Creativity is more than one specific process and it requires the optimal functioning of more than one particular part of the brain. Here I’m exploring epiphanies, the sudden bursts of new insight or aha!’s that appear suddenly, “out of the blue,” carrying with them a powerful intuitive “truth sense,” yes, that’s it! That’s it exactly! As when Isaac Newton’s bonk on the head by an apple led to his “sudden” understanding of the force of gravity. These epiphanies lead to brilliantly innovative changes in our lives, in our societies.
To increase the likelihood of new insights or “aha!s” popping up “out of the blue”, Lehrer suggests several things:
1) the necessity of a constraint, a block, an impasse, to force the brain to give up old strategies and begin to look for new ones. A simple example: the constraint of the form of a sonnet or haiku that forces the brain to search for new metaphors to express something, new connections between images and associations.
Lehrer says, “Before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a block.” He re-frames hitting the wall, being stumped, as the impasse essential to insight. When we’re trying to solve a problem, we have to see the dimensions of the box we’re in before we can begin to think creatively “outside the box.”
2) the importance of daydreaming and reverie to relax the old pre-conceived notions of a problem and to allow the brain to create new associations, to connect the dots in a new way. Whenever we de-focus our attention on a problem – when we daydream, when we first wake up in the morning, when we take a warm shower, when we stroll slowly through the neighborhood – we relax our brain into an alpha wave frequency; we can feel calm and tranquil. That frequency tips us into what neuroscientist Marcus Raichle calls the “default network” of the brain. What our brains do when they’re not “doing” anything, when they are not focused on the outside world. And what they do, focused on the inner world, is “play.” The brain plays with ideas, with concepts, with associations, linking them and blending them in new ways. This playing may not always come to conscious awareness, but it is creating the conditions for the brain to become suddenly conscious of a new idea “out of the blue.”
(P.S. A happy mood can relax our brains into this alpha state as well. Cultivating positive emotions could contribute to generating new ideas, new possibilities in general. And Lehrer reports, companies that allow their researchers to spend at least 15% of their time in unbridled daydreaming are phenomenally more successful at inventing new products than companies that don’t “believe in” the power of reverie.)
3) the right hemisphere specializes in “playing” with the dots
While the left hemisphere of the brain has evolved to search for answers through analysis – de-constructing a whole (problem) into its parts, the right hemisphere specializes in creating original and overlapping associations among distant and unrelated parts. (The left hemisphere can examine the chlorophyll in a leaf on a tree; the right hemisphere sees the entire forest. The right hemisphere connects disparate parts (the eye, ear, nose, mouth) to perceive the face as a whole.
Metaphor is an example of the right hemisphere using its capacities to create meaning from previously unassociated, unconnected dots, as when Romeo declares, “Juliet is the sun.” We intuitively comprehend the poetic meaning of that metaphor, even thought it doesn’t square with scientific fact. It’s this capacity of the right hemisphere to link previously unassociated dots in new ways – Juliet and sun – that creates the conditions for a “new” insight to to suddenly emerge in our consciousness.
4) a proposed neural correlate of epiphany: Neuroscientist Max Beeman and psychologist John Kounios used both fMRS’s and EEG’s to discover measurable bursts of activity in the brain immediately preceding a sudden revelation or insight. Gamma wave frequency is the highest brain wave frequency in the brain; it occurs when many parts of the brain are firing rapidly and in synchrony; new complex neural networks are being created (as the right hemisphere does when it creates new associations among old ideas.)
Beeman and Kouinos discovered a measurable spike in gamma wave frequencies 30 milliseconds before an insight breaks through into consciousness. They also discovered a small fold of tissue located on the surface of the right hemisphere just above the ear – the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) that is unusually active (“lights up” in the scanners measuring brain activity in real time) just seconds before an epiphany. The aSTG is located in the same part of the right hemisphere that connects unrelated dots in terms of the “epiphany” of metaphors and comprehending jokes, or in the case of this research, in solving puzzles.
These neural correlates give us new insight into where insight comes from in the brain, rather than “out of the blue.” The more comfortable we become at allowing our brains to “free associate,” the more likely we are to create more new insights and epiphanies.
5) adopting the perspective of an outsider. We create the conditions for new insights and epiphanies anytime we look at the old and the unsolvable from the perspective of the outsider. (Zen mind, beginner’s mind.) One of the ways Lehrer recommends to put on the lens of the outsider is to travel. For real. If we need a good excuse to break away from our familiar routine and take a long vacation, the benefit to our brains in terms of creativity might just tip the scales.
We can “travel” anytime we try a new restaurant or trade the car for the bus or a bike on our commute. We “shake up” and “wake up” the brain any time we present it with something unusual or strange to play with, as much as if we were in a foreign country exposed to new foods, values, and customs. The point is to cultivate an open-minded receptivity and comfort with the new so that we not only generate epiphanies but recognize them when they occur.
In Imagine, Lehrer presents up to date research and examples from many other angles on creativity: conceptual blending among folks from radically different paradigms; letting go of inhibiting impulses, blending experienced hands with absolute newbies. In Resources below is a link to an hour-long interview with Lehrer by NPR’s Michael Krazny. Treat yourself to a fresh new look at your own creativity…and enjoy.