making your mind more creative

The neuroscience of creativity

As my readers will have noticed, I don’t publish as much any more. That’t not to say my commitment to this blog has lessened (I have big plans for it!) Having gone through a period of stress, I realised just how damaging it is to creativity. I blame my reduced creative output on my increased adrenal output. It is well known that the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic), not the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) system is associated with complex cognition and creative problem solving.

Where else would my brain then lead me other than to research the neuroscience of creativity?

neuroscience of creativity

1. Listening to happy music

Gene Rowe et al used a sort of a verbal IQ test and had the subjects listen to either happy music, sad music or read a bunch of neutral facts. The participants’ mood was predictably affected by the music. Indeed, the test performance was correlated with the mood level.

I am not sure whether this will get me to delete the Amy Winehouse tracks off my Spotify account, but as far as my n=1 observations go, there is indeed a relationship between one’s ability to function at a given time and a playlist.

There will some people who will want to discredit this study, but I want to note that there is nothing in this study to say that getting out of a bad mood with happy music will lead to creativity.

Indeed, I would say that listening to happy music when you’re sad can be awful. I would say that something energetic rather than cheerful is in order. I guess I will be working on a playlist in the next while.

Interestingly, a test used to assess the ability to focus yielded the opposite results when it came to music: results were improved with sad music and worsened by happy music. The proposed explanation is that happy music broadens our perception and makes us consider alternative solutions which is so important for creativity.

The interesting lesson here is that being creative means being distractible, not focused.

My encounters with people with bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia come to mind: there is often no keeping them on topic when they aren’t well. The people who suffer with these are also known for their creativity.

I’ve been taught that distraction is a menace. Studying to be a doctor involves a lot of hours in silence, pouring over books, where the only distractions are laziness and loss of the will to carry on. Menace. The job, incidentally, is nothing but distraction. In a hospital, it is impossible to even walk down a corridor without getting five different requests from patients and staff. And it’s no excuse that you’re in the middle of something. In a world obsessed with focus and productivity, it seems anything that seems to be a distraction is disallowed. Maybe, sometimes it pays to chase our distractions.

what makes your brain more creative

2. Walking

I am surprised by the robustness of the finding, though not the finding itself: walking is associated with boosting happiness and creativity. Marily Oppezzo got participants to carry out a creative task while sitting in a chair, standing, walking inside or outside, or being pushed in a wheelchair. Walking won.

I would imagine that sports would also help with being creative. N. N. Taleb also mentioned that he walks a lot and went so far as to say that he gets x amount of pages per y amount of walking (something like 1000 words per mile?) My two cents are that sometimes I feel compelled to go walking. It’s the endorphins, the fresh air, the change of scenery. In fact, whatever it is, it works.

3. Variety

The more varied the participants’ typical activities, the higher they score on tests of creative thinking. People who are in a routine aren’t usually associated with creativity. It has become en vogue to say that everything is a habit, that the best writers have a strong discipline, that Anthony Trollope got up and wrote for 3 hours every morning… There is a difference between emphasising the importance pushing yourself to create and saying that the pushing itself produces creation.

It’s pretty obvious that creativity is the secret sauce, not the bread and butter of actually creating something.

Finding a new connection between two pieces of information (i.e. being creative) will only occur if the two areas of the brain that hold those two pieces of information are active at the same time. The more variety there is in the activation pattern of one’s brain, the higher the chance of a new connection forming.

making your mind more creative

4. REM Sleep

‹REM sleep is that part of the sleep cycles when we see dreams. It seems to be particularly important for memory formation and creation of associations, the direct input of creativity.

Denise Cai got a bunch of sleep-deprived participants to do IQ-like tests focusing on associations and analogies. The participants did some questions, but the real test started after the break. The break was different for the participants who were split into 3 groups: 1) those who got to sleep and enter REM. sleep, 2) those who got to sleep but not enter REM sleep and 3) those whom didn’t get to sleep. When all the participants returned to answer more test questions, the REM sleep group did significantly better than the other two.

This also explains why sleep deprivation results in a functional but lacklustre existence. When we sleep for 8 hours a night as opposed to 6, we get disproportionately more REM sleep. This is because REM periods get longer as you spend more time asleep. So when we cut down on sleep from 8 to 6 hours, we may only lose 2/8= 25% of our entire sleep, but we lose a much bigger percentage of our REM sleep.

