Want to have more “aha!” moments and free up your brain to think more creatively? Of course you do. The key is to tap into your brain’s built-in system for free-association and mind-wandering. But to do that, you need to know how that system operates. So here’s a quick primer.
Meet your mind’s “default network”
We all have the capacity for creative inspiration simply by being human. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a highly logical or a highly empathetic person (and maybe you’re both!)–there’s still a natural “seesaw” effect at work in your brain. At one end are traits and qualities like being results-driven, focused, and analytical, while at the other are your social and communication skills as well as your empathy.
Each end of this spectrum reflects one of two cognitive networks that operate like counterweights in your brain. The task-focused “control network” helps you execute on clear goals, while the “default network” is associated with mind-wandering and spacing out. And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it’s the default network that’s primarily responsible for creativity. These two networks bookend all the systems and sub-networks in between that together give rise to cognition. When the seesaw is unequally weighted, overall brain agility tends to suffer.
The default network is something we’ve recently learned more about. Researchers now know that even while we aren’t engaged in a task or consciously focused on a specific topic, the entire brain remains busy–not just the control network. The default network (sometimes called the “task-negative network”) helps us free-associate and think in abstract terms all the while.
This actually makes a lot of sense; a brain that’s functioning with real agility can integrate logic with creativity, intuition, and motivation alongside one’s emotional response and sense of physical place. Even abstract thinking is a complex process, combining memory and knowledge as well as problem-solving and flexible thinking in order to examine a concept at the “meta” level. If our default and control networks couldn’t share these burdens, our brains would hit information overload.
Still, there are times when you’ll want to lean more heavily on your default network. It’s what enables us to imagine, to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, or to enter a state of mindfulness (over time, practices like meditation can balance out activity in both networks). When the default network is more active than the control network, our brains process less external stimuli–which is often a precondition to creative insight.
Removing mental roadblocks to creativity
Generally speaking, many of us learn to over-rely on our control networks and wind up wishing we could think more creatively. In my experience, that tends to happen due to educational, cultural, and societal emphasis on analytical, logical, dispassionate thought and decision-making–all of which are extremely valuable cognitive skills, just not the only ones we need to make sense of the world and succeed. Those who’ve developed overly dominant control networks may cling to facts and talk a lot about evidence while dismissing emotional content or intuition as irrelevant or even negative.
In recent years employers have rolled out dozens of initiatives to help fuel creative thinking, but many have a fatal flaw: They’re designed expressly in order to help workers solve problems. Yet the type of mind-wandering that generates real creativity is unresponsive to clearly defined problems. That’s why many of us struggle to use hacks and exercises to jumpstart creative thinking at work; at a subconscious level, our brains’ control networks activate at the faintest suggestion that there’s a task that needs solving or an end-goal we need to achieve. It’s like having a little gremlin tapping you on the shoulder to ask, “Had a good idea yet?” every few minutes. Exactly what you don’t need.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to banish that gremlin from your brain in order to let your default network truly kick into gear:
- Get to a work- or task-free space. The default network thrives when you aren’t distracted, so going for a mindful walk or just sitting quietly, without the interruption of calls, emails, or members of your household, can create the perfect conditions for free association, abstraction, and creativity.
- Don’t create problems: Try not to set any objective for your mind-wandering. Free yourself up to let your imagination roam to unlikely and unexpected places, otherwise it simply won’t!
- Disrupt yourself: Add a dose of novelty to whatever task-free experience you’re using in order to activate your brain’s default network. Meet somebody outside your usual circle, try an unfamiliar workout, go to a museum exhibition on your own. Novelty helps shake the brain out of its familiar cognitive patterns, opening up opportunities to engage in new ways of thinking and being.
Of course, the control network will continue running in the background, adding a counterforce to the default network even when you’ve successfully ratcheted up activity in the latter. And that’s fine. Your brain can never be strictly creative or strictly analytical at any given moment. It’s more a matter of learning how to operate the seesaw inside your skull–rather than making it stop.