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Neuroscience Sheds New Light on Creativity

What neuroscience reveals about how to come up with new ideas.

Close your eyes and visualize the sun setting over a beach.

How detailed was your image? Did you envision a bland orb sinking below calm waters, or did you call up an image filled with activity — palm trees swaying gently, waves lapping at your feet, perhaps a loved one holding your hand?

Now imagine you're standing on the surface of Pluto. What would a sunset look like from there? Notice how hard you had to work to imagine this

scene. Did you picture a featureless ball of ice with the sun a speck of light barely brighter than a star along the horizon? Did you envision frozen lakes of exotic chemicals or icy fjords glimmering in the starlight?

What you conjured illuminates how our brains work, why it can be so hard to come up with new ideas — and how you can rewire your mind to open up the holy grail of creativity. Recent advances in neuroscience, driven by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that lets scientists watch brain activity as never before, have changed what we know about key attributes of creativity. These advances, for example, have swept away the idea that there is a pleasure center in the brain that somehow acts as an accelerator to the engine of human behavior. Rather, chemicals such as dopamine shuttle between neurons in ways that look remarkably like the calculations modern robots perform.

Creativity and imagination begin with perception. Neuroscientists have come to realize that how you perceive something isn't simply a product of what your eyes and ears transmit to your brain. It's a product of your brain itself. And iconoclasts, a class of people I define as those who do something that others say can't be done — think Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or Florence Nightingale — see things differently. Literally. Some iconoclasts are born that way, but we all can learn how to see things not for what they are, but for what they might be.

Perception and imagination are linked because the brain uses the same neural circuits for both functions. Imagination is like running perception in reverse. The reason it's so difficult to imagine truly novel ideas has to do with how the brain interprets signals from your eyes. The images that strike your retina do not, by themselves, tell you with certainty what you are seeing. Visual perception is largely a result of statistical expectations, the brain's way of explaining ambiguous visual signals in the most likely way. And the likelihood of these explanations is a direct result of past experience.

Entire books have been written about learning, but the important elements for creative thinkers can be boiled down to this: Experience modifies the connections between neurons so that they become more efficient at processing information. Neuroscientists have observed that while an entire network of neurons might process a stimulus initially, by about the sixth presentation, the heavy lifting is performed by only a subset of neurons. Because fewer neurons are being used, the network becomes more efficient in carrying out its function.

The brain is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat. It doesn't want to waste energy. That's why there is a striking lack of imagination in most people's visualization of a beach sunset. It's an iconic image, so your brain simply takes the path of least resistance and reactivates neurons that have been optimized to process this sort of scene. If you imagine something that you have never actually seen, like a Pluto sunset, the possibilities for creative thinking become much greater because the brain can no longer rely on connections shaped by past experience.

In order to think creatively, you must develop new neural pathways and break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. As Mark Twain said, "Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned." For most people, this does not come naturally. Often, the harder you try to think differently, the more rigid the categories become.

Most corporate off-sites, for example, are ineffective idea generators, because they're scheduled rather than organic; the brain has time to predict the future, which means the potential novelty will be diminished. Transplanting the same mix of people to a different location, even an exotic one, then dropping them into a conference room much like the one back home doesn't create an environment that leads to new insights. No, new insights come from new people and new environments — any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will happen next.

Fortunately, the networks that govern both perception and imagination can be reprogrammed. By deploying your attention differently, the frontal cortex, which contains rules for decision making, can reconfigure neural networks so that you can see things that you didn't see before. You need a novel stimulus — either a new piece of information or an unfamiliar environment — to jolt attentional systems awake. The more radical the change, the greater the likelihood of fresh insights.

Some of the most startling breakthroughs have had their origins in exactly these types of novel circumstances. Chemist Kary Mullis came up with the basic principle of the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR — the fundamental technology that makes genetic tests possible — not hunched over his lab bench, but on a spring evening while he was driving up the northern California coast. Walt Disney was a decent illustrator, but he didn't imagine the possibilities of animation until he saw his advertising illustrations projected onto the screen in a movie theater. In an extreme example, the preeminent glass artist Dale Chihuly didn't discover his sculptural genius until a car accident led to the loss of an eye and literally forced him to see the world differently. Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with. They may have nothing to do with your area of expertise. It doesn't matter. Because the same systems in the brain carry out both perception and imagination, there will be cross talk.

Novel experiences are so effective at unleashing the imagination because they force the perceptual system out of categorization, the tendency of the brain to take shortcuts. You have to confront these categories directly. Try this: When your brain is categorizing a person or an idea, just jot down the categories that come to mind. Use analogies. You will find that you naturally fall back on the things you are familiar with. Then allow yourself the freedom to write down gut feelings, even if they're vague or visceral, such as "stupid" or "hot." Only when you consciously confront your brain's shortcuts will you be able to imagine outside of its boundaries.

Adapted from the book Iconoclast, by Gregory Berns, by permission of Harvard Business Press. Copyright 2008 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. All Rights Reserved.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.