Ellen Rose

Ellen Rose 2019

The 'Aha' Movement

Designing for Creativity at Work

A Master's thesis blog: Products of Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts


Defining Creativity | Brain Mechanisms of Creativity

Updated: Oct 31, 2018

Creativity is a diffuse and diverse concept, and it’s having a moment. In this era of rapid change, creative ability and the breakthroughs it yields have our collective attention. Society rewards creative industry disrupters, and we’ve all become creative content makers with tools like YouTube and Instagram. This moment is unlikely to fade.

In fact, creativity might very well be the new metric by which we measure productivity, success and self-worth going forward.

There is so much literature around creativity—much of it from the past decade—that it’s evidently a topic that most people and industries are eager to embrace and implement. My readings have included research from the realms of neuroscience, psychology, fine arts, design, and technology, which is to be expected, but I’ve also read cases of creativity in government agencies, financial institutions, and a tomato canning facility. Because the concept is so manifold, let's investigate it from the inside-out, beginning with how creativity is realized in the brain, through how creativity is expressed at a personal level, then how creativity is applied in a workplace or an industry, and finally, how cultural and social contexts affect a population’s creativity.

1. Brain Mechanisms of Creativity

Neuroscientists and psychologists are eager to understand the nature of creativity and creative individuals, but there is no real consensus among those who study it. Neuroimaging technology has illuminated many of the brain mechanisms behind intelligence and its (debatable) genetic correlation, but the root of creativity is proving to be a harder case to crack. In fact, relative to the study of human intelligence, “little is known about the neural and genetic mechanisms underlying creative thinking” (Chen, et al.) What we do know is that creativity is not an easily identifiable ‘aha moment’ that lights up in a specific location of the brain the moment an idea comes to light, rather, creativity is elusive and the result of several different mechanisms.

Despite so many as-of-yet unanswered questions, there are some concrete patterns associated with creativity. For instance, there is a low association of intelligence and creativity. Essentially, you do not have to be empirically intelligent to be creative. Also, there are different types of creativity: some people are musically inventive, while others are visually inventive but lack musical capabilities. The myth of ‘right brain’ thinkers is exactly that: a myth. Creativity does not happen exclusively in the right hemisphere of the brain. In fact, highly creative people’s brains show stronger and more developed pathways between the two hemispheres, which is a genetic trait. Greater creativity is the result of a stronger connection between the two sides of the brain and greater contribution from different areas of the brain.

Creativity is a conscious exercise, but it feeds off the subconscious and unconscious minds. Imagination is a two part process: the first part is the journey into the primitive, elastic mind where new associations are made and inspiration is found. The second part is the return to the conscious mind where analytical judgement is applied to the free associations and insights that have been retrieved. Madness is the journey to the primitive mind without the return.

Many artists credit muses or mystical forces for their inspiration, which is no coincidence. Creativity can feel like an out-of-body experience that you are not directly responsible for. What’s happening when we get into that ‘flow state’ is that our executive control center is turned off: we suspend judgement of our thought process. Because we are not judging, we are not entirely aware of the process that is taking place, which is why novel ideas seem to come to us as suddenly and surprisingly as a lightbulb flicking on. The cliche of having good ideas in the shower or while on a long walk has scientific truth behind it because in those moments when our conscious mind is distracted by a new environment or by a mundane task, our executive control is minimized, and new ideas materialize. Daydreaming and mind wandering set the scene for creative thinking.


1 Asma, S. (2017). The Evolution of Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

2 Chen Q., Feng J., Jiao Z., Liu Z., Qiu J., Rolls ET., Sun J., Xie X., Zhang J., Zhang K. (July 2018). Neural and Genetic Determinants of Creativity. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29518564

3 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.

4 Dubner, Stephen J. (2018 October 17). How to Be Creative Ep. 354 Freakonomics Radio. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://freakonomics.com/podcast/creativity-1/

5 Kalb, Claudia. (May 2017). What Makes a Genius? National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/05/genius-genetics-intelligence-neuroscience-creativity-einstein/?user.testname=photogallery:3

6 Mlodinow, L. (2018). Elastic: Flexible thinking in a time of change. New York: Pantheon.