The recipe? An elusive blend of focus and relaxation.
Human creativity has long been something of an enigma, but a fortuitous discovery led to a breakthrough in our understanding of this slippery subject.
Most brain studies have involved asking volunteers to perform tasks – matching words, say, or doing calculations – while their brains are monitored by some sort of imaging technology. This has allowed scientists to build up detailed ‘maps’ of what is happening when we’re doing things. For many years, however, no one thought to look at what happens in our brains when we’re not doing things. As luck would have it, there was plenty of data to hand because most brain studies involved rest periods whereby volunteers were told to relax and think of nothing in particular. Their brain activity in this state was usually recorded along with the active phases, but ignored.
Eventually, by chance, it was noticed that the brain activity seen in ‘no-thought’ states was similar in practically everyone. The pattern was named the default mode network (DMN), and it has turned out to be the key to human creativity.
The DMN is the opposite of another electrical pattern known as the executive control network (ECN), which lights up when we’re in a ‘doing’ state. In the ECN, the brain’s neurons fire rapidly, but in relatively few areas. This is goal-directed activity, and it locks the brain into focused thinking. When a person stops pursuing a particular goal, however, their brain activity switches to the DMN, marked by low activity in a large and diffuse collection of brain areas. This state feels relaxed and free-ranging. The thoughts that arise tend to revolve around the individual, and involve past and imagined social scenarios. A person might, for instance, recall a conversation from earlier that day, or rehearse what they will say to someone they are due to meet later.
In the DMN, imagination comes to the fore. Because the brain is unshackled from the need to form and execute a particular action plan, it’s able to try out lots of different ideas, imagining and comparing their outcomes. It also allows thoughts and memories to link up temporarily in unusual ways, creating an internal, near-surreal kaleidoscope in which fish may fly and pigs may talk.
Imagination is not the same as creativity, however. A brain that is completely unharnessed may throw up wildly imaginative ideas, but they may merely seem unhinged. To be creative, ideas need to be useful (e.g. a better mousetrap) or wrapped in talent (e.g. a Dalí painting). So to harness the output from the DMN, the brain has to fire up the ECN, or at least part of it.
Usually, activation of the ECN automatically turns off the DMN, and vice versa – we flip-flop from one state to the other. Research suggests, however, that creative people are able to activate both networks at once. In a study last year, people’s brains were scanned while they tried to think of imaginative uses for a sock, for soap and for a chewing gum wrapper. Some volunteers just couldn’t do the task: they could only think of things like “covering the feet”, “making bubbles” and “containing gum”. Other volunteers suggested a water filtration system, a seal for envelopes, and an antenna wire. These creative thinkers, unlike the others, were found to be activating both the DMN and parts of the ECN simultaneously.
Can you learn to get this particular neural pattern going? So far, no one has put it directly to the test. However, brain activity is habitual, like the behaviour it produces, and if you sense a lack of creativity in yourself, you can encourage it to grow.
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Tune up your creativity
- Look out of the window when you’re next on public transport instead of using your phone. Studies have shown that daydreaming and boredom can allow the mind to wander, helping to foster creativity.
- Cut up pages of a newspaper and rearrange the words to make grammatically correct nonsense statements. By keeping the words within the structure of grammar, the new sentences keep some kind of meaning, forcing the brain to look at the content in a new way – a handy skill for creative thinking.
- Turn down the lights: a 2013 study by psychologists at the Universities of Stuttgart and Hohenheim in Germany found that dim lighting can improve creativity. Darkness, they say, creates a feeling of freedom, triggering “a risky, explorative processing style”.
- If you’re reading a story, stop the narrative mid-flow and think of five different possible endings.
- Transform your current visual experience into something odd. For example, imagine all the objects around you turned upside-down. Can you see a new use for any of them in this state?
- Interrupt a daydream by trying to think of some way to use it in real life, perhaps by polishing it into a story, or a party anecdote.