Dare to Daydream: Unlocking Your Imagination To Find New Solutions

It was Albert Einstein who once famously said that imagination was more important than intelligence itself. “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution,” he explained in a 1929 interview. The reason is clear: one can spend a lifetime acquiring knowledge but still miss things, and ultimately, never have any practical use for it. It’s only through imagination that we can give meaning to any of it — to create new things, and, in doing so, broaden the network of possibility.

So how does imagination work? Neuroscientists have only begun to explore the rather elusive concept of imagination: how to observe it in the brain, and where it comes from are still somewhat mysterious notions. It’s become somewhat cliché and embarrassing to ask a writer where they get their ideas, as though each of us somehow gets access to a trove of never before seen plots, metaphors, or leads for Pulitzer-winning journalism. Not only does such a hope chest not exist (or at least remains to be found) — but creativity is hardly reserved for writers, or artists, alone. While extensive amounts of imagination are used in planning and writing a novel or concerto — the creative process can be used in day-to-day problem solving — a matter of combining experience with past knowledge.

Put In Perspective

People might argue that virtuosos like Beethoven, Émile Zola, or even Einstein himself are born rather than made — that their talent was due to some innate ability that can’t be taught, but the reality is that genes account for just 10 percent of our creativity. We are at our most inventive when the brain contains high levels of dopamine and particularly serotonin. Spikes in stress levels, which bring about the neurotransmitter cortisol, can counteract this, since people tend to stay with the familiar when experiencing a degree of anxiety.

Poor sleep is counterproductive as well. At least two hours of deep, non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep per night (over a seven- to eight-hour sleep cycle) are recommended for a fruitful, morning brainstorming session. There’s a reason that writers and most creative professionals tend to work in the morning too — it’s the time that serotonin levels are typically at their peak — best supplemented by a breakfast that’s rich in protein.

After that, pursuing creativity is entirely on you. You may not care to write a sonnet or chisel an avant-garde sculpture, but your promotion at work may hinge on finding a new way to save the company money — or it may be something as simple as finding a new way to reorganize your office space. Training your brain to be creative — to find answers on its own, is a relatively simple task — by and large a matter of changing perspective.

You’ve probably started to read this article bearing in mind the question of “How?” As in, “How can I become more creative?” — the first step is to stop asking yourself this question. The poet Matsuo Bashō once said, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” If you ask yourself this directly, you’ll find your own path to creative inspiration — rather than copying the people around you that you see as your creative friends. Getting an answer might not be in your best interest anyway — I still have yet to come up with an appropriate response when people ask me where I get my ideas, or where I find topics to write about.

Think of your effort to become more creative as an internal search instead — take a time of the day that you use to unfocus — a time in which your brain is not committed to any particular task or distraction. Turn to an activity that doesn’t require a large amount of cognitive engagement — simple gardening, or even just surfing the internet, is enough of a distraction — anything to divert your attention from the outside world, and lead you into a process known as “positive constructive daydreaming.”

“To get started, use playful or wishful imagery — maybe running through the woods with your dog, or swimming on vacation. Then, once you get the story started with this image, let your mind wander,” says Harvard neuroscientist Srini Pillay.

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