A flash of inspiration seems to happen instantaneously but it is not quite as simple as that.  Our brains work quite differently to achieve this moment compared to when we need to think analytically.  What neuroscientists and researchers into creativity have uncovered is that when we think analytically, the brain literally works in a straight line, taking the fastest neurological route from A to B.

Creativity on the other hand, is not about speed or efficiency, and forcing the thinking process can often be frustratingly unsuccessful. The creative brain works in a slow, more meandering process of divergent thinking that looks for and makes connections. It is when the connections eventually come together that the infamous ‘Aha!’ moment of insight happens (Kounios et al, 2009).

Daniel Goleman draws on this research when he writes of this moment, ‘If you measure EEG brain waves during a creative moment, it turns out there is very high gamma activity that spikes 300 milliseconds before the answer comes to us. Gamma activity indicates the binding together of neurons, as far–flung brain cells connect in a new neural network –  as when a new association emerges. Immediately after that gamma spike, the new idea enters our consciousness.’ (Goleman, 2011).

Research also supports what many of us have experienced for ourselves; that classic ‘magic moment’ of insight or a creative idea actually popping into our head when we are under the shower (BBC Horizon, 2013). What feels instantaneous, like a blink of the brain, is actually the result of the much longer process that has been brewing in the unconscious mind. What can you do to foster the creative thinking process and help it to unfold in this way? First of all, it helps to have a period of focussing on the problem, defining it and framing it – this gives your thoughts a sense of purpose. Next, perhaps gather information related to the problem so the neurons have something to work with. Then do something unrelated like taking a walk, having a shower or any other sort of simple easy task that keeps you busy but leaves the mind free to wander and join up the dots. By letting go and leaving space to reflect, that moment of insight or creativity is much more likely to strike.

Adapted from “Coaching for Innovation – Tools and Techniques for Encouraging New Ideas in the Workplace” by Cristina Bianchi and Maureen Steele (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014) – Chapter 5 – Mindful Listening as Force for Innovation