Creativity Happens in our Minds

Common sense tells us that creativity, or creative thinking at least, happens in the minds of people (and perhaps even animals). So let’s start by clarifying:

  • what we mean by the mind,
  • what’s the difference between the mind and the brain, and
  • the difference between the conscious and unconscious mind

And then we’ll look at the role of the unconscious mind in the creative thinking process.

We all know what thoughts are but understanding the origins of thoughts has occupied (and caused rigorous arguments in) several academic disciplines for many years. Perhaps for our purpose here it is best to say that thoughts are the products of thinking. These are often mental concepts, ideas or opinions.

Most of us agree that thoughts happen in our minds or in our brains. Some researchers argue that the physical organ of the brain is the same as the abstract concept of the mind. Most neuroscientists support this notion. They argue that the mind and its thoughts are expressions of the electrical and chemical processes in the brain. However, there is some dissention. One is Dr Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychology at UCLA. He defines the mind as being embodied and relational. That is, the mind is in our bodies and in the relationships we have with each another (Siegel 2010, 2016). An example of the relational nature of the mind could be the feelings we sometimes get when meeting a stranger. We sometimes call this a gut reaction or vibe. Another example is the bond we feel with those who are significant or special to us. If the mind is relational and the unconscious is part of the mind, then the unconscious at least reacts to external influences, if not extending beyond the body. If creativity happens in our conscious and unconscious minds then perhaps the creative process can be relational and transcend personal boundaries.

The idea that creativity is external to us is not new. The ancient Greeks thought the muses were responsible for creativity. Some of the self-help literature talks about creativity as being bigger than the individual and that individuals tap into an external ‘creative ether’ when they come up with ideas. Gilbert (2015) gives the example of coming up with an idea for a book, putting it on hold for personal reasons and later an acquaintance came up with a very similar idea. The point she makes is that we must be receptive to the ideas to be creative.

Whether you believe creativity comes from outside or from inside you, it is clear that all or part of the process happens in the mind.

For now let’s define the mind as the collection of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Whether it’s embodied, relational or both is an interesting discussion for another time.

The Mind is Conscious and Unconscious

The conscious mind, by definition, contains the thoughts and emotions that we are currently aware of. Let’s assume that the unconscious mind also contains thoughts and emotions but, again by definition, we cannot be aware of them. Freud was a great populariser of the concept of the unconscious and suggested the unconscious is directly represented in dreams, slips of the tongue and jokes.

For creativity, the unconscious mind is rather important as many researchers concur that creative processes have critical elements that occur in the unconscious mind.


Anyone who has been in a successful brainstorm where many ideas are generated quickly will have a sense that some of the ideas seem to have appeared from nowhere. The terms, ‘out of the blue’, ‘flash of inspiration’, ‘aha moment’ and others have been used to describe this phenomenon. Some call this inspiration or insight. Many creative processes involve inspiration so finding out all we can about it might help us develop our skills of inspiration and hence creativity. The more often we put ourselves in situations that result in inspiration the better we will recognise and the better we become at achieving inspiration and hence the more creative we become.

Research in neuroscience suggests that inspiration happens when the unconscious mind makes new neural connections, comes up with new thoughts and presents them to the conscious mind. Where does inspiration come from?

In 1993 Mark Beeman was an Associate Professor in Neurological Sciences at Rush Medical College, Chicago, U.S.A. He heard a presentation given by with Johnathan Schooler, a psychologist at University of California, Santa Barbara. Schooler had been experimenting by giving undergraduates difficult puzzles. For example:


A giant, inverted steel pyramid is perfectly balanced on its point. Any movement of the pyramid will cause it to topple over. Underneath the pyramid is a $100 bill. How do you remove the bill without disturbing the pyramid? (Lehrer 2012)


For most students no workable solution came to mind. They became frustrated annoyed and said it was impossible. Schooler reassured them that there was a solution and started to give the students hints. Some of the hints were subliminal flashes of the word ‘fire’ in a sentence or the meaning of ‘remove’. Interestingly the hints worked best when presented to the left eye (right hemisphere of the brain). Often giving the hint to the right eye didn’t help. Give it to the left and it would. Only the right hemisphere knew what to do with the information.