A few remarks on the anatomy of the eureka moment

Mark Beeman’s studies focus on moments of insight when trying to solve complex problems. He used fMRI and EEG to reveal that a particular region in the anterior superior temporal gyrus became active shortly before a person reported having an insight. Interestingly, this region is associated with associating distant verbal relations or finding connections between information that is only loosely related.

Pulling it all together

All of the above studies are using crude proxies to creativity. Figuring out what French, cork and list have in common isn’t really creativity (it’s wine, by the way). On a personal level, I feel many of the above tips are useful. Let me know what has worked for you in the comments!

P.S. WordPress tells me I have over 1,000 followers. Thanks so much guys: I really enjoy the company 🙂

45 thoughts on “The neuroscience of creativity”

  1. In your discussion of walking, you neglected to say that walking is often boring (if you walk on a treadmill or on a path you use over and over). Combine this with your conscious attention barely being needed at all and this liberates the conscious mind to do what it will.

    Of course, if you are walking to get somewhere to solve a problem or deal with an issue, your conscious mind may be grinding on that situation, but still creativity is still possible in the form of the solution to that problem.

    I write … a lot … and boredom is my friend. When I get bored my mind races thither and yon usually on paths well trod, looking for different ways to approach things, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting. I’ve been depressed lately due to a month of fatigue-induced inactivity after two back-to-back illness. I’m coping via a combination of surrendering to what I can’t change, distraction, exercising as much as possible, some griping, some positive thinking, and trying to enjoy the slower things in life like reading, watching TV, doing crossword puzzles.

    But yesterday I just felt sad and defeated and the bittersweet classical music I was listening to suited my mood perfectly. I let myself succumb to the mood and eventually it lifted. Hopefully, I’ll be back to my old busy self soon. I’m tired of digging down deep!


    1. Thanks for stopping by! I think you’re right: it is key to acknowledge what state you’re in. Listening to music in a congruent mood can help this process. It’s like making a diagnosis before you start healing.

      It also helps to know that we’re not alone and someone else out there knows exactly the bittersweet emotion we’re going though. Great strategy and I hope you beat the blues soon.


  3. “I can’t think straight when I’m fleeing for my life!” vs “I have the most marvelous ideas as I peacefully stroll along the meadow path.” Says it all. That single insight reveals so much about the human condition. Where I personally find it may have considerable impact is in the application of the affects of inequality. The financially stressed, anxious and anxiety ridden, those worrying about how to pay the rent, the medical bills, the car payment, how to buy their next meal could never be relied upon to “think creatively”. And in fact, studies I’ve read about show exactly this. The poor test poorly, not because they are stupid or ignorant (although this is often so), but because they spend so much of their mental faculty worrying about their future.


    On the Ah-ha moment. I recently (not two days ago) discussed this with a colleague, and our context was the convoluted story line of complex narrative (mysteries and who-dun-its) in addition to temporal puzzles (time shifted stories where you have to figure out why this person is they way they are). Revelations of understanding come when we figure out, from clues, connections in the stories. When these revelations occur I’m convinced we get a little shot of dopamine as a reward. But to the point of my colleague’s and my discussion, narrative that does not provide the format and therefore the opportunity for such sleuthing and discovery feels flat and unfulfilling. Where’s the payoff?

    Another great post Martina — fewer and farther between is okay if they provide such great thought provocation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insights as always. Stress can cause great growth – unless it is chronic stress like you described.

      As for figuring things out, I think everybody enjoys it and our school system doesn’t give people enough of an opportunity to do this!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! I’ve actually seen this in the past, it’s excellent! I find it easy to scout in general, but under pressure I think we all flee to certainty – right or wrong. Great reminder – thanks again!


  4. A great article with wonderful photography. As I read this, I happily checked each one as being done by me. I do have one question however, is there really unhappy music? Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “I’ve been taught that distraction is a menace” – Agreed. I find my biggest distractions are people and their antics. At times, the bizarre behaviour of others, gets into my head and takes my attention to such a degree it distracts me from what I’d really need to be thinking about. Having a one track mind has advantages and disadvantages. At times I think ‘how dare this person be consuming my thoughts’ its simply bad manners for people to be in my head when I have better more important things to be thinking of. The way its done, is for them to emotionally provoke me, if I’m not emotionally provoked I rarely listen. The problem being, anger and frustration, over adults displaying child-like ignorance, can be just as attention grabbing as a kind word of congratulation. 1000 follows is a mind blowing achievement. FAB!


