Thinking Less: How to Prime Your Mind for Creativity
The word creativity almost has a stereotype in many of our minds. Certain associations are sparked automatically: artists, musicians, writers, dancers. Their counterparts being scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. We think of one group as traditionally creative, and the latter as rigid, straightforward, and scholarly.
I often wonder how the two became so separated, especially on the basis of creativity. Naturally, both sides require different aptitudes and forms of intelligence. Creativity is not a point of divergence, however. In fact, it is what connects a great scholar in the humanities to a great scholar in STEM; creativity is the common thread.
The most successful people in life are often the ones who naturally think outside of the box. They ask a question and they seek a new answer. They may take an every day, common idea and challenge it because their creative side is constantly asking what if. There was a day when the brightest human minds thought the Earth to be flat! It sounds ridiculous now, but only thanks to those creative thinkers brave enough to challenge the norm.
Some of us are born with a natural inclination to think divergently, but not everyone. This can be genetically influenced, giving another point to “nature” in the nature vs. nurture debate.
Good news: if you don’t feel you own this creative gene, don’t give up hope. Just because it’s easier for some people does not mean it is impossible for the rest- that goes for almost anything in life. You can prime your mind for creativity, despite any genetic predispositions.¹
More good news: not only is this possible, it’s also quite simple! It will reconstruct some neural pathways, which always takes time. In this respect, creativity is no different than any other skill; practice makes perfect. It’s simple because what you need to practice is essentially mental rest.
Strategic rest of neural networks is the key to prompting lightbulb moments. Whether you’re a pianist or an astrophysicist, these creative networks need to be strengthened to truly succeed at your best.
The Default Mode Network
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a neural network that is activated whenever you are not engaged in a task requiring focused attention. In simpler terms, it’s mind wandering, when we imagine future situations in our lives based off of past episodic memories.² ³ Whenever we engage in a task that requires focused attention, this network ceases to operate. This default daydreaming state activates three specific brain regions:
The medial temporal lobe, associated with memory and integration⁴
The medial prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher level cognition
The posterior cingulate cortex, which relates to self reference⁵
So what about our default state of mind sparks creativity? The DMN is actively being studied, but one thing is for sure: divergent thinkers have stronger connections between the aforementioned structures.⁶ ⁷
Naturally logical people- the ones who consider themselves to be creatively challenged- need to find a way to embody this. Luckily, basic neuroscience might be able to help. The “catchphrase” of the field is neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that when neurons fire in a certain circuit more often, the circuit becomes stronger and more automatic.⁸ ⁹
This is the basis of learning. The first time you got on a bike, it was likely uncomfortable and very difficult. Why is it so easy now? Because your “riding a bike” neurons learned; now they habitually fire together given specific context and sensory stimuli.
Therefore, the DMN needs to be strengthened. To do so, it needs to be used more often, which is essentially saying daydream more often. I told you it was simple!
Letting the mind wander allows for rest and creativity to spark, but it needs to be brought back to focused attention to expand on the creative ideas. That’s where the salience network comes in.
The Salience Network
This network is involved in integrating a lot of sensory information. As you may have guessed, it guides your attention towards what you perceive as the salient information in your environment. This includes prominent stimuli, rewarding stimuli, self-relevant stimuli, and emotional stimuli.¹⁰
Relevant brain regions in this network include:
The anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in emotion and decision making¹¹
The anterior insula, which integrates sensory stimuli and emotion¹²
The ventral striatum,¹³ ¹⁴ which is involved in reward behavior.¹⁵
It differs from the DMN because it requires focused attention. The interaction of the two is integral to the birth of creative ideas.
For example, one study looked at musical creativity through improvisation. When musicians were asked to improvise based on an emotion, there was higher neural activity in the insula and striatum (salience network) and the medial prefrontal cortex (DMN).¹⁶ In other words, the attentional systems and lack of attention had to interact in order to produce a creative result. Both are necessary for that lightbulb moment!
Implementing the Creative Practice
You know you need a creative solution and have spent hours brainstorming to no avail. Your mind is exhausted due to the prolonged attentional focus. That system has had a true workout, it’s time to default.
