Creative Thinking


T​​​​he moment of inspiration, often referred to as the 'aha!' moment is just one part of a complex creative process.  Cognitive networks, involving the activation of neural pathways, are utilised when thinking creatively.  The Attentional Control Network involves activation of the lateral or outer region of the prefrontal cortex in combination with the posterior parietal lobe.  This serves to focus attention upon a specific issue, enabling the individual to concentrate, engage in reasoning and complex problem solving. 

The Imaginational Network, which involves areas of the brain such as the inner regions of the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe, together with inner and outer areas of the parietal cortex facilitates imaginative thinking.  Thoughts are able to roam across time, thinking about past experiences; considering alternatives to a present situation or imagining possibilities for the future.  These free-floating thought are part of the imaginative function of this neural network. The third neural network involved in creative thinking is the Attentional Flexibility Network. The dorsal anterior cingulate cortices and the anterior insular act as a 'toggle switch', allowing thinking to switch between the Attentional Network and the Imaginational Network; alternating between these regions to utilise the flexible thinking style that critical for creative thinkers.

Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist at the University of New Mexico, has identified a specific neurochemical that has an important role to play in activating the neural circuits that are used in creative thought processes.  Referred to as the 'creative chemical', N-acetyl-aspastate (also known as NAA), has a different impact on the brain, depending upon the individuals' intellectual level.  When this neurochemical is produced in individuals of average intellectual ability, it appears to initiate roaming and imaginative thinking.  Alternatively, when NAA is produced in individuals with high intellectual ability, it acts upon the brain to initiate more focused, analytical thinking that is used to evaluate or fine-tune creative ideas.  

In addition to neurochemicals and neural networks, there are different stages of the creative thinking process.  First, there is Preparation, which is associated with curiosity and immersion in the topic. Next is the Incubation Phase, where ideas circulate below the conscious level of thought.  Ideas might swirl around in the mind while doing other things, especially if being active and/or relaxing. Insight is the “Aha!" moment; the time when the pieces of the puzzle come together, and a creative solution to a problem seems to suddenly appear, as if by magic.  Next is Evaluation, the need to critically consider the creative idea or solution to determine if it is worth pursuing.  The final Elaboration phase is where the creative idea is developed into action or a creative work. Thinking can be adjusted and managed to facilitate the creative process.


© Michele Juratowitch

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Last reviewed 18 May 2022
Last updated 18 May 2022