To Beeman this made sense as from his previous work he knew that the right hemisphere excelled at using insight to solve puzzles as that side of the brain was better at seeing hidden connections, remote associations between disparate ideas.

This led Beeman to consider the study of insight as a right hemisphere function. He collaborated with John Kounios a psychologist at Drexel University who used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain electrical activity. Beeman used this in conjunction with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to see what parts of the brain were involved with the solution of puzzles that needed insight or inspiration rather than analysis.

The RAT Test (no not 'that' one)

One of the puzzles used by Beeman was the RAT test or the Random Associates Test. The RAT test was considered a test of creative ability but recent research (Lee, Huggins-Manley and Therriault 2014) has challenged this and the RAT is now seen as a way to measure associative thinking. However, as creativity is considered to be largely dependent on new associations of thoughts the connection between RAT and creativity exists but with some qualification.

In the RAT test subjects are given three words (e.g. age, mile and sand) and asked to find one word that could go with each to form either a compound word or phrase (in this case the answer is stone, thus stone age, mile stone, sandstone).

By using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining, which tracks blood flow, and EEG (electroencephalogram) which tracks brain electrical activity, they could track subjects’ brain activity while solving the puzzles. As with the inverted pyramid puzzle the mental process would typically begin with much activity in the left hemisphere as the subject searched in the usual places for the answers. They saw extra activity in the areas associated with language which is to be expected as the puzzles were word puzzles. This lasted a few seconds until the subjects typically became tired of looking or were stumped. After all the number of possibilities is huge so the options are to give up, keep looking or try a different approach.

Beeman talks about this stage of the ‘creative process’ as the ‘stumped phase’ and subjects would often complain about the stupidity or impossibility of the puzzle. Beeman says that these negative responses are necessary as they signal the need for a new strategy. The struggle forces the new approach to be taken. The brain needs to shift activity to another location to explore a more unusual set of associations.

Some people do not experience intense struggles before the shift occurs. Sometimes it’s a simple process of relaxing or letting go of the problem. To some it is almost an instinctive switch. Perhaps the difficulty of the puzzle has been recognised early and the person simply rules out an analytical approach.

This shift of mental activity often produces an answer. Subjects often respond to the epiphany with an ‘Aha!’ and surprise as the answer is delivered to the conscious mind by the unconscious. The insight is preceded by a sudden burst of brain activity. Thirty milliseconds before the answer erupts into consciousness there’s a spike of gamma waves. Gamma waves are thought to occur when neurons bind together into a new network that can then enter consciousness. Beeman and Kounios determined the specific part of the brain that became very active seconds before the epiphany. The area is the anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus (aSTG).

Consider the solution of puzzles like the RAT. It is a truly amazing process. There must be millions upon millions of possible combinations to be tested to find an answer. Yet the unconscious mind can achieve this quite quickly. This is a characteristic of a neural network. Computer scientists recognised the power of neural networks and have been interested in harnessing it. Much research and development has occurred in the field of artificial neural networks.

Sometimes of course even the unconscious (perhaps the aSTG) can’t find the solution but when it does this is an indication of the brain’s speed and capacity for associative thought, one of the components of creativity.

From Beeman’s and his colleague’s work we can see a creative process that requires a shift in the location and type of mental activity.

Exercising the Unconscious

So it appears clear that the unconscious mind plays an important role in the creative process. If we can increase our awareness of conditions that encourage unconscious processes we can foster them and potentially increase our creative ability. There are exercises and experiences, like the RAT, that we can undertake to help us become more familiar with the context of the unconscious elements of the creative process. Once we recognise the shift in mental activity we are on the way to greater creativity.