What is the best way to activate the DMN to spark the creative solution? There’s a few methods, and you can cater them to your liking and routines. The main idea is that they do not require focus.
Imagine the future. The DMN is activated when you use episodic memories to create future scenarios. Take a 5-10 minute break and think about yourself- not in relation to the task at hand, but to something more easygoing in the future.
Take a walk, jog, or do a more intense form of exercise. Once you get into a rhythm, chances are your brain will default and you’ll begin thinking of something that will activate the DMN.
Take a shower, clean, etc. Showering is a common (and hopefully daily) task. It’s habitual and therefore requires little focus. If you say you don’t space out in the shower, you’re lying.
Do something traditionally creative. Doodle, make music, etc.- if you know how to play the piano, play the piano. If you love to draw, doodle away! The important thing is that you don’t try to play a new or difficult piece or draw the Mona Lisa. Do something habitual for you. I like to call them “space out” activities.
Go to sleep. If you have a bit more time, sleep on it! The solution may come in the morning, as REM sleep is linked with problem solving and general healthy sleep boosts creativity.¹⁷
These are just a few ways to boost DMN activity and creativity. As mentioned before, you can alter them based on your skills, routines, or habits.
Once the idea just pops into your head- and I know it will- you can then make the conscious effort to activate attentional systems. Expand on the inventive solution, form a plan, and shock everyone with your newly discovered creative mind!
Harvard (2018, January 23). The Creative Brain is Wired Differently. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved from https://neurosciencenews.com/creativity-networks-8355/#:~:text=Summary%3A%20Synchrony%20between%20the%20default,is%20providing%20one%20answer%20why
Wong, K. (2018, January 25). The Imaginative Powers of a Brain on Autopilot. The Cut. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/how-to-be-more-creative.html
Kennet, Y. N. et al. (2018). Driving the brain towards creativity and intelligence: A network control theory analysis. Neurospychologia, 118, 79-90. 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.01.001
Beaty, R. E. et al (2014). Creativity and the default network: A functional connectivity analysis of the creative brain at rest. Neurospychologia, 64, 92-98. 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.09.019
Takeuchi, H. et al (2011). Failing to deactivate: the association between brain activity during a working memory task and creativity. NeuroImage, 55, 681-687. 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.052
Hebb, D. (1949). The organisation of behaviour. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.
Keysers, C. & Gazzola, V. (2014). Hebbian learning and predictive mirror neurons for actions, sensations and emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 369. 10.1098/rstb.2013.0175
Menon V. (2015) Salience Network. In: Arthur W. Toga, editor. Brain Mapping: An Encyclopedic Reference, vol. 2, pp. 597-611. Academic Press: Elsevier.
Anterior Cingulate Cortex (n.d.). Neuroscientifically Challenged. Retrieved from https://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/glossary/anterior-cingulate-cortex
Gogolla, N. (2017). The insular cortex. Current Biology, 27, R580-R586. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.05.010
Menon V. (2015) Salience Network. In: Arthur W. Toga, editor. Brain Mapping: An Encyclopedic Reference, 2, 597-611. Academic Press: Elsevier.
Seeley, W. W. (2019). The Salience Network: A Neural System for Perceiving and Responding to Homeostatic Demands. The Journal of Neuroscience, 39, 9878-9882. 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1138-17.2019
Pujara, M. S., Philippi, C. L., Motzkin, J. C., Baskaya M. K., & Koenigs M. (2016). Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Damage Is Associated with Decreased Ventral Striatum Volume and Response to Reward. Journal of Neuroscience, 36, 5047-5054. Retrieved from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/36/18/5047
Pinho, A. L., Ullén, F., Castelo-Branco, M., Fransson, P., & de Manzano, O. Addressing a Paradox: Dual Strategies for Creative Performance in Introspective and Extrospective Networks. Cerebral Cortex, 26, 3052–3063. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/26/7/3052/1745217#136690157
Lewis, P. A., Knoblich, G., & Poe, G. (2020). How Memory Replay in Sleep Boosts Creative Problem-Solving. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22, 491-503. 10.1016/j.tics.2018.03.009