Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Imagination is a powerful thing. It can reduce stress. It can help achieve your goals. It can allow you to escape reality for a time and get lost in a fantasy world. It can relive the past or design the future. Imagination is the source of new tech innovations, breakthrough scientific ideas, and artistic genius. Imagination plays a critical role in many mental disorders -- anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, chronic stress, as well as many others -- both as a source of the problem, but also as a source of treatment and healing.
I recently returned from an eight week trip to London, Paris, Florence, and Rome. We saw so many iconic works of art and architecture: from Van Gogh’s Starry Night to Michelangelo’s David, from the Shard in London to the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Somehow, while wandering the streets and museums of these inspiring places, I discovered that my imagination was more active and generative than ever before. Writing burst out of me like an unstoppable flood. My creative energies drove me to design new courses and write new talks. I spun wild tales to my kids in bed at night. I had aha moments -- like when I realized zoom meetings don’t have to take place at home at a desk. So, I took my mastermind group to the British Library to help them find inspiration.
So what is imagination? How is it related to things like creativity, insight, and inspiration? How do each of these happen in the brain? Why was letting my mind wander through Europe so creatively energizing for me? And how can you harness your imagination to make your own day to day life better?
The Creative Process
To begin, it’s helpful to understand the creative process underlying your imagination and the different brain networks governing imagination. The creative process is much more than a single moment of insight. For instance, take the story of Isaac Newton and the legendary falling apple that inspired gravitational theory. Newton’s innovation, like all creative processes, took shape over a period of time through several stages -- from preparation to incubation then illumination, and finally verification.
Preparation - For months, Newton had been contemplating the orbit of the moon and planets as he studied at Cambridge. He was taken with the work of philosophers and scientists such as Descartes and Galileo among many others. The initial preparation part of the creative process engages a network in your brain known as the executive attention network, a series of structures that help us focus on, plan out, problem solve, and execute goal-directed actions. It’s the network most needed for a typical day at school and work. It’s probably the brain network Newton spent most of his time exercising while at Cambridge.
Incubation - Then, in 1665, the plague shuttered the university and Newton retreated to his hometown of Lincolnshire. Removed from his normal context he entered an unusually creative phase. The seeds of Newton’s ideas, not just about gravity, but also calculus, optics, and motion began to germinate while he was home. Anna Abraham, author of The Neuroscience of Creativity, eloquently described this phase of the creative process in an interview:
“A lot about what triggers a creative mode as opposed to an uncreative mode is situational... The uncreative mode involves walking firmly along the "path of least resistance" through the black-and-white zone of the expected, the obvious, the accurate or the efficient. Whereas the creative mode involves turning away from the path of least resistance and venturing into the briars so to speak in an effort to forge a new path through the gray zone of the unexpected, the vague, the misleading or the unknown”
The incubation phase engages a different network, known as the default mode network. This network activates when your mind is resting, wandering, loose, remembering, imaginative, and task-free. It taps a very different set of brain structures than the executive attention network.
Illumination - As Newton ventured into the briars, he had his moment of insight. Newton’s aha moment was spent gazing at the apples falling in the garden and wondering why they always falls perpendicular to the ground. Newton related the story to his good friend and biographer, William Stukeley. "Why sh[oul]d it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the Earth's centre? Assuredly the reason is that the Earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. And the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the Earth must be in the Earth's centre, not in any side of the Earth. Therefore does this apple fall perpendicularly or towards the centre? If matter thus draws matter; it must be proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the Earth, as well as the Earth draws the apple." It was this sudden insight that brought understanding to the question of the moon and planets in their orbits. Just as the Earth draws an apple, it would also draw the moon, and the sun would draw the planets.
Researchers agree that insight occurs when there’s been an impasse but suddenly a new, often simple solution, comprehension, or realization emerges. Interestingly, brain imaging studies suggest that the aha moment is strongly correlated with gamma-burst activity in the right temporal lobe of the brain.
Verification - From that moment of insight, the generative and motivated side of creativity follows. Test. Discuss. Explore. Think. Experiment. Revise. Verify. Refine. Write. Share. It took another twenty years before Newton published his work on the forces of motion and gravitation in the 1687 publication of “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”.
What’s clear from the psychology and neuroscience research is that insight and illumination do not arise out of nothingness. Rather, there’s a whole lot of groundwork laid down by both the brain thinking with its conscious, goal-directed, executive attention network and by the mind wandering with its unconscious, imaginative, default mode network. It seems as if activating the default mode network might even be essential. For instance, with just a little unconscious subliminal priming, a solution to a problem posed by psychologists jumps out with sudden insight far more often than before. And in brain imaging studies, creative insight is almost always preceded by default mode network activation.
My own burst of creative energy while I was in Europe is not unlike that of Isaac Newton. I too was taken out of my routine and home. I left my normal context and gave my mind permission to wander. The creative endeavors I engaged in were ones that began with conscious goal-directed attention well before I left on my trip. But in the busy, often overwhelming life of a working mom in the modern world, it’s very hard to find opportunity for mind-wandering.