    1. I know what you mean, I too sometimes feel a kind of indignation at it! There are people though who are phenomenally good at it. I find women are better at it than men (though I am not one of those women). In hospital, I often see some female doctors and nurses who can literally be talking to two people at once. Of course though, I know that these people only take in about half of what is said. It’s more like a pantomime Those very gregarious super sociable people, the type that you look at and think: he/she would be a great sales person or politician – they often don’t really listen even though they create this feeling like nothing else exists when they are talking to you. The reason I say it is because these people would ask you the same question on a month’s time, as if the prior conversation never happened. Distraction has a cost, but perhaps sometimes it is worth bearing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Martina,

    I too have seen that with an increase in stress levels, my level of creativity has reduced and my level of writing has gone down. Hopefully, with a reduction in work, my creativity will return.


    Martin Summerhayes

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Martina Go on holiday to somewhere tropical like Bali and stay at Jayakarta hotel. I think that when you look at sun at different angle it can do wonders for you. It’s worth such experiment…you may start percepting things differently. Anything is better than sufferening. Also try to knock yourself down with old Trycycle Antidepressant like Dothep. I know it is old and primitive but gives good sleep.
    Anything to change an old pattern is good. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I come from the same northern part of the other hemisphere as you do. Shifting to Australia did wonders for me. I’m very dependant at seeing plenty of sunlight. When I go to Poland in June/July =European summer I can’t get used to the phenomena of sun there being so low on the horizon. Before I migrated I perceived it differently as I couldn’t imagine that sun somewhere else could be so much higher on the horizon and that the result of that was much brighter. It’s really deficult to imagine it unless you experience it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post. I also have been through a recent period of stress that was damaging to my creativity, and since my creative activities are great contributors to my quality of life and sense of purpose, this caused me to rethink my life to a pretty significant degree. I’d love to figure out how to work part time so I have more time to spend on the things that I think are really creating value in the world. (It’s depressing how many people’s jobs don’t give them that sense of creating value….)

    So a couple weeks ago, I took a “creativity staycation,” just to focus on my creative projects, have time to think (and follow distractions!), and feel like I was doing something productive. Suffice it to say, it was a highly educational week!

    Your bit about happy music intrigues me. I’ve always experienced music as a direct shot of emotion into the arm, so I listen to more happy music (occasionally annoyingly happy by popular standards). I never consciously thought of this as increasing creativity, but now that you mention it, I’m pretty sure that’s part of why I was doing it. It always felt like it gave me more energy and allowed me to do the things I want to do, rather than sitting around in stagnation. (And stagnation, in turn, made me sad….)

    Exercise makes sense to me, of course, as a promoter of creativity — the trick is finding time to both exercise AND do the creative work, especially if one does something non-creative from 9 to 5 every day.

    And I’m definitely in favor of variety as a promoter of creativity. Our highly specialized culture is not conducive to this, and it would be great if we encouraged more interdisciplinarity. I don’t think it has to go against habit, though; I find that I tend to be most productive as a writer at ten o’clock in the morning, but that’s also usually supported by reading all manner of other topics that interest me from eight to ten. Multipotentiality is a real thing and surely highly correlated with creativity!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience in such detail. I never managed a creative staycation. I would get distracted with the all consuming chores of “real life”. One of the reasons I think travel is good for resetting one’s emotions is because it allows us to distance ourselves from routine. This works much better for me, but I will keep trying to be a bit more relaxed even within my routine!

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Neuroscience of creativity is interesting but you haven’t mentioned the amygdala system of subcortical brain. Presentation of facts in the article is valuable especially about REM sleep.

    School system is running on the teaching theory of education. Neuroscience has described the learning streams of brain mechanism but the change in classroom performance hasn’t been observed yet. I think neuroscience can not support teaching system for the brain writing of knowledge chapters. Thank you.


  11. Such an amazing post. With experience in dealing with my own creativity deficits, I can say that listening to happy music is a fantastic way to spark one’s imagination. Each song is filled with different strains of happy that ignite our brains into being creative. Furthermore, they challenge us and encourage us to step out of the box and get us on our creative pathways.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is a really interesting and well written post Martina. Thanks so much for sharing. I walk and run every day and I really feel this boosts my creativity. I have a set routine but it is full of varied activities such as teaching, singing, blogging and coaching. My post today is about creativity in case you have time to look? Have an imaginative day! Sam 🙂


  13. Thank you for this most interesting read. I run to clear my head and find it helps with my overall well being and state of mindset. Running was the basis for me starting a blog too.

    Liked by 1 person

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