Imagination and the Unconscious: The Neuroscience of Creativity

This is the next installment in my series on Fiction as Art.

The other night, my writing workshop instructor handed out a reading assignment on crafting dialogue. Ho-Hum, I thought, I know how to write dialogue. But buried near the end of this article came a golden little nugget that blew me away. Paraphrasing the author, American novelist and non-fiction writer, Anne Lamott: The nature of most good writing is that you find out things as you go along. You create characters and figure out little by little what they say and do. You find them in your psyche. But this all happens in a part of you to which you have no access—the unconscious. This is where creating is done. I actually think I gasped.

Silhouette with idea concept designImagination is vital to the artist. The action of forming new ideas, images, or concepts of objects not present to the senses; creative power, vision, fascination, passion, curiosity… all of these contribute to the ability of the mind to be creative.

I thought about this all week and decided to do a little sleuthing about the part of the mind that imagines things. I stumbled on a YouTube lecture given at PopTech 2013 by Scott Barry Kaufman, Director of The Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s on the Scientific American Blog Site entitled Beautiful Minds-Creativity. In it, he explains much of the brain science linked to imagination and creativity. I’ll attempt to highlight the essence of his speech and then give you some insights into how to access more of your creativity.

Now don’t go all googly-eyes on me. Having been a science teacher for many years I fully grasp the national, irrational, terror regarding math and science. But I’ll go easy on you, I promise, so hang in there!

Dr. Kaufman explains that creativity isn’t as simple as left brain—realistic and logical (the downer side) vs. right brain—emotional and expressive (the upper side), but instead is a function of how well we integrate our “Looking Out Network”, which manages outside stuff we don’t really care much about, and our “Looking In Network”, where we daydream, think about the future, and run an inner monologue of what we’re doing at the moment. Our Looking In Network is most active when we’re idle or at rest. I suggest we rephrase that old adage “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop” as “An idle mind is creativity’s workshop.”

In reality these two networks are antagonistic to each other, so being forced to focus on one, detracts from its counterpart. Dr. Kaufman makes a valid criticism of our educational institutions in that teachers demand our constant attention and therefore leave little room for students to look inward, consequently robbing them of accessing their creative network. The stream of clutter that constantly bombards us in everyday life is counterproductive to creativity and inhibits our imagination. He quotes Edgar Allen Poe—“…Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”

Dr. Kaufman has identified what he terms the Theory of Flow, which is when creativity is at its peak. You are away from the stream of daily clutter, focused inwardly, and your inner critic has miraculously vanished. You find yourself immersed in the absolute joy of working on a task, when you look up and realize you’ve been at it for six hours and totally lost track of time. You were in a flow state of creativity. And I don’t think any of us can deny the thrill of that experience. . . I’ve been there many times.

Additionally, he has observed that a large number of famous artists, be they musicians, visual artists, or writers, often access this state of mind more easily somewhat later in life, maybe in their 50s. The burdens on their left brain and their Looking Out Network have lessened—work is less stressful and demanding, kids are launched, finances aren’t so worrying, even to the point where some of their left-brained functioning has lessened due to the aging process. This frees up the right side to access more of its creative functioning.

Now, how does this all translate into amping up your creativity?

  1. The Pomodoro Method: Sharon’s recent post shows us how to free ourselves for precise periods of time to focus on the creative process and keep all other distractions a bay for that time period.
  2. Walking: There’s evidence that walking helps us think and is an excellent method for tapping your creativity. Walking is a simple task that requires little “looking outward” as long as you are in a place where you don’t have to concentrate too much. So avoid the busy street and look for a more bucolic setting. Let your thoughts drift and see what pops up. In general any mindless activity can work here.
  3. Sunrise and Sunset: When I’m heavily invested in writing a story I find it difficult to put it to bed before I go to bed. My characters talk to me and on many occasions I find an amazing plot point or insight pop into my head just before drifting off. This also happens as I wake. The trick is to write it down before it slips away in that stream of clutter as I look out at my day.
  4. Dreams: This is a continuation of the point above. When my story is so heavily on my mind it often permeates my sleep and I have vivid dreams that can take my story to a wild place I never imagined. I came upon the climax to my first book in just this way. Thus, I really get that creativity and imagination live in the unconscious. So keep that notepad on your nightstand to write down crazy thoughts.
  5. WOS Posts: We’ve written tons of posts on how to construct the right-write mood for accessing your creativity. Peruse our library.

In general, anything you can do to chase away the distractions that force you to look out will help you access that inner genius. Be childlike, jazz around. Children aren’t bogged down with the need to plan and they have few distractions. Being sophisticated and mature should play no role here, instead creativity requires inexhaustible imagination and the desire to just… make magic.

Up next: My final post in this series. The Artist as Master: The Fictional Process






Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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