Have you ever struggled to come up with an idea while you were at your desk?
Then later on getting an amazing idea when you were doing something relaxing?
It is something that happens to millions of people every day.
Check out the video above to find out why.
But why does it happen?
Why do we get our best ideas in relaxing situations like when we are in the shower, exercising or doing mindless tasks?
It comes down to the fact that much like our heatbeat, our brain has evolved to work at different frequencies depending on what it is required to do.
When we are asleep or extremely relaxed, our brains are in slower brain states called Theta and Alpha states. Alpha states are usually where brain signals measured by EEG are in the 8-13 Hz frequency.
Then when we wake up and become more alert and focused, our frequency rises, eventually going above 13 Hz into a Beta state.
This is also why people often say they can’t focus until they have had a morning dose of caffeine, which is a drug to increase our alertness.
Historically, you can imagine a Beta state as being important for our ancestors in Fight or Flight situations, where they needed to quickly focus on danger and react (or else be killed).
This Beta state is also the most stressful, and energy intensive state, where the brain is using its most advanced regions (the prefrontal cortex) to focus on stimulation/senses around it, and actively process information to recognise patterns, assess risk and potential make the best decision. This requires a lot of fuel and energy from the brain, which is why the human brain has evolved to a stage where it can assess patterns and work on autopilot if it does not see any risk.
See the chart below for more details:
However, what is important to understand is that there are two types of creativity which the brain cycles through:
- Convergent thinking: Where the brain has to improve and refine ideas through a series of small conscious steps
- Divergent thinking: Where the brain forms random connections between pieces of existing knowledge to come up with highly original new ideas
And what scientists have found is that you are more likely to come up with divergent new ideas when you are in an alpha state. See evidence in studies by Yoruk and Runco (2014), Fink et al (2009), Petsche et al (1997), Sawyer (2011) and Fink and Benedek (2014) along with many other studies.
You are more likely to come up with divergent, original ideas when in an alpha brain state
Professor Vincent Walsh explains it in his TEDx talk here:
This is because less of your mental energy is being focused in the energy-intensive, pattern recognition of external stimulus (Beta activity), and instead the brain can spend more energy trying out sending random signals between existing networks of knowledge and memory to see if that will solve challenges it is working on.
Interestingly, the brain will try these random connections without you being aware of it.
See the interview I had with Prof Walsh below, where I find out that these unconscious creative mental pathway experiments are done in the 99% of your mental activity you are not aware of.
This is why they will come to you when you aren’t aware that you are thinking of the challenge at all.
The so-called “Eureka Moment”
Not only that, but if you are in a focused Beta state, your brain will also not be as aware of the solutions which the random connections form, and will prevent you becoming aware of them.
As a result, the focus of a Beta state is good for convergent creativity (refining ideas you are aware of), whereas an Alpha state is better for developing divergent, original ideas.
This is why you get the most of your truly “creative” original ideas when you are not expecting it, in a relaxed, unfocused state, like when you are in the shower.
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