• Patricia Faust

Your Brain on Creativity

Ask someone if they consider themselves a creative person and they might offer a couple of different responses. People who believe that they are creative might have a preference to their right side of the brain which they believe to be creative, passionate, sensual, tasteful, colorful, vivid and poetic. Those who believe they are more technical will say they are left-brained. Guess what? This myth of left-brain, right-brain has been busted! Neuroscientists have uncovered some of the complexities of the creative brain and creativity is not contained in a single brain region or a single side of the brain.

The entire creative process - preparation->incubation->illumination->verification – can be found in many interacting cognitive processes and emotions. Different brain regions contribute their part depending on where you are in the creative process. As it turns out the brain regions work as a team to get things done and recruit structures from the left and right sides of the brain. Evidence has been accumulating to suggest that “cognition results from the dynamic interactions of distributed brain areas operating in large-scale networks” (Kaufman,S.B. August19, 2013).

There are three large scale networks that contribute to creative brain function:

Network 1: The Executive Attention Network

The Executive Attention Network is recruited when a task requires that the spotlight of attention is focused like a laser beam. This network is active when you’re concentrating on a challenging lecture, or engaging in complex problem solving and reasoning that puts heavy demands on working memory. This neural architecture involves efficient and reliable communication between lateral (outer) regions of the prefrontal cortex and areas toward the back (posterior) of the parietal lobe.

Network 2: The Imagination Network

The Default Network or known here as the Imagination Network is involved in “constructing dynamic mental stimulations based on personal past experiences such as remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the past.” (Randy Buckner et al.) The Imagination Network is also involved in social cognition. For instance, when we are imagining what someone else is thinking, the brain network is active. The Imagination Network involves deep areas inside the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe (medial regions), along with communication with various outer and inner regions of the parietal cortex.

Network 3: The Salience Network

The Salience Network constantly monitors both external events and the internal stream of consciousness and flexibly passes the baton to whatever information is most salient to solving the task at hand. This network consists of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortices and interior insular and is important for dynamic switching between networks.


I don’t want you to be overwhelmed with this onslaught of science but I wanted to make the point that we are all creative or we are all technical just doesn’t play out with our brain function. We spend over a half of our mental lives in the Imagination Network. When you want to loosen up your associations, let your mind roam free, imagine new possibilities and silence the inner critic. It is good to dampen the Executive Attention Network a bit and increase activation in the Imagination Network and Salience Network. Research on jazz musicians and rappers engaging in creative improvisation suggests that’s precisely what is happening in the brain while in flow state. (

Overthinking -> No Creativity

But what is going on when your brain isn’t in flow state and you have a project to complete? There are a couple of things that can be going on. Creativity involves bringing different ideas together in new and useful combinations. A 2015 study from Stanford University suggests that ‘overthinking’ (relying exclusively on the brain’s higher-level, executive-control centers held in the cerebrum) impairs rather than enhances creativity. So the more you think about something – the more you mess it up. Stanford researchers also supported the finding that the activation of the executive control centers – where the brain allows you to plan, organize and manage your activities – located in the prefrontal cortex – are counter-productive to creativity. Overthinking does not allow the creative process to occur.

Chronic Stress’s Impact on Creativity

So let’s take this one step further. How does chronic stress impact creativity? There are many consequences on brain function when you are under chronic stress conditions. More than forty percent of American workers report chronic workplace stress. Dr. Rick Hanson states that chronic stress degrades a long list of capabilities with regard to creativity and innovation. Neuroscience is demonstrating that chronic stress can have huge impacts on creativity and innovation.

The stress response automatically shuts down a person’s ability to be open to new ideas, to think creatively and to be happy. It increases motor function while it decreases perception, cognition and creativity. Neuroscience is saying that creativity and engagement are really about making people happy. If employees are in the reward state of thinking, when they are producing dopamine for motivation and reward, they are more creative. Employees are more engaged, curious, open-minded and interested in what they are doing. To create that state – it is important to quiet the mind by reducing stress.

To summarize: Creativity encompasses the arts, solutions to problems, new ideas and expanding the status quo. It takes a whole brain to be creative. But our whole brain is capable of creating amazing outcomes.


Bergland,C. (August 19, 2015). Why does overthinking sabotage the creative process? Retrieved from

Gregoire,C & Kaufman,S.B. (January 4, 2016). Creative people’s brains really do work differently. Retrieved from

Kaufman,S.B. (August 19, 2013). The real neuroscience of creativity. Retrieved from

Martin,J. (September 5, 2012). Employee brain on stress can quash creativity and competitive edge. Retrieved from