The Science Of Great Ideas—How to Train Your Creative Brain

Creativity is a mystery right? Maybe not. Here's a look at the science of the creative process and how to harness your brain's power to come up with more great ideas.

Ah, ideas. Who doesn’t want more great ideas? I know I do.

I usually think about ideas as being magical and hard to produce. I expect them to just show up without me cultivating them, and I often get frustrated when they don’t show up when I need them.

The good news is that it turns out cultivating ideas is a process, and one that we can practice to produce more (and hopefully better) ideas. On the other hand, often times great ideas can also just come to us whilst in the shower or in another relaxing environment.

First, let’s look at the science of the creative process.

How our brains work creatively

So far, science hasn’t really determined exactly what happens in our brains during the creative process, since it really combines a whole bunch of different brain processes. And, contrary to popular belief, it includes both sides of our brains working together, rather than just one or the other.

The truth is, our brain hemispheres are inextricably connected. The two sides of our brains are simply distinguished by their different processing styles.

The idea that people can be "right brain thinkers" or "left brain thinkers" is actually a myth that I’ve debunked before:

The origins of this common myth came from some 1960s research on patients whose corpus callosum (the band of neural fibers that connect the hemispheres) had been cut as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy. This removed the natural process of cross-hemisphere communication, and allowed scientists to conduct experiments on how each hemisphere worked in isolation.

Unless you’ve had this procedure yourself, or had half of your brain removed, you’re not right or left brained.

We do have a rough idea of how these processes might work, though.

The three areas of the brain that are used for creative thinking

Among all the networks and specific centers in our brains, there are three that are known for being used in creative thinking.

The Attentional Control Network helps us with laser focus on a particular task. It’s the one that we activate when we need to concentrate on complicated problems or pay attention to a task like reading or listening to a talk.

The Imagination Network as you might have guessed, is used for things like imagining future scenarios and remembering things that happened in the past. This network helps us to construct mental images when we’re engaged in these activities.

The Attentional Flexibility Network has the important role of monitoring what’s going on around us, as well as inside our brains, and switching between the Imagination Network and Attentional Control for us.

You can see the Attentional Control Network (in green) and the Imagination Network (in red) in the image below.

A recent review by Rex Junge and colleagues explained what they think might be happening in our brains when we get creative. It generally involves reducing activation of the Attentional Control Network. Reducing this partially helps us to allow inspiration in, and new ideas to form. The second part is increasing the activation of the Imagination and Attentional Flexibility Networks.

Research on jazz musicians and rappers who were improvising creative work on the spot showed that when they enter that coveted flow state of creativity, their brains were exhibiting these signs.

Producing new ideas is a process

The production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; —James Webb Young

In his book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young explains that while the process for producing new ideas is simple enough to explain, "it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it."

He also explains that working out where to find ideas is not the solution to finding more of them, but rather we need to train our minds in the process of producing new ideas naturally.

The two general principles of ideas

James describes two principles of the production of ideas, which I really like:

  1. An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.
  2. The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

This second one is really important in producing new ideas, but it’s something our minds need to be trained in:

To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge.

To help our brains get better at delivering good ideas to us, we need to do some preparation first. Let’s take a look at what it takes to prime our brains for idea-generation.

Preparing to get new ideas

Since ideas are made from finding relationships between existing elements, we need to collect a mental inventory of these elements before we can start connecting them. James also notes in his book how we often approach this process incorrectly:

Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us.

Preparing your brain for the process of making new connections takes time and effort. We need to get into the habit of collecting information that’s all around us so our brains have something to work with.

James offers a couple of ideas in his book, such as using index cards to organize and distill information into bite-sized pieces. Another suggestion is to use a scrapbook or file, and cross-index everything so you can find what you need, when you need it.

Bringing it all together

The hard work is mostly in gathering the materials your brain needs to form new connections, but you can do a lot to help your brain process all of this information, as well.

In a paper by neuroscientist Dr. Mark Beeman, he explains how we come to our final "aha" moment of producing an idea, by way of other activities:

A series of studies have used electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural correlates of the "Aha! moment" and its antecedents. Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, these studies show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales.

