Creative Thinking

by Jayne Cormie

Your creative brain

Welcome to the tour of your brain – an exciting virtual journey through your amazing brain to explore how it works and discover what makes you tick!

Brain structure

The cortex

Imagine looking down through the top of your head into your brain. You would see that is made up of two halves called hemispheres: one on the left (the left brain) and one on the right (the right brain). The left and right brains are connected by an intricate network of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum.

Top view of the brain

Although the hemispheres are almost identical in terms of structure, each operates in an entirely different way from the other and is associated with very different activities. This is known as specialisation or lateralisation. The left brain is the logical brain, responsible for words, logic, numbers, analysis, lists, linearity and sequence. It controls the right side of your body. The right brain is the creative brain and is responsible for rhythm, spatial awareness, colour, imagination, daydreaming, holistic awareness and dimension. It controls the left side of your body.

Now imagine looking through the side of your head at a cross-section of your brain. Setting aside the ‘reptilian’ brain stem, which governs basic functions, including breathing and temperature controls, you would see that each hemisphere is divided into two parts: the cortex, also known as the thinking part of the brain, and the limbic brain. The latter is located below the cortex, in front of the cerebellum and above the brain stem.

Side view of the brain

The limbic brain evolved between 200 and 300 million years ago and is the seat of your emotions. The limbic brain is critical to learning and for short-term and long-term memory. The scientist Robert Ornstein says that the easiest way to remember the functions of the limbic brain is the four ‘Fs’ of survival: feeding, fighting, fleeing and sexual reproduction!

The brain cell

Zoom in close enough on a section of your brain and you would see a dense network of cells. The cells that create brain activity are called neurons; these carry electrical signals from one to another.

Neurons are the building blocks of the brain. Each neuron connects with up to 100,000 neighbours in the world’s biggest cuddle! To the naked eye, neurons appear as the ‘grey matter’ of the brain. A piece of brain the size of a pin head contains approximately 60,000 neurons.

Note

You have a million million brain cells (1,000,000,000,000) – 166 times the number of people on the planet!

Each of the neurons has a cell body from which long root-like fibres project. There are two kinds of fibre: axons and dendrites. Each neuron has one axon, along which it sends electrical impulses to other neurons, plus a variable number of dendrites, each of which has many branches. The axon from one neuron is attached to the dendrites of other neurons. The point at which they attach (almost – there is a tiny gap) is called the synapse.

Some neurons are very short – less than a millimetre – while others neurons are a metre or more in length! The axon of a motor neuron in the spinal cord that innervates a muscle in the foot can be about a metre (3 feet) in length.

How the brain thinks

Dendrites bring information to the cell body and axons take information away from the cell body. This is the process of thinking. When you learn, have an idea, remember something, feel sexually aroused or communicate, your neurons are receiving and transmitting information throughout your brain.

So what happens when you think?

Although the brain is made up of individual neurons, none of them work as individuals. They all constantly interact with each other in the process of thinking.

Brain cells communicate with each other through an electrochemical process. Every time you think, learn or communicate, a neuron (brain cell) in your brain sends a nerve impulse down its axon. The axon of a brain cell makes multiple thousands of connections with many thousands of other brain cells through synapses.

When the nerve impulse (electro-magnetic bio-chemical message) surges down the axon, it is fired across the synaptic gap via a chemical messenger called a neurotransmitter into the dendrite of the receiving brain cell. The nerve impulse then travels along the axon of this brain cell, across the synaptic gap to another brain cell and so on. When a neuron activates (fires) another in this way, it’s like a switch being turned on. Neurons fire like a line of falling dominoes. This activity is the process that creates the intricate pathway of thought.

How do neurons know which cells to connect up to?

What each neuron does depends on the brain cells to which it is connected. Much of the brain’s neural circuitry is pre-programmed at birth, with networks controlling vision, memory, movement, breathing and so on. However, our experiences also influence the neural networks we develop.

For example, when you first start learning a new skill, the brain creates a new neural network, consisting of neurons containing information relating to the new skill. This information is organised as a pattern within the neural network. So the next time you perform the new task, the brain triggers the same pattern as a sequence of activity. Every time you think something, the brain searches for an established pattern of thought and triggers it. This reflects the brain’s natural ability to link, associate and connect pieces of information together in order to create a pattern of thought. Once established, such patterns of neural activity are useful because they enable us to recognise things quickly and carry out tasks automatically. Imagine how much time you would waste if you had to do a full mental analysis every time you came across a cylindrical canister of effervescent fluid. Most people would rather just open their can of fizzy drink and drink it!

Unfortunately, we get stuck in our patterns of thinking. Solutions we develop are based on previous solutions to similar problems. It’s a bit like driving from your home to the office. You get in the car, your brain triggers the pattern of thought it associates with the home-office journey and off you go, driving along the same roads day in, day out. It probably wouldn’t occur to you to break that pattern and take a new route to work.

Laughter on the brain

A joke becomes funny when we expect one outcome and another happens. When a joke begins, our brain starts anticipating what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end by recognising familiar patterns in the story. That anticipation takes the form of logical thought intertwined with emotion and is influenced by our past experiences and our thought processes. However, when the joke goes in an unexpected direction, the brain is triggered to make new connections. Our thoughts and emotions suddenly have to switch gears as they follow a different line of thought. The gap between what we expect the punch line to be versus what it actually is, is what we find humorous.

Thinking creatively

The key to creativity is learning how to force your brain to make new neural connections by by-passing the old patterns in order to search for new ones. Knowing how your brain thinks in patterns will enable you to stimulate it to think differently and make new associations and connections.

Realise that everything connects to everything else.

Leonardo da Vinci

Creating new ideas is a matter of association. It’s about making unexpected connections between two or more thoughts. Creative brainpower is based on your ability to make associations, links and connections between many different thoughts and ideas. Association and connection hold the secret of the way your brain thinks. It is the secret that, once you know it and understand how to use it, will reveal limitless creative treasure-troves.

Your brain functions by

  • associating
  • linking
  • connecting

and your brain’s ability to associate is infinite!