Who among us hasn’t sat in front of a blank screen (or canvas, or notepad), waiting for inspiration to strike? The cursor seems to taunt you, deriding your lack of creativity with every insufferable flash. It’s a frustrating feeling, waiting for a great idea to take root. While you may feel powerless in those moments, inspiration may not be as elusive as you think.
“Everybody has the same genetic predisposition to be creative,” says David Burkus, assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. “Lots of people who don’t exercise their creativity often will say, ‘I’m not creative,’ but really what they’re saying is, ‘I’m out of practice’ or ‘I’m scared of exercising my creativity.’”
The more material you put into your brain, the more likely you’ll come up with new combinations.
How do we call on our creative powers when we need them most? Here are four things you need to know about the science of inspiration:
Inspiration isn’t magic
For his book, Burkus researched famous “eureka” stories, like the tale of Newton being hit on the head with an apple before he discovered gravity. What he found was that those stories have been greatly embellished over the years. It isn’t divine intervention that leads to fantastic ideas; it’s hard work and cognitive tools.
Researcher and Harvard business professor Teresa M. Amabile theorizes that there are four components to creative thought: motivation, or the actual desire to solve a problem, some level of expertise in your field, creative thinking skills such as brainstorming, and a social environment that is supportive of creative ideas. “The idea and the motivation to peruse the idea all come out of the confluence of those four factors,” Burkus explains.
Great ideas spring from other people’s great ideas
Research on innovation shows that great ideas can’t exist in a vacuum; everybody copies from everybody else in some way to form their own unique concepts, “Every idea that you’ve ever had is a combination of preexisting ideas. In my opinion, the easiest way to get more of these moments of inspiration is to take in more ideas.” Therefore, the more material you put into your brain, the more likely you’ll come up with new combinations. Burkus suggests exposing yourself to new and diverse ideas beyond your field of expertise – read a magazine you’ve never picked up before and build a group of diverse friends with varying interests to fuel your own creative tools.
Inspiration comes during breaks
“What usually happens is that the people who have those moments most often work really hard on a problem for a little while and then take a break from it, either by switching to another project or taking a long walk or a shower,” Burkus explains. “When they come back to the problem, that moment of inspiration happens.”
In psychology, that break time is called incubation. “You’re taking the problem out of your conscious mind and letting it gel in the subconscious,” Burkus says. The reason incubation leads to inspiration is still up for debate, but one explanation is that switching gears gives your brain time to make new and different neurological connections.
“Your mind is designed to be really efficient, so the more you think down a certain train of thought, the easier it is to go down that stream of thought next time. Taking a break allows us selective forgetting, where your mind stops going down that same train of thought so that when you return to the problem, you’re now open to more possible connections,” Burkus says.
Creative moments happen when you least expect them
If you’re a morning person, it stands to reason that you’d have your best ideas in the early hours, right? Not so, say researchers. A 2011 study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning suggests that you may be most inspired at your least optimal time of day.
For the study, researchers asked participants to solve both problems that required analytical thinking and problems that required creative thinking at their best and least optimal times of the day. They found that while people were better able to solve analytical problems at their optimal time of the day, they had more creative ideas at their least optimal time. The reason may be that people are less focused and therefore less inhibited at their non-optimal time of day. So keep a pen and paper handy at all times to take advantage of unexpected moments of inspiration.