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  • Writer's pictureLinda Pizzitola, Kauai, Hawaii

How Creativity Works

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Imagine - How creativity works - Jonah Lehrer

In his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, author Jonah Lehrer takes us on a ride through the creative process. He shares research on innovation at both the individual level (in Part One: “Alone”) and the collective level (in Part Two: “Together”). Following are some findings from Part One that may surprise you.


The author reminds us that every creative journey begins with a problem to be solved, and that before there can be a breakthrough, there must be a block. We tend to leave out this frustrating but essential part of the experience in our stories about creativity and jump to the happy endings.  When the aha! moment of insight finally arrives, it’s typically fully formed and seems surprisingly obvious. Thirty milliseconds before such a breakthrough, the brain generates a spike of high frequency gamma-wave activity, which is thought to be generated when neurons bind together in a new neural network.


Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, has  shown that eight seconds before an insight breaks through to consciousness, the brain emits a steady rhythm of alpha waves from the right hemisphere. Alpha waves are associated with relaxing, unfocused activities such as daydreaming, meditating, and taking warm showers.

When we’re emitting alpha waves, we’re more likely to be focused inward, connecting the dots of stored data that might lead to solutions. An outward focus may be necessary for analytical solutions, but it actually interferes with innovation by inhibiting the creative associations that generate insights. “Trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.”

Taking stimulants is known to sharpen one’s attention and external focus, but it simultaneously shifts attention away from the bubbling network of stray associations in the brain’s right hemisphere, making creative breakthroughs far less likely. It seems insights only arise when you’re not looking for them.

In one study, eighty-six Harvard undergraduates were tested on their ability to ignore outside stimuli, a skill typically considered essential to productivity. But the students that had a tougher time ignoring distractions were seven times more likely to be rated as ‘eminent creative achievers.’ Another study at University of Memphis found that subjects with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) scored higher on measures of creativity (i.e. winning prizes at juried art shows or being honored at science fairs) than their “normal” counterparts.

The conclusion? “The inability to focus helps insure a richer mixture of thoughts in the unconscious.”

Our minds are very busy during the so-called absentminded state of daydreaming. When we aren’t engaged with the outside world, our relaxed, de-focused brains go exploring our inner databases. Right brain activity increases. There seems to be an elaborate electrical conversation between the front and back parts of the brain that isn’t there during other patterns of thought.

In addition to being a prolific daydreamer, a successful inventor has to be attentive enough to capture the glimmers of insight generated by those daydreams. Alcohol induces its own state of mind-wandering or zoning out, but a solution arrived at while drunk may not be recognized as such and slip away.


In reality,  the grandest revelations usually still need work. The brilliant idea must then be refined. So creation often requires the interplay of divergent right brain associations for insight and convergent left brain focus for execution.

This is the less romantic side of the creative process, the time to work it, “the red pen on the page and the discarded sketch, the trashed prototype and the failed first draft.”


Letting go of self-judgment is critical to the creative process. Our dreams provide one such state of disinhibition. Once the prefrontal cortex turns itself off for the day, unexpected ideas and connections bubble up to awareness, often in the wee hours of the night.

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up.”

The part of the brain that inhibits and censors us (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) is one of the last parts of the brain to fully develop. Once it does, around age 8, we become self-conscious and afraid of getting it wrong.  fMRI brain imaging studies show that as musicians improvise riffs, this impulse control center is deactivated, releasing inhibitions and self-judgments. Simply pretending we’re little kids again can help us tap back into the playful, free-wheeling, spontaneous creativity of childhood and generate fresh ideas and solutions.


Evidence suggests that innovation happens at the boundary of disciplines. As an approach from one field cross-pollinates another, creative solutions are likely to emerge. 3M, a leader in product innovation, maximizes this effect by rotating its engineers and designers throughout the plant.

Whatever it is we’re designing, we must constantly let go of what we already know. We must step back and see with fresh eyes … the eyes of an outsider. A buffer of time can help distance us from our own  projects enough to get this fresh perspective. Walk away, go to the beach, take a warm shower, and know that time spent daydreaming is not ‘idle’ but a vital part of the creative process.

See also by this author How We Decide

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