I love the way that John Cleese talks about these aspects of creativity and how our minds work. He gave an excellent talk years ago about how our brains develop ideas and solve creative problems, wherein he discussed the idea of our brains being like tortoises. Here’s how I explained his theory when I wrote about it earlier this year:

The idea is that your creativity acts like a tortoise—poking its head out nervously to see if the environment is safe before it fully emerges. Thus, you need to create a tortoise enclosure—an oasis amongst the craziness of modern life—to be a safe haven where your creativity can emerge.

He offers a couple of useful ideas to help you achieve this, as well:

Set aside time

John says your thoughts need time to settle down before your creativity will feel safe enough to emerge and get to work. Setting aside time to think regularly can be a good way to train your mind to relax, eventually making this set time a safe haven for your tortoise mind to start putting together connections that could turn into ideas.

Find a creative space

Setting aside time regularly sends a signal to your brain that it’s safe to work on creative ideas. Finding a particular space to be creative in can help, too.

This is similar to the research on how the temperature and noise around us affects our creativity.

Let your brain do the work

This may be one of the hardest, yet most important parts of the process of producing ideas. I think James Webb Young says it best:

Drop the whole subject and put it out of your mind and let your subconscious do its thing.

Something else John Cleese talks about is how beneficial it can be to "sleep on a problem." He recalls observing a dramatic change in his approach to a creative problem after having left it alone. He not only awoke with a perfectly clear idea on how to continue his work, but the problem itself was no longer apparent.

The trick here is to trust enough to let go.

As we engage our conscious minds in other tasks, like sleeping or taking a shower, our subconscious can go to work on finding relationships in all the data we’ve collected so far.

The Aha moment
James Webb Young explains the process of producing ideas in stages. Once we’ve completed the first three, which include gathering material and letting our subconscious process the data and find connections, he says we’ll come to an "Aha!" moment, when a great idea hits us:

It will come to you when you are least expecting it—while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

How to have more great ideas

Understanding the process our brains go through to produce ideas can help us to replicate this, but there are a few things we can do to nudge ourselves towards having better ideas, too.

Criticize your ideas—don’t accept them immediately

The final stage of James’s explanation of idea production is to criticize your ideas:

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

James says this will help you to expand on the idea and uncover possibilities you might have otherwise overlooked.

Here it’s especially important to know whether you’re introverted or extroverted to criticize your ideas from the right perspective.

Overwhelm your brain—it can handle it

Surprisingly, you can actually hit your brain with more than it can handle and it will step up to the task.

Robert Epstein explained in a Psychology Today article how challenging situations can bring out our creativity. Even if you don’t succeed at whatever you’re doing, you’ll wake up the creative areas of your brain and they’ll perform better after the failed task, to compensate.

Have more bad ideas to have more good ones

It turns out that having a lot of bad ideas also means you’ll have a lot of good ideas. Studies have proved this at both MIT and the University of California Davis.

The sheer volume of ideas produced by some people means that they can’t help having lots of bad ones, but they’re likely to have more good ones, as well.

Seth Godin wrote about how important it is to be willing to produce a lot of bad ideas, saying that people who have lots of ideas like entrepreneurs, writers and musicians all fail far more often than they succeed, but they fail less than those who have no ideas at all.

He summed this up with an example that I love:

Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, "none."

How do you come up with ideas every day? I’d love your thoughts on this in the comments below!

Belle Beth Cooper is a Content Crafter at Buffer and cofounder of Hello Code. Follow her on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper.

This post originally appeared on Buffer, and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Folkert Gorter]

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15 Comments

  • James Chanbonpin

    Wonderful article. Cleese is always a great resource for creative insight...

  • Charlie Hammell

    How do I come up with ideas every day? For my lyric writing, I have a daily ritual. For just six minutes, I write a narrative, aiming at a destination: a place, a person, or a time. I practice the discipline of sense-bound writing using the six senses plus motion. I tell a story. This little exercise is apart from my more time-consuming work of systematically building songs. It's just a brain exercise to build sensory writing skills and produce raw materials for lyrics. It completely avoids the writer's block problem. I never wait for inspiration. I can turn this exercise on any time, anywhere.

