matter how good it is.
In the sneaker analogy, a person could solve their problems by paying someone to wait in line for them. The slightly more “out there” idea is that perhaps there are thousands of other people like them, and there was actually a business to be created. Not only that, sneakers could be only a small piece of a much larger business model.
Consider the case of Same Ole Line Dudes – a New York City-based LLC that specializes in waiting in lines. While their business model relies on the hype of sneakers like the YEEZY Boost, the service has also diversified into endeavors like securing Broadway tickets to see Hamilton to Cronut delivery. What started as a sneaker problem, actually morphed into something larger which checked multiple boxes due to extended thinking in the verification stage.
Nick Skillicorn, CEO of Improvides and an expert on the science of innovation, suggested in his TED Talks that there are also short-term boosts for creativity as well.
“When the mind gets into a habit, it is actually very efficient at working on autopilot based on memory,” Skillicorn says. “If you provide new sensory input and make new decisions, such as by taking a new route to work or going somewhere new for lunch, studies have shown you will have a short-term boost to your creativity.”
The idea of improvising or getting out of a predetermined routine is supported by the work of Dr. Charles Limb who has spent more than 10 years studying the brain activity of musicians as they improvise – notably using MRI imaging on jazz pianists as well as hip-hop artists from Baltimore as they freestyle.
According to the study, “The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests.”
When it comes to external help when trying to be creative, most people of adult age turn to coffee to try and achieve a laser focus.
French novelist and playwright, Honoré de Balzac, is said to have taken coffee consumption to the absolute extreme in his quest for creating masterworks – known to ingest upwards of 50 “cups” of coffee a day by ingesting the coffee beans in a powder format.
de Balzac noted his findings in his 1839 essay “Traité des Excitants Modernes” (“Treatise on Modern Stimulants”), “Sparks shoot all the way up to the brain” while “ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages.”
As The New Yorker noted in 2013, “While caffeine has numerous benefits, it appears that the drug may undermine creativity more than it stimulates it” because it leads to impulse judgements and energy which allows for “unnatural” prolonged work sessions which interferes with the “incubation” period that has proved vital in creativity.
A 2011 at the University of East London actually suggests that coffee has a placebo effect on many people after giving 88 habitual coffee drinkers a decaf substitute and testing their self-control, reward motivation and mood. The study suggested that those who hadn’t been given coffee, but had thought they did, actually performed just as well. One could determine that coffee is used by people to initiate the preparation stage of their work.
Late Apple founder and CEO, Steve Jobs, once said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
That is your brain on creativity.
- Featured/Main Image: Brain Dead