Creating the ideal cognitive conditions for creativity


“Never confuse movement with action.” – Ernest Hemingway

To spark new ideas: first get your brain into a relaxed state, then give it a complex task to solve.

Science helps us to explain why this approach to ideation works.

In your brain there are roughly 100 billion neurons, each individual one connected to upwards of 10,000 others, and each capable of sending and receiving information in the form of electrochemical signals between 5 and 50 times every second.

On a good day that means your brain is activating billions of neurons in order to solve problems, create and maintain the narrative for the world around you, and generally keeping you alive (among other things).

But all of that brain activity doesn’t occur in ways we are consciously aware of, more often than not.

These behaviors (and the thoughts surrounding them) are almost entirely controlled on subconscious levels, without us having to think about them at all. Could you imagine how stressful and exhausting your day would be if you had to think about controlling your lungs to breathe, focus on your heart to pump blood, or helping your ears to tune-out any irrelevant sounds?

Thankfully there are parts of our brain designated to work with signals from our body in order to help regulate behaviors that do not require our immediate attention.

It’s only when things start to go awry, or when we encounter something out-of-the-ordinary, that our brain relies on what’s known as “executive functioning” in relation to our consciousness. This mode of thinking is what we commonly associate with creative thinking, understandably so.

Executive functioning within the brain entails many various parts, but primarily relies on the prefrontal cortex (right smack-dab in the upper-front part of your head). It’s in this part of the brain that we experience things more consciously than the other, more automatic, processes of our thinking.

In the 1980s, psychologists Don Norman and Tim Shallice outlined five specific areas where executive functioning are activated:

  1. For planning or decision making
  2. correcting errors or solving problems
  3. For dealing with new or unique situations
  4. Working around dangerous or difficult situations
  5. For situations that require overcoming natural response in order to resist temptation

In a nutshell: executive functions (the most conscious of thinking processes) is reserved primarily for situations where we must think in new or more challenging ways.

Watching TV does not require executive functioning because it consistently involves the same requirements of us: sitting down and watching images pass in front of you while listening to sound.

Reading a challenging book, on the other hand, will enable executive functioning in order to understand the narrative and make sense of the words on the pages of the book.

This partially explains why reading a challenging book feels more exhausting than flopping down on the couch to watch television. One requires active processing in the brain while the other requires us only to process information coming in. That’s not to say we can’t be enthralled and use our executive functions for watching a good crime drama on TV.

Why is this all important to know and understand in the contexts of creative thinking?

The point is to emphasize the ideal conditions in which creative thinking takes place: not when we’re overwhelmed consciously with problems or situations, and not when the executive parts of our brain aren’t being utilized. The most ideal condition is one in which we are mentally stimulated with a task, but at the same time free to explore possibilities unhindered.

In multiple research studies from the University of Central Lancashire as well as Penn State University, researchers found that the right mix of boredom and mental stimulation causes conditions for daydreaming that benefits creativity.

Over at Harvard Business Review, author David Burkus explains the findings:

“The findings suggest that boredom felt during passive activities, liking reading reports or attending tedious meetings, heightens the “daydreaming effect” on creativity—the more passive the boredom, the more likely the daydreaming and the more creative you could be afterward…By engaging in uninteresting activities before problem-solving ones, we may be able to elicit the type of thinking we need to find creative solutions.”

When we’re too focused on a challenge we have no room (or energy) to think (no capacity to do so), and when we’re bored from distraction we aren’t thinking at all.

This is clear reasoning for why many of us tend to find ourselves more creative late at night than during the bustle of our day-to-day.

The trick is to have the perfect mix. You can create these conditions for yourself, as Burkus recommends in his HBR article, by placing ourselves into cognitive relaxing situations before diving into more focused and challenging tasks. Giving our brains the mental bandwidth they’ll need for making connections and providing insights when we need them most.