  • For me the process is something like this: Set aside time to work on nothing in particular but do have a general theme or concept in mind that I want to explore. Just browse the web, skim articles, videos, comments and start sketching and writing everything that comes to mind related to that concept. After a while (40m or so) I start to see some patterns. If lucky, I might have the "aha " moment right there. If not keep doing so for a while and after a few of these sessions, something will definitively come up.

    The next step is to try to explain the idea to someone else. This will force you to consolidate everything you've been playing around with in a single statement that needs to get the point across.

    The process becomes a lot easier if you are relaxed and joyful. For me it's super important to have no outside distractions at all. No email, What'sApp or Facebook.

  • Vincent M

    I think that mindfulness is an essential component, meaning an enhanced awareness of the words, thoughts, sights and sounds we each encounter in our everyday lives. Case in point, I was in a local bookstore and there was an art exhibit created by elementary school students on the subject of people flying and there was a quote by one of the students that said, "Anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere to go that you can't get to any other way." It was so inspiring that I put it up in my office to remind me that great ideas start with passion and desire to pursue them.

  • Guillermo Garza Milling

    Once you are very creative with hundred of possible Patents in a list, how can you make others open to deal with your initiatives.

  • Sebastián Arango

    Hi, nice article. As far as my experience concerns, the ideas generation process must be enriched by observation (what is going on in the world), relaxing (take a few minutes in front of the window and meditate possible ideas, criticize the, until the insight came.
    Socialization (not copying) is a good input too.
    See different perspectives of the problem to get better ideas.

  • Rowan Walters

    Thank you for this inspiring article Belle! Since I seem to spend so much time wrestling with my own inner critic, I intend to silence that annoying voice and let the ideas flow ...

  • Trudy Phillips

    Wonderful article. Personally, I frequently wake with a solution or idea to do. When I was 16 my brain showed me how solve a complicated algebra problem that was pass or fail. I passed. My business slogan has been for years" Bringing Order out of Chaos." I cleaned out warehouses, of stored paper records, reorganize file rooms. I could look at the mess and instantly see organization and proceed to get it done. And today I am still able to do this for the small growing business I consult with. I listen closely to their problems, see the chaos and able to provide them with solutions.. And I am an Introvert.. I am actually shy. People do not belive it. I have learned to be outgoing in dealing with people daily. Thanks for such a good commentary.

  • zschmiez

    Is this article just a short summary of Jonah Lerher's "Imagine:How Creativity Works"(plagiarism or not)?

  • Paul H. Burton

    There was also a great article in the Association of Training & Development magazine, Training & Development, published in November, 2011, discussing the notion that "aha" moments occur when weak-signal ideas, those with low EKG readings, are allowed to join. The primary what to achieve that intentionally, the article suggested, was to quiet the Working Brain, which produces a lost of high EKG readings. Unfortunately, the ASTD doesn't make their articles public, but you can find it at the author's site at http://www.davidrock.net/files....

  • Madelyn Blair

    I've always asked clients to include an overnighter for training and for retreats. Now, I have further ammunition.
    I am also drawn to the idea of criticizing my own ideas in order to expand and improve my ideas.

  • Deon H.

    So I'm not a right brainer after all? Hmm. Now as far as ideas go, I think it is very important to exercise the muscle if you will. I have a lot of ideas and I used to hold them close to my chest and think this is the one that will change everything! But I've come a long way since then and I now let 90% of the ideas loose into the world. I've been a member of a product invention site called Quirky. It's not perfect, but it's about the only place I know of where I can submit product ideas and get them evaluated (kinda). I think of it as an exercise for the creative mind. You might even get a product made and call yourself a inventor. If nothing else it's an outlet for all those crazy ideas you have.

  • Les Burns

    Great insights into a very difficult and complex process. This is a leap forward

  • PaulOConnor

    Excellent article Belle Beth! It's amazing how pervasive the old left-brain-right-brain myth has become!