Inspiration can seem like an intangible, fickle, mysterious process. Its enigmatic nature probably explains why there’s a wealth of media (including us!) centered on the very idea of it — especially the ways in which humans interact with and are encouraged by it.
What is inspiration, exactly?
Some ascribe the process of being inspired to something magical or mystical. Author Elizabeth Gilbert has explained her belief that creative ideas can consciously find us: “The idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention … It will send the universal physical and emotional signals of inspiration (the chills up the arms, the hair standing up on the back of the neck).” Artist and teacher Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way (1992), the bestselling self-help book for creatives, similarly describes a “higher power” of creativity we can channel when we seek inspiration.
Others believe inspiration to be firmly rooted in the real world, something for which we must strive. Renowned artist Pablo Picasso once said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage was even more specific with his advice, cautioning, “Forget the idea that inspiration will come to you like a flash of lightning. It's much more about hard graft … Routine is really important.”
Indeed, there are countless examples of artists who follow a kind of creativity regimen: Filmmaker David Lynch famously ate lunch at the same restaurant every day for years while pondering new ideas, which he recorded on napkins. Meanwhile, author Maya Angelou reserved hotel rooms in the towns where she lived to use as writing spaces, and she showed up each morning at 6:30 to begin working.
These contrasting views seem to hinge on one question: Can inspiration, our flighty friend, be measured? For decades, researchers have delved into the science behind inspiration, and their findings suggest the answer is yes … sort of.
How does inspiration work in our brains?
A 2004 study of the brain during problem-solving processes found that when subjects had their “Aha!” moments, the right temporal lobe of the brain “lit up” on imaging tests. The right temporal lobe is the same part of the brain that helps us “tie together things that are distantly related,” as researchers put it. This means a new idea we perceive as a “bolt of lightning” may actually be our brains making connections between pieces of information we already had.
Certain conditions can also bring us closer to those lightning bolt moments. A 2011 study suggests that, perhaps surprisingly, many people are most inspired when they’re sleepy or groggy. In the limbo between waking and sleeping (or vice versa), our brains have the opportunity to explore new neural pathways, which can sometimes lead to fresh ideas. And in 2022, researchers found that, scientifically speaking, the “tortured artist” archetype is a myth: People are more likely to experience increased creativity when they’re in a good mood and have positive relationships in their lives.
So, how can we invite inspiration into our lives?
Inspiration is all about creating new connections in the brain, and there are certain things we can do to “prime the pump,” so to speak. Here are a few activities that can increase our chances of having those lightbulb moments:
- Deep reading gets our brains working in new ways and increases neuroplasticity (the genre doesn’t matter as much as our level of concentration).
- Spending time in nature can stimulate our curiosity and help us think more flexibly.
- Taking a walk, even just around the block, can jog our thoughts out of old patterns and into new territory.
- Sometimes, doing nothing is actually doing something. Being bored or idle allows our minds to wander, generating prime conditions for creativity to blossom.
Whether we believe inspiration is a gift from a force bigger than ourselves or the result of consistent effort, there are steps each of us can take to encourage its presence in our lives. Making changes large or small in our everyday routines can lay the groundwork for new ideas to come rushing in.
Inspiration has something in common with a convulsion, and that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less violent nervous shock which has its repercussion in the very core of the brain.Charles Baudelaire
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