Creative Connections & The Science of Inspiration

March 29, 2012 § 9 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“The creative act is a letting down of the net of human imagination into the ocean of chaos on which we are suspended, and the attempt to bring out of it ideas.” ~ Terence McKenna 

The creative spark — that incandescent flash of insight known as a breakthrough — is known for being unpredictable, elusive and mysterious. Yet over the past few decades, cognitive psychologists have been studying the various neurological processes behind creativity.


Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounios has identified where the flash of insight comes from when a creative problem has been solved.

“In the seconds before the insight appears,” explains Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, “a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity. This region, located on the surface of the right hemisphere, excels at drawing together distantly related information, which is precisely what’s needed when working on a hard creative problem.”


Michael Michalko, author of Creative Thinkering, agrees: “Creativity comes from observing the relationships between objects and making metaphorical-analogical connections […]

“If one particular style of thought stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see things to which others are blind.

Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.”

Researchers of brain function have found that certain factors increase the likelihood of receiving an insight. For instance, subjects exposed to a short comedic video boosted creative solution performance by 20%.

Interestingly, studies conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that drunk test subjects given word problems outperformed their sober peers by 30%!

The insight puzzles given were ‘remote associates,’ in which a person is asked to find an additional word that goes with a triad of words. For example:

Pine Crab Sauce 

(the answer is below the picture)

(The answer is “apple” — pineapple, crabapple, applesauce.)

Why would subjects exposed to comedy score higher than peers not treated with a laugh? The same reason drunk subjects outperformed their sober peers.

“The answer,” according to Lehrer “involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention. […] We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.”

Creative blocks occur when the logical left hemisphere of the brain has reached an impasse with its linear, systematic approach; interrupting its frustrated obsession with the wrong questions can free up the right hemisphere to supply the essential fresh connection. Relaxation helps.

“This research,” expounds Lehrer, “explains why so many major breakthroughs happen in the unlikeliest of places, whether it’s Archimedes in the bathtub or the physicist Richard Feynman scribbling equations in a strip club, as he was known to do. It reveals the wisdom of Google putting ping-pong tables in the lobby and confirms the practical benefits of daydreaming. As Einstein once declared, ‘Creativity is the residue of time wasted.'”


 So next time you’re hitting your head against the wall of some creative problem, give the left brain a break and take a shower, play a game, drink a beer, watch a comedy video, take a nap or take yourself on a walk.

Studies show, this is a bona fide part of the creative process! The insight hiding in the superior anterior temporal gyrus of the brain needs a chance to offer its fresh connection.

“If you’re trying to be more creative,” concludes Lehrer, “one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed. Steve Jobs famously declared that ‘creativity is just connecting things.’ Mr. Jobs argued that the best inventors seek out ‘diverse experiences,’ collecting lots of dots that they later link together.

“Instead of developing a narrow specialization, they study, say, calligraphy (as Mr. Jobs famously did) or hang out with friends in different fields. Because they don’t know where the answer will come from, they are willing to look for the answer everywhere.”

“Original ideas,” agrees Michael Michalko, “inevitably are created by conceptually blending subjects from different universes into something new.”

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§ 9 Responses to Creative Connections & The Science of Inspiration

  • abdelwahabelsadek says:

    These are true and scientific remarks. When the brain is focusing on any subject it tends to gather all relative materials. Then it requires a while to find a creative idea in the subject. Thanks T.C.

  • batgurrl says:

    a breath of fresh air. That is what we all need at times and yes your article has inspired me to “F” off more often.

    Maybe I will write that book of my adventure in 70s europe and prison if I can just connect more unrelated dots.

    Inspire me some more!!! r

    • Tai Carmen says:

      That already sounds quite intriguing…! I say: start ruminating on where the excitement lies for you within that experience, and start there. 🙂

      • batgurrl says:

        you would be proud of me. Yesterday I started typing up my notes on my book which for now is called 1974 Hash Adventures. Here is a little teaser for you:

        “Then we were entering Tito’s Yugoslavia. A true Eastern Block country run by a dictator. He sort of reminds me of Sadam in that he kept all the factions from killing each other. Can you spell “Suppression”?
        Two free love American Hippie Girls who never knew what this was really like. Feminists in a land that resembled 1940s WWII. Our first experience was the border. Not the nice Canadian border between Washington and British Columbia with polite border guards.
        Plus we had two bags of Mary Jane on us. Remember the balloons?
        Paranoid would be the word when we realized this wasn’t like the nice Austrian border we had experienced earlier. “HI – where are you going – see you later” Flash the passports and off we went. Oh no… not like that at all.
        It was a new world for me. One I often refer to now when I remind people of how good we have it. The border had soldiers and they carried automatic rifles like they were at war. We rolled to a stop and then the fun began. We were asked to get out of the car. Our luggage was taken out and here it is the life memory – they opened them up on the ground and pushed our clothing around with the rifle barrels.
        My heart was in my throat. God I had drugs on me. What the hell would happen if they found that?
        Then like a lot of those moments in life it was over. We were back on the road. Off to see another world that there two American girls had not expected to see.”

  • I’m writing a mathematical fairy tale – think I’ll go for that beer right about now:)

  • Tai Carmen says:


    I *am* proud of you! One day you’re talking about doing it, and — look at that! — The next day you’re doing it! Bravo!! 🙂

    That sounds like an adventure worth telling! And very cool that it’s so rooted in a specific time, place and culture; with all the diversity of travel and the 60’s — that kaleidoscopic era! — you have some rich material in that memory bank, full of stories only you can tell.

    I’m so glad you started getting it down! I want to read more. 🙂

    On on!


  • bert says:

    … i dreamt yesternight that i was pregnant … the chaos below is feeding the subconscious with fresh ideas … soon the creative mind will bring things to the forefront and put some of them together … thanks for posting!

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