By Julie Miwa, Ph.D.
Would you like to be more creative if you knew how? The word “creativity” may conjure images of artists painting or jazz musicians improvising, but, in reality, creativity can be applied to multiple realms, not only the artistic ones. For instance, engineers use creativity to advance technologies. We use creativity in myriad ways in our daily lives—it could be as simple as devising a new recipe when we cook.
As a neuroscientist, I view creativity as a neural capacity, a product of our brain’s ability to solve problems. We find new associations and connections between seemingly unrelated things when we are creative. Ever wonder why we come up with ideas or solutions to problems while in the shower? Creativity is non-linear; sometimes it helps to take a break to allow our imaginations to run free, and to detach from our traditional thought patterns. What is emerging about the neuroscience of creativity is that it involves the dynamic interplay between multiple brain areas working together in networks.
It may be helpful to know that creative people are not engaged with creativity all the time. It’s an activity whose capacity can fluctuate depending on a variety of conditions. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was said to have written part of his Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus in only three weeks. He described the experience as having been struck by inspiration, as if “It was an indescribable storm, a hurricane of the spirit…”
Whether divine or material, the ability to access the creative process can change depending on many factors. A person’s environment is undoubtedly an important factor regarding an individual’s state of mind during creative activities. Evidence shows that moderate levels of background noise and music can improve creativity, and there are some reports that a certain level of clutter or visual stimuli can influence creativity. Stimuli that take us out of our routine, our comfort zone, can aid in the creative process. Certain culturally rich places have been hotbeds for creativity and have contributed to artistic and/or political movements. For decades, the Village has drawn musicians, artists, and activists to the area, and allowed cross-cultural interactions that have given rise to progressive exchanges and movements, including the Beat Generation in the ‘50s, and the civil rights and LGBTQ movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, to name a few.
Rather than being a static characteristic of an individual, there is evidence that creativity can be nurtured. We are more creative, for instance, during flow states. When in flow, we are engrossed in an activity and time can seem to drop away. Parts of our brain that are usually involved in self-critique can become less active. Flow states are associated with increased release of neurochemicals, such as dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, etc., that are pleasurable and can also help us link together different ideas in new ways. This sort of associative processing is considered to underlie certain forms of learning as well as creative thought.
It is believed that certain conditions are considered necessary to enter into the flow state. Among the most important are that the individual is intrinsically motivated, and enjoys the activity at hand. Having the technical skill to achieve a goal will facilitate the transition to a flow state. Something that captivates the individual’s curiosity is likely to engage attention long enough to get into the flow state. Engaging in stimulating activities not only nurtures one’s creativity, but also contributes to happiness and well-being. Understanding that we can control the release of our own positive neurochemicals can help us achieve this state more readily. Hopefully, this can allow us to see that creativity is for everyone and within everyone’s reach.
Julie M. Miwa, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and jazz musician. She is an associate professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University, beginning her sabbatical. She leads jazz groups in Pennsylvania, New York City, and the Los Angeles area, and started the NeuroSalon Project, an art/science project about the brain’s creative capacity for creativity. This is the first in a series of articles about the brain.