The science behind creativity — what happens in the brain and why

What is creativity?

There’s an extraordinary new type of brain scan called an fMRI that allows us to witness creative thinking while it’s happening. For the first time, we can see that creative thinking is not a mystical or divine force that shines down on us from the heavens (sorry, Elizabeth Gilbert!). Rather, creative thinking is our brain networks firing on all cylinders to make new neural connections. Creative thinking is not a left-brain function (as previously thought), it is an all-brain function.

Creativity researcher Scott Barry Kaufman suggests that the entire creative process — preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification — requires interplay between three brain networks. The Imagination Network lights up when we think divergently, explore and engage with new ideas. The Executive Attention Network brings us back down to earth with practicalities and critical thinking. Our Salient Network allows us to toggle between imaginative and critical thinking, and to take in outside information, connect with past memories, and play with meaning making. When creative thinking happens, our brain lights up like a Christmas tree.

To use more common analogies, our Imagination Network enables what Thinking Fast and Slow author, Daniel Kahneman refers to as ‘System 1’ thinking whereas our Executive Attention Network enables ‘System 2’ thinking. Normally System 1 and System 2 work separately. However, creative thinking requires that we switch fluidly between the two systems depending on the task. The better we get at doing this, the more creative we become.

Creative Interplay

System 1 — Imaginative Thinking
 Incubation and Illumination
 Experiential thinking
 Mind wandering
 Episodic memory (long-term)
 Sensory influences
 Emotions and past experiences

System 2 — Rational thinking
 Preparation and Verification
 Rational thinking
 Working memory (short-term)
 Evidence-based influences
 Here-and-now thinking

The Sweet Spot

When experienced rap artists create spontaneously, they access their well-honed improvisation skills, their inner critic shuts off, they feel elation, and they report that the words flow from their lips like magic.

Though flow might seem magical, anyone can access it. In creative work, our creative thinking can become so fluid that we lose our self-consciousness. We’ve hit the sweet spot, work becomes fun, and we access the full extent of our idea-generating, problem-solving awesomeness.

What stands in the way of creative thinking?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the amygdala. It is the lightning-fast brain section responsible for detecting potential threats and prompting fear responses, such as fight-or-flight. The amygdala sends signals to the hypothalamus to release bursts of stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline), which promote arousal and prompt us to enact safety strategies.

Fear responses are very effective at keeping us safe but there is a downside. When the amygdala senses danger, it actually blocks our prefrontal cortex (responsible for critical thinking) in order to react swiftly. This can save our life or it can cause us to shut down, think and act conventionally, and avoid taking risks in the future. Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman calls this an Amygdala Hijack.

The amygdala is not only activated by physically dangerous situations. Stress responses (a milder form of fear responses) can be activated whenever we feel vulnerable, protecting us against possible negative feelings as well as physical harm. Even a remote threat of failure or embarrassment can trigger a stress response and hijack our idea-generating, problem-solving brilliance.

When the Amygdala Hijacks System 1 Thinking

Our need for safety

Human beings have evolved to have a natural aversion to uncertainty (our ancestors needed definite answers to questions like, ‘Is that a tiger?’). So we are hardwired to prefer certainty and conventionality rather than ambiguity. However, creative work creates a paradox as we seek out the novelty to which we are innately adverse.

Recent research found that when asked, most participants champion creativity and generally prefer creative options. But when feelings of uncertainty are introduced, participants change their minds. They opt for conventional choices despite the creative option having clear advantages. Participants are both unaware of their ambiguity aversion and that their aversion causes them to overlook creative solutions. In other words, we may be shying away from radical, unconventional ideas without even realising it.

Our need for control

Many of us have experienced distressing events in our young lives that make us question our self-worth (being bullied or consistently failing exams, for example). As adults, we often find ways to put old psychological injuries behind us. When old insecurities pop up, our logical prefrontal cortex tells us that we are no longer that vulnerable little person.

But when we think creatively, our prefrontal cortex is off duty. The mind wandering, memory retrieval, and unconscious associations required for original thought can access our old psychological injuries and awaken self-doubt. Instead of staying open to the widest range of ideas, we may be avoiding deep introspection in order to keep in control of our emotions and avoid feeling vulnerable. We may be missing opportunities for creative discovery as a result.

When the Amygdala Hijacks System 2 Thinking

In the verification stage of the creative process, we present and test out our new ideas. Creative risk is part of the job and there is always the potential for dismissal of our ideas. Negative feedback, criticism, or rejection can trigger the amygdala and hijack our creative confidence.

It’s not our fault. Our brains are hardwired this way.
 (Blame the amygdala).

Our ancestors did not have to be happy to survive but they did need to be vigilant. Cavemen who were complacent about pairing up with others or protecting themselves from what was lurking in the bushes did not survive long enough to become our ancestors.

So our amygdala evolved to be hypersensitive to novelty, uncertainty, and rejection in order to survive. Unfortunately for us, our antiquated amygdala still operates as if we live amongst lions and tigers.

Fear can also be a motivator.
 (Thank the amygdala).

Anxiety (another form of fear response) occurs when we imagine what might go wrong. Mild anxiety energises our brain and body to prepare. Author Adam Grant suggests, ‘A healthy dose of anxiety about things going poorly is a key part of how many people champion their original ideas and find the courage to take risks’.

The Hijacker’s Hijack

In an environment where we put our creative necks on the line on a regular basis, rejection or failure is often a possibility. No matter how many times our prefrontal cortex tells us, ‘Go ahead. Failure is good. We learn from our mistakes’, our amygdala is there in the background, ready to scream ‘DON’T DO IT!’

In times like this, a stronger force can override our fear of failure: our fear of regret. Regret because we missed an opportunity, we didn’t take the chance, didn’t believe in ourselves, and didn’t overcome our fear of failure (!) can actually motivate us to take the creative leap.

Where is Your Sweet Spot?

When we demystify creative thinking, we realise that it is accessible to all of us and that creative work by its nature brings up anxiety, fear and doubt. The trick is not to let our fears hijack our creative process. There is not one prescriptive all-fear busting solution. Each of our creative processes are different. Your fears, doubts, psychological injuries, and creative processes are different from everyone else’s.

If you want to access your idea-generating problem-solving awesomeness, you don’t need to find THE sweet spot. You need to find YOUR sweet spot. The upcoming articles will help you understand your creative process, your hijacks, and even how to hijack your hijacks.

References and Contributions

Adam Grant. Discusses the Art of Managing Fear. The Quiet Leadership Institute blog.

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg. (2016). Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

Daniel Goleman. (2006). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

Daniel Kahneman. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. (2015). Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Jerome L. Singer. (2012). The creativity of dual process “System 1” thinking’. Scientific American blog.

Tom Kelley and David Kelley. (2015). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All.

J.S. Mueller, S. Melwani, J. Goncalo. (2012). The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire Yet Reject Creative Ideas Psychological Science; 21(1), 13–17.

Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle. (2015). Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry.

Dr Jena Field

One thing I love about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is that it allows me to unashamedly thieve what works for clients from other therapies and other fields, namely Compassion-Focused Therapy, Transactional Analysis and Affective Neuroscience. Because everyone is different, I adjust treatment to suit each client. And I provide services via Skype so clients have access from wherever they feel comfortable and safe. My speciality is Monkey therapy. Curious? Check it out at

Originally published at on October 12, 2016.