Sometimes it seems like ideas come out of nowhere. One minute you’re lathering up in the shower, the next, BRILLIANCE! But the reality is, you were engaged in the creative process long before the water hit your skin. That’s because the process involves a series of both conscious and unconscious stages. This isn’t a new idea, actually. The graphic here was inspired by English social psychologist Graham Wallas’s earlier version, developed in 1924.
And while this graphic seems awfully linear and neatly organized, any of you creative types know that this process can be messy and wild. I think that’s how it’s “supposed” to be. The graphic is really for the logical side of your brain. I was going to say “right brain,” but new research is ditching the whole left brain | right brain paradigm in favor of looking at how complex neural networks function collectively. Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute, explains it well: “The entire creative process consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depending on the stage, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.”
So creativity involves the whole brain, not just the right side, and requires the interaction of three neural networks. One, the Attention network. This is the the super productive network and chances are great that if you use a computer for your work, you’ll be sitting in front of it for this part. In my creative process graphic, the attention network is definitely active during the elaboration phase, and likely during the saturation phase too though a lot of divergent thinking can happen there too.
Then there’s The Imagination network
(aka the default mode network), where your mind wanders and unexpected creative possibilities bubble to the surface. If we are looking at this model of the creative process, the imagination network is definitely activated during the incubation and illumination phases, when you may be engaged in another activity but your subconscious is still noodling with your creative project in the background.
To access the Imagination network, you need to find a way to stop
focusing on solving the creative problem, and take the attention
off yourself too. Low-grade physical activity works best, according to
studies, but exactly what that activity is depends on the individual.
The idea is to take your foot off the gas and see what arises when
Finally there’s the Salience network, which constantly monitors information coming from external events of internal stream of consciousness. Think of the Salience network like the air traffic controller of your brain: whenever the information is salient, or significant to a current task, this network will pass the internal recognition to the forefront and suppress the other stuff. This network is alive and kicking during the Evaluation stage—discerning which ideas are most relevant, and it’s what brings that a-ha Shower Moment to the surface during the Illumination stage.
The trick with this network is to continue introducing ideas, experiences, inputs that are new and out of the ordinary, otherwise the Salience network just runs on autopilot. That’s the last thing you want with a creative project—or with an air traffic controller.
How get all free-range creative
When you want to loosen your associations, imagine new possibilities, and calm the inner critic, it's good to reduce activation of the Attention Network and increase activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks—which is precisely what is happening in the brain while in a flow state. With just a little more awareness about how these networks work and when, you can use them to your advantage. The more you know, you know.
When I’m writing on a project, I intentionally follow an intensive bit of research and active writing with something unrelated, like a run or my son’s Rubik’s cube. It's during those times, I “accidentally” come up with the best concepts and ideas. Start paying attention and you’ll probably notice that more often than not, in the middle of these alternative tasks, something relevant to your project peeks out its head. Wanna put this to the test? Join us on August 9th for 8 to Create!
Laurie Shiers is an LA -based writer, coach and experience junky on a quest to find meaning in the mayhem.