Inspiration is what we get by exploring areas within our minds we haven’t been to in a while. It’s when we find something that resonates with things we already know, but which allows us to see those things from a new or refreshed perspective.
How then do we find things that might inspire us?
In order to get inspired, you’re likely to go where you feel you can reliably get it. A favorite hiding spot, a designated office space, or a particular activity. Maybe you have creative rituals which you’ve practiced to help you to “get in the zone” and set the stage for ideas to strike.
These types of activities help us to feel like we’re in a creative space and opening the door for ideas, but really these things aren’t guaranteed to inspire, no matter how reliable we lead ourselves to believe they are. And, in-fact, if we really want to be inspired, we should consider uncovering new methods for how to get it, not rely on past victories or behaviors.
It helps to think of your mind like a map. Over the span of your life, experiences turn into knowledge, and that knowledge takes the shape of landmarks and roadways in the map of your mind. Similar landmarks exist near one another, in themes you can imagine like small cities or biomes clustered together wherever ideas are alike.
Having knowledge exist in these thematic cities or clusters enables them to be found quickly by your mind. If you were looking for a camel in the real world, for example, you wouldn’t want to go to the Arctic to find it. Similarly, if your mind was seeking a specific idea or source of information, it has compartments where that information is likely to be held. Interpreting sensations like touch, vision, and hearing, takes place in the cerebrum. Balance and posture are controlled by the cerebellum. When you speak or write, Broca’s area in your frontal lobe is where that occurs. Whereas when you recall something from memory or listen to music, the temporal lobe controls those signals.
Your brain is a surprisingly optimized piece of magic machinery when it comes to categorizing and recalling concepts. Even if you are unaware of the compartmentalization, it’s there in the biology of you.
Whenever we think of an idea, our minds activate signals that travel around our mental maps until they find what they’re looking for. It’s estimated there are hundreds of thousands of connections firing in your brain every second. Each of those connections is like a car moving along a road toward a destination. Your brain is the map and the signals it uses to access and store information are the cars that traverse it.
So when you feel a connection to something, what’s happened is your mind has found a location in the map that it can relate the new knowledge to. A familiar landmark you can build out further. Or when we feel as though a sudden idea has clicked, that’s like discovering a shortcut between roads in your mind.
This means we can only ever understand the world in relation to what already exists in our mental maps. When we encounter something new in the world we can only understand it in relation to what we already know.
This helps explain why it can be difficult to feel inspired by things we don’t completely understand. Instead, we’re usually inspired by things we have at least some recognition of, or are able to relate to in some way. That recognition might be subconscious and hard to define, but whenever we feel as though something has inspired us, it means there’s part of the map within our brain that is being developed in a way we haven’t explored before.
When we feel inspired, what we’re really doing is uncovering new parts of our mental map.
To be inspired we must have some comprehension of what it is we’re experiencing or looking at. It’s why a toddler will struggle to use a toaster.
You will likely struggle to be inspired by something you have absolutely no concept of. If you’re a musician, you might struggle to understand abstract art unless you can find parts of the art—or the process which made it—which you can relate to your own experience. This helps explain why abstract art can be both so universally intriguing and off-putting; you’ll see in it what you can understand, or not.
The trick then isn’t to find things in the world you know will inspire you, but is instead to find in the world things you can relate to and pull from that. Herein lies the real challenge with creative inspiration: you must look where you’ve never been and find something there that’s familiar.
Whether it’s traveling to a new city to surround yourself in their designs or architecture. Picking up a book you’d never have considered reading just to see how the prose is conducted. Or conversing with someone who has an opinion opposite yours, for the sake of seeing how they see you.
To be creative is to know that your mental map will never be complete, that there will always exist gaps in what you can know and what you think you know. Then seeking out gaps in your map by exploring new things and experiences.