A lightbulb shaped like a brain.

The study of creation

What is creative thought? How can we harness it? In recent years, research scientists have been studying the effects of creativity on the brain and body. And it’s absolutely fascinating what they’ve uncovered. Understanding where your thoughts originate and how the areas of your brain interact can potentially help you cultivate a more creative mind.

So what are the benefits of creative thought?

Through various studies, scientists have discovered that creativity:

  • is therapeutic
  • gives a sense of personal fulfillment
  • encourages innovation
  • increases happiness and pleasure
  • can potentially lead to both professional and academic success
  • inspires deeper focus
  • reduces the chance of cognitive disorders, such as dementia
  • all kinds of amazing, right?
  • educational
  • creates a connection with others

How to define creative thought?

But for many years, the longtime definition of creativity is simply describing it as something that is “novel and effective.” More recently, scientists are finding that definition inadequate. How can we truly know what artistic pursuit is considered effective when art by definition is so subjective?

According to Adam Green, PhD, who is both a cognitive neuroscientist at Georgetown University as well as founder of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity, “The standard definition, that creativity is novel and useful, is a description of a product. By looking inward, we can see the process in action and start to identify the characteristics of creative thought. Neuroimaging is helping to shift the focus from creative product to creative process.”

What neuroscience tells us

This emphasis on studying the creative process has led to enlightening results within the field of neuroscience.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA) “creativity often involves coordination between the cognitive control network, which is involved in executive functions such as planning and problem-solving, and the default mode network, which is most active during mind-wandering or daydreaming.” (Source: Beaty, R. E., et al., Cerebral Cortex, Vol. 31, No. 10, 2021). In addition, Green found that stimulating the brain’s frontopolar cortex boosted creative abilities.

System 1 and System 2

From a cognition perspective, there are two main avenues of creative thought: System 1 and System 2. System 1 type are those flashes of novel ideas that come to you seemingly out of nowhere. System 2 type are slow, methodical, and deliberate. You might think of System 1 as similar to writing a rough draft of a novel and System 2 as editing the book.

Both types of thinking can be engaged by the brain when doing creative work, and both are necessary to the processes involved in creative thought.

Incubate to boost creation

One interesting finding is the idea of incubation, or time away from System 2 type of thinking. In other words, it’s the time we take to give our minds a break from intensive, creative thoughts. When we allow ourselves time to daydream (and daydreaming while on a walk is particularly effective, by the way), we allow ourselves time to ruminate on more novel and abstract concepts. We combine seemingly disparate ideas and our musings come in a quick succession without revision or refinement. This is the type of brainpower that naturally lends itself toward brainstorming.

Keep your dual creative thoughts “on call”

According to Cognitive Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and Yale Professor Emeritus Jerome L. Singer in a Scientific American article, “The key to functional creativity is the ability to keep System 1’s internal stream of consciousness ‘on call’ while being able to concentrate on an external task. It appears it’s conducive to creativity to go out of your mind just a little bit, just as long as you can eventually come back to reality.”

The idea is to cultivate a mind that can tap into System 1 and 2 ways of thinking when engaging in creative work. More research needs to be done, but the study of creative thought is a fascinating endeavor, and worth a continual, deeper look.

Learn more with these resources

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