Before my trip, I can hardly remember the last time I left the house for a walk with no destination in mind. Yet in Rome, my husband and I did that almost daily. At home, my todo list is always pressing down as I juggle kid schedules, work commitments, and household necessities. There is no time to sit in a garden and watch the apples fall. Yet in Europe, I had so much more unconscious, imaginative downtime -- meandering walks through Rome, gazing at art, sitting by a fountain, savoring dinner, breathing in a special moment so I might burn it into my memory. Because I wasn’t trapped in my executive attention network all the time, my default mode network was unusually active, and that allowed the creative process to unfold.
Imagination and Imagery
There is a well-researched way to jump start the creative process without traveling to Europe and without your university being shuttered due to plague -- imagery.
Imagery means letting your mind’s eye see, your mind’s ear hear, your mind’s nose smell, your mind’s hand touch, and your mind’s tongue taste. Imagery is letting your imagination do the traveling for you. Brain imaging studies show that mental imagery activates both the default mode network (that is it’s job after all) as well as the exact same brain areas as if you were actually perceiving the scene you imagine.
For instance, if you close your eyes and imagine seeing an apple on the table, your default mode network is called to action to help you accomplish the task. And then the visual cortex lights up, just as if you were actually seeing the apple. As you add in other senses -- the cold touch of the fruit on your skin, that apple smell when you bring it to your nose, the sweet taste on the tongue -- those brain areas light up too just as if you had taken a bite of a real apple.
Imagery has been found to be helpful for all sorts of tasks. Vividly imagining the items on your grocery list arranged visually on the table like a still life painting helps you remember the items. People with anxiety or phobias find relief over time by imagining the source of their fear and retraining the brain with a more positive, adaptive response. Athletes find that visualizing themselves practicing specific skills of their sport improves their performance and accuracy. There is even solid evidence that using mental imagery helps cancer patients reduce stress, lessen pain, and improve outcomes.
Here are three imagery exercises that you can try at home. The first two use “active imagery”, a strategy where you imagine a specific image or scene to achieve a desired result. In contrast, the third uses “receptive imagery” to activate the default mode network and use imagery to invite illumination to arise. For all three, begin by closing your eyes and just breathing slowly and deeply for a minute.
1. Safe place (for stress relief) - In order for your body to recover from a stressful event, you need to complete the stress response. That is, the anti-stress, rest and digest, parasympathetic nervous system, needs to come back online. Imagery has been shown to be an amazing tool for eliciting the same physical reactions that would normally take place in a similar setting. Thus, if you are stressed, imagine being in a place that you find peaceful, relaxing, and safe. It could be a favorite reading nook with a cozy blanket. Or it might be an imaginary place like an elaborate tree house. It could be indoors or outdoors. Just settle on somewhere that’s truly peaceful, serene, and calming to you. Imagine the scene around you in as much detail as possible -- the colors, the textures, the sounds, the smells, the feelings, the feel of the air, the quality of the light. Linger there until a smile comes to your lips, your breathing softens, and your heart rate is slow and steady.
2. Inspired place (for self confidence) - Often, we need to put on a brave, confident face for a big meeting or talk. As with imagining a safe place to complete the stress response, imagining an inspired space can generate the self-confidence you need when it’s important. When you imagine somewhere that inspires you, it connects you with something larger than yourself. It also takes you into the present, and away from thinking about past failures or future worries. Thus, imagine a place that inspires you. Perhaps a soaring cathedral or the Statue of Liberty. Perhaps it’s under the branches of towering redwoods or the top of a mountain with a 360 degree view. Whatever it is, allow yourself to choose somewhere that feels truly inspirational. Then imagine the scene in as much detail as possible, focusing on each of your five senses, one by one. Notice how being in that inspirational place makes you feel. Name the emotions you feel. Notice how your face, body, and posture naturally shift in that inspirational space.
3. Wise guide (for creative inspiration) - Finally, sometimes, what’s needed is an aha moment. While creativity cannot be generated on command, you can activate the default mode network and make the conditions for insight more likely. Imagine yourself in that safe place above. Spend a moment there to really relax and get comfortable. While you are there, imagine a shape or form approaching you from the distance. It’s your Wise Guide, someone sent to help you in this specific moment with whatever challenge or wish is most alive for you right now. Your Wise Guide might be a person, a friend, a spiritual leader, a relative, an animal, a color, a spirit, a figure from myth or legend. Whoever it may be, allow them to gradually come closer, greet you, and join you in your space. Know that your Wise Guide is here for you, to help you, to serve you. They bring a message. Listen to it. Accept it. Learn from it. Have a conversation or sit in comfortable silence. Allow yourself the indulgence of being with your Wise Guide for as long as you wish.
I use these mental imagery strategies regularly. In fact, it was the inspirational space imagery that I shared with my mastermind group at the British Museum. The most wonderful thing about your imagination is that these strategies are here for you, wherever and whenever you need them. You can access a wonderful version of the Safe Place/Wise Guide meditation from Boulder Community Health HERE. May the practice offer your brain the space it needs to thrive.
If you want to geek out on more neuroscience, I highly recommend reading Scott Kaufman’s wonderful blog post about creativity in Scientific American or dive into this wonderful review paper in Nature Neuroscience on imagination by Joel Pearson.
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