The Neuroscience of Imagination

iStock_000035342128_LargeAlbert Einstein said of the theory of relativity, “I thought of it while riding my bicycle.” Anyone who exercises regularly knows that your thinking process changes when you are walking, jogging, biking, swimming, riding the elliptical trainer, etc. New ideas tend to bubble up and crystallize when you are inside the aerobic zone. You are able to connect the dots and problem solve with a cognitive flexibility that you don’t have when you are sitting at your desk. This is a universal phenomenon, but one that neuroscientists are just beginning to understand.

Aerobic exercise clears the cobwebs from your mind and gives you access to insights that are out of reach when you are sedentary. On the complete flip side, rapid eye movement REM sleep (when we are dreaming) is probably the most creative state of mind we experience daily. Keith Richards came up with the song ‘Satisfaction‘ in his sleep. There are thousands of anecdotes of creative greats having eureka moments when they dream. Each of us knows from first-hand experience how our imagination streams unrelated ideas together when we dream. Regular exercise and sleeping well go hand-in-hand. Regular exercise allows you to sleep deeper and dream better. The more regularly you exercise, the better you will sleep and the more of a creative powerhouse you will become.

Creativity is the ability to bring together disparate ideas in new and useful combinations. What is happening to the electrical, chemical and architectural environment of our brains when we exercise that stimulates our imagination and makes us more creative? What is the parallel between the waking dream state induced by exercise and the REM dream state experienced during sleep? Although these questions remain enigmatic, neuroscientists have identified that the non-thinking ‘default state‘ of consciousness is key to creative thinking. In this entry I will focus on the architectural changes that occur when you are in a dream-like default state. I will explore the chemical and electrical changes that take place during sleep and aerobic exercise that make us more creative in future Psychology Today entries.

Many scientists believe that the creative process springs as much from the subconscious as it does from a conscious thought process. Most often, creative solutions are not wrestled from your mind through sheer force of will. Eureka moments tend to occur spontaneously, almost always when the conscious mind is thinking of something else, or nothing at all. This is where the daily athletic process is crucial to creative breakthroughs. The creative hunter must be intensely interested in solving a particular problem while having a laid-back attitude about finding a solution.

The Neuroscience of Imagination | Psychology Today

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