Inside your brain: When you get a creative idea

We know that ideas can be created based on analytical thinking and logical resonance, but we also know that not all ideas are created this way. What happens in your brain, when the light bulb  suddenly turns on and a brilliant idea comes out of nowhere?

Ideas are closely connected to a fascinating human trait, that all of us know – creativity. Creativity is the ability to connect knowledge and experiences in your subconsciousness – connecting the dots, so to speak.

Your creativity is what makes you come up with different solutions and new ideas, and it’s apparently what’s driving us forward: “If you look at the advancement of humanity it fundamentally depends on creative innovation”, says Jonathan Schooler, professor at University of California…

So creativity seems kind of important: It is what made us become who we are are today, and it is what’s driving all the pioneering ideas, that are surrounding us: The car, the internet, the phone and so on.

I guess that all of us would love to gain a greater level of creativity. But the question remains: Can we hack cognition to better access creativity? The answer is based on the knowledge presented by scientists on the subject..


Those bright and unexpected ideas

Creativity has been studied in multiple ways, and it turns out, that creativity is a lot of different processes in the brain: The ability to improvise, think divergently, have flashes of insight etc. – what you might consider thinking outside the box.

One of the important huge aspects in the study of creativity is the phenomenon that researchers call insight.

Flashes of insight are those aha-moments when relaxing our mind, and without thinking methodological and logically, we are coming up with significant solutions. You know it yourself, when suddenly realizing “I can do this in a better and smarter way” or simply getting an idea, that seems obvious, but you haven’t thought of before – a sudden realization.

Studies have shown, that we are actually thinking differently when we have a creative moment like that, than when we are coming up with routine or logical solutions. Your brain simply reacts in two different ways, and this has to do with the interior.

You’ve might heard, that the right side of your brain is the creative part and the left side is your logical, and analytical part – and this is somewhat correct. I’ve made this drawing to illustrate the the characteristics of each hemisphere:

On both sides of the brain you have a brain lobe called something as fancy as Superior temporal gyrus, and this is the creative spot, where the flashes of insight occur.

The brain cells in your left hemisphere have short dendroids, useful for pulling in information from nearby. But the cells on the right branch out much wider and pull in distant unrelated ideas in the brain. It’s here the novel connections between concepts are  made – this is where the magic happens.

Imagine a huge tornado, that draws in cars and trees etc. on it’s way. But instead of moving forward, as the tornado would do, the ideas are pulled back into the Superior temporal gyrus.

During a flash of insight the left Superior temporal gyrus doesn’t really react, but the right one does, and the outcome is based on a wide range of information and ideas found different places in the brain, combined in a new way.

Like the invention of the microwave, that was done more or less by accident by Percy Spencer: While he was experimenting on a new vacuum tube, the chocolate bar in his pocket began to melt. I bet he had a sudden flash of insight, because his new discovery made him see new things, and allowed him to combine the knowledge into the production of the microwave, as we know it today.

When your mind wanders…

It has always been an inexplicable fact, that we get the best ideas – flashes of insight – when we relax and let our mind wander. You know it yourself: You’ve been focusing on something, working really hard to come up with a solution, and then suddenly while you’re re sitting in the bus, having a run or boiling your egg, the solution pops up.

How can this be? Well, Professor and neuropsychologist Rex Jung, has studied this phenomenon, and it turns out that ideas and creative thinking is closely linked to the part of your brain called the frontal lobes as well.

In your everyday work the frontal lobes actually play gatekeeper role, which decreases your ability to come up with creative solutions.

It sounds surrealistic, but when you let your mind wander, your frontal lobes go into some kind of temporary sleep mode, allowing ideas to flow more freely. This temporary brain state makes it easier for ideas to flow from your unconscious into your conscious mind and bright ideas to occur.

Furthermore, it turns out that some of us are naturally hyper frontal, which means that the frontal lobes are a little less active all the time. In other words: Their frontal lobes are not controlling them, focusing them as much, and they are more likely to have flashes of insight, improvise and think divergently – be creative.


How is creativity and (analytical) intelligence connected?

Are smarter people more creative? Does logical thinking restrain the ability to think outside the box? The same question has been studied in decades, but it is difficult to find one clear and wide conclusion.

Roughly put, intelligence is capacity for learning, reasoning and comprehending.

Having a look inside the brain, it’s clear that intelligence and creativity are two different processes, when they strike. There are overlaps, but they are constructed in two different ways. This is how Rex Jung explains it: “Instead of having these efficient pathways going straight from A to B (intelligence), you have lots of different directions, that ideas can flow and in this idea space, it is more likely for ideas to collide with each other and be brought into conscious awareness (creativity)”.

Even though the processes differentiate, Researchers claim a positive connection between intelligence and creativity, however the interplay remains a debated issue.  The reasoning goes, that intelligent people have an ability to store more information in the brain. Therefore, the brain is more likely to make novel connections – in other words: Be creative more often.

So, intelligence is the basis for creativity, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a creative mind.

An old and widely discussed hypothesis, the Threshold theory, by Ellis Paul Torrances, claims that the higher IQ, the greater is your ability to think creative. However, once  your IQ exceeds 120, the positive correlation between creativity and intelligence disappears. Furthermore, the tendency is that highly creative people tend to have an IQ around 120.

Isn’t it reassuring, if we don’t need an IQ of 140+ to be creative wonders?


Am I creative?

Yes you are! Creativity is not a fixed ability that some people have the exclusive rights to.

Even though some people are more likely to be creative, we all have it in us – but the brain structure, power of your frontal lobes and your environment does have a saying in the level of creativity.

That being said, and although you are not in direct control of your own creative brain patterns,  there are a numerous of  hack you can perform and keep in mind, to increase your level and ability to think creative.

Check out this post: So you want to have more creative ideas? Based on scientific studies you will get different insights on how to hack your creativity.


This BBC documentary, comes highly recommended and is an inspiration for this post.



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