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. In doing so, you activate the brain’s default mode network (DMN) — one Pillay likes to call the “doing mostly nothing circuit” — a network of brain regions that interact with each other when the brain isn’t currently at work on a cognitive task. The circuit includes crosstalk among such regions, as the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, as seen in functional MRI scans. These regions are likely accessed when the individual is retrieving old memories — imagining a distant summer day in the past, or when you’re reflecting on a particularly bad day right after it happened.
MOVING OUT OF FOCUS
While resting, your brain is using 20 percent of the body’s energy, despite the fact that it only makes up 2 percent of our body weight. Minor exercise, such as walking, only adds on a further 5 percent of energy — this makes going for a walk ideal when it comes to brainstorming — so in building short walks into your downtime, you can just let your mind wander freely. Our first instinct may be to concentrate on a particular problem, to wrack our brains for details as we work, but instead, it may be better to let the DMN kick in — allowing old memories to float to the surface — a function of the medial temporal subsystem and the hippocampus, responsible for autobiographical memory. While we tend to think of memories as isolated incidents, the brain tends to store them in sequence, and so one memory will likely conjure another incident that happened around the same time, or bring back details of a particular place.
Once you have begun to unfocus — the other agents of creativity will become clearer. It may seem daunting because if you have a routine office job, organizing your day may have already become second nature. Think instead of the chaotic elements you’re up against in each of your routines, whether it’s checking email or taking phone calls, and rather than seeing obstacles in your day-to-day work — think of the opportunities that each of these tasks affords you.
Save an hour of your day for unplanned activities — leaving things to chance. Use these to do something unique each day, and it could be something as mundane as finding a new path to work or exploring a part of the woods you’ve never seen before. While you’re at it, look over that list of things you have to do today or for the week, and you can quickly spot the tasks that either act as a drain on your productivity or that help to foster it. This can give you an idea of when you most need the time to unfocus — allowing yourself a brief period following an arduous task — or fitting in one of those outdoor walks right before a pitch meeting, when you need to be at your most creative. You may begin to realize that the sparks of inspiration were always there; your brain just needed to notice it.
By opening yourself to these new experiences, you’ll find aspects of your own life from beyond the norm. As a writer, I can say one of the single greatest feelings is finding inspiration — hearing a country rainfall or going to an indie film screening — and suddenly getting the urge to incorporate what you just saw into your writing. The good news is that when you’re unfocusing, you can regularly experience bouts of inspiration. The writer Ray Bradbury once revealed that he kept a notebook where he listed favorite nouns that came to him through the day — something like “roses, fresh cut lawns, fences” — and eventually he’d have the idea or setting for a brand new story — churning out one a week in his prime.
You can do the same thing even if you’re not as prolific. When your mind wanders, try to focus on your surroundings — something you wish you had — something you will want to see again — and then decide what it motivates you to do, whether writing a poem or journal entry, or just reflect on a particular moment in time. You should try this for at least a week — have at least seven images, one for each day — and decide what they say about you, and why you chose them. While the powers of imagination have amazed us for centuries, mastering them need hardly be difficult. Rather than see it as a mystical force, see it as a tool to use — and you’ll never be without inspiration or a germ of a thought.