What happens in the brain when we are having an idea?

Why is it that we sometimes get our best ideas when we are not even thinking about them, like in the shower?

What is actually happening in the brain a complex combination of conscious and unconscious activities that interact with one another, trying to find creative solutions to a challenge. Only when a possible solution is found does the brain become aware of it through an “Aha” or “Eureka” moment.

This is what is known as the Creative Process.

The method by which the brain comes up with creative ideas.

Traditionally, most published research on the Creative Process only talks about the Four Stages outlined by Graham Wallas in his 1926 book The Art of Thought.

The traditional Four Stages of the Creative Process (Wallas, 1926)

  1. Preparation: Absorbing knowledge, experience, insight and context, as well as understanding a specific challenge which requires an idea. Each of these will form networks of information in the brain, from which other new random networks can be connected.
  2. Incubation: Time required for your mind to form new connections, happens best in a low-energy state and often unconscious. Often when time is taken away from thinking about the challenge
  3. Inspiration: The moment of insight when your mind finds a potential solution and makes you aware of it. The “eureka” moment that seems to come out of nowhere
  4. Verification: A quick mental check to see if the solution could work and should be investigated further

However, there is an equally important Fifth Stage to the modern Creative Process which Wallace did not include:

5. Execution: Turning the idea into reality, by creating something

Creativity requires not just the development of an idea.

It requires the execution of that idea as well.

People often also underestimate the importance of the Preparation stage in the final creative idea. All ideas are evolutions and combinations of ideas and networks of information in the brain, forming new networks.

You can think of ideas like webs which grow from and between seeds of previous knowledge.

Therefore, it often takes months or years to not only gather information about a challenge, but to understand it in a way that the actual core challenge can be articulated in the mind for which a solution is required.

It is also clear that not every creative activity or idea will perfectly follow the exact sequence of these five stages. For example, sometimes several rounds of preparation (information gathering and problem definition) will be required. Sometimes incubation may be so short as to be non-existent, such as when inspiration happens while the challenge is being actively thought about. But the general sequence of the Five Stages of the Creative Process does happen often and is a good guideline for what happens when before and during our brain generating ideas.

Furthermore, having a “Eureka” moment itself is not enough to be successful with the ideas, they need to be executed effectively, and not every idea is a good idea or should have a lot of effort invested.

More recent academic research and meta-analyses have however shown statistical evidence for the effects of a period of incubation improving creative performance (Ritter, 2014 / Baird, 2012 / Sio, 2009), further lending supporting to the Creative Process.

So if you are ever wondering how it is possible for your brain to come up with a great idea out of nowhere, you can thank the creative process.

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Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time
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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.