Where do ideas actually come from?

If we want to be more creative, we need to understand where ideas actually come from. Is there a part of the brain where all ideas are born? What factors impact why some of us are more creative than others? And is there anything we can do to enhance our creativity?

The Ancient Greeks thought that ideas were given to us by daemons. These ethereal forces would influence our behavior and give us ideas. Daemons, both good and bad, were are significant part of Ancient Greek life as far back as Homer in the 8th century BC, and openly relied upon by prominent Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Socrates. In their worldview, the daemon visited you and gave you the ideas – you were simply a vessel to capture them.

Wild though the concept of a supernatural force bequeathing ideas upon those sensitive enough to hear them might sound, it’s not too far removed from the experience of many artists today. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the book Eat Pray Love, has an excellent talk about this phenomenon, recounting similar instances including the musician Tom Waits who heard melodies coming from an external ‘genius’. Indeed the Latin derivation of the words genie and genius means ‘to create or produce’. Similarly the word ‘inspiration’ derives from the concept of being influenced or breathed on by a god.

This ‘artist as antenna’ experience may not be uncommon, but is it just an anthropomorphization of a process in the brain? Isn’t it possible that synapses are firing somewhere in our brain, creating a new idea and we’re attributing that to daemonic intervention? Well… possibly. The trouble is we don’t know exactly where in the brain ideas come from. In fact, it’s possible they come from multiple areas of the brain. This would make sense given different areas of the brain are associated with specific functions such as long- and short-term memory, or visual, auditory and olfactory processing, and it’s the linking of these elements in unexpected ways which creates ideas.

That’s not to say there aren’t theories about where ideas actually come from, so let’s examine a few. Archimedes reportedly had the classic ‘eureka’ flash of insight while in his bath. It appears that specific parts of the brain are triggered during such creative flashes which are not typically used during routine tasks. On the left and right sides of the brain is an area called the superior temporal gyrus (part of the temporal lobe). The cells on the left side have shorter dendrons than those on the right. It is thought these left-hand dendrons are better at drawing on more recent experiences and information. The cells on the right are more widely spaced and draw on distant, unrelated information.

During a flash of insight, something odd happens. The left-hand superior temporal gyrus doesn’t appear to fire as vigorously as the cells on the right. The outcome is that different neural pathways are used and a wider variety of information is connected – creating a novel idea. Think of this a bit like having your normal commuter route home blocked by a traffic jam, forcing you to take a different path, during which you discover a whole new area of town you never knew existed.

Let’s move our tour of the brain onto the fusiform gyrus, which could also impact our level of creativity. To do that, let’s do a quick experiment – picture in your mind’s eye two shapes. The first is a wobbly blob, and the second is pointy shape. Got it? One of these is called a ‘kiki’ and the other is a ‘booba’. Which is which? If you are like 99% of people, you’ll call the pointy shape a ‘kiki’.

But why? It has to do with a phenomenon called synaesthesia. Synaesthesia occurs when the stimulation of one neural pathway automatically fires another unrelated sensory or cognitive pathway. For instance, some people will look at a letter of the alphabet and associate it with a color. The two are unrelated but their brain makes an unexpected connection. Other times it happens with sounds and colors, or sounds with feelings in different parts of their body. These connections are unanticipated – different parts of the brain making novel connections, just like creativity. In fact, synaesthesia has been linked to an elevated level of creativity.

So what just happened with the ‘kiki’? This is an example of a ‘cross modal synaesthetic abstraction’ which takes place in your fusiform gyrus. Essentially since your brain has never come across this strange pointy shape before, it looks for something to describe it. Since the ‘ki’ sound is a short and spikey wavelength, or a sudden sound, your brain makes a connection with the pointy shape. In humans the fusiform gyrus is the intersection for processing vision, sound and touch and is eight times bigger than other primates. It appears it’s the part of the brain where abstract thoughts occur. For instance, people with damage to this area of the brain can’t understand metaphor and lose this synaesthetic ability. So the fusiform gyrus seems like a good candidate for where ideas actually happen.

Our next stop is the frontal cortex. Unlike the superior temporal gyrus and the fusiform gyrus, the frontal cortex is a bit of a creativity killjoy. You have probably noticed that you have your best ideas when your mind wanders. Perhaps you are in the shower, driving your car, or going for a run for instance. According to professor and neuropsychologist Rex Jung, this is linked to the behavior of the frontal cortex which acts as a gatekeeper between our conscious and unconscious minds. During our daily tasks we don’t want subconscious thoughts popping into our heads and distracting us, and it’s the frontal cortex which does that. When we perform a task which we are familiar with and doesn’t require a lot of attention, the frontal cortex is suppressed, allowing ideas to move from our unconscious mind to our conscious mind. Bingo – we have ideas.

Turns out that, just as some of us are synaesthetes, others are ‘naturally hyperfrontal’, which means their frontal lobes are a little less active than normal allowing them to have more insights and think more divergently. The rest of us need to engender that state through exercise, meditation, or repetition of routine tasks to allow the ideas to flow.

It’s clear that the process of creativity is complex, and we still have a lot to learn about which parts of the brain are involved in ideation. Indeed at times, it might as well feel like ideas are given to us by a daemon or plucked from the aether. The science suggests we need to be in the correct brain state to increase our chances of novel thought. Even then, there is a randomness to the way neurons fire, the pathways thoughts take and the collisions of unrelated concepts that result. Some of us may be neurologically more prone to creativity than others, but the human brain gives all of us a huge capacity for novel thought. Indeed, unlike other animals, it appears we’re hardwired for creativity.