Humans have come up with a lot of different descriptions of inspiration over the years. We’ve attributed its illusive appearance to, among other things, goddesses, spirits, the collective unconscious, and the phase of the moon.
But what happens in our brains when we get inspired? How do individual neurons communicate to produce bursts of insight and creative vision?
What Is Inspiration, Anyway?
Before diving into the neuroscience, it’s important to get clear on what the word ‘inspiration’ refers to.
As with any psychological phenomenon, scientists need a unified definition of inspiration to direct their research.
One group of psychologists at the College of William and Mary defined inspiration as the “motivational state that compels individuals to bring ideas into fruition,” (Oleynick et. al., 2014).
Oleynick and her co-authors base their definition on the earlier ‘tripartite conceptualization’ of inspiration from psychologists Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot, who break the phenomenon down into three core components:
In addition to these psychological states, inspiration also has some distinct physiological markers. When we’re inspired, our bodies exhibit elevated levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine is heavily associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation, while serotonin gives us a sense of well-being and connection (Bergland, 2012).
So, inspiration is a complex union of psychological and physiological states—high motivation and a feeling of altered consciousness on the one hand, an increase in important neurotransmitters on the other.
But what are the other neurological mechanisms in play? How do our brains direct us towards that magical realm full of focus, excitement, and creative association?
This Is Your Brain on Inspiration
Like other concepts and states associated with creativity, inspiration is complicated, slippery, and, consequently, hard to study.
Luckily, during the past fifty years several smart, creative neuroscientists have found ways to apply modern technology to the study of human creativity.
What they’ve found is that the neural underpinnings of inspiration span brain areas and systems. Furthermore, brains in an inspired state produce distinctive patterns of electrical activity known as alpha waves.
Brain Wave Patterns
In a landmark 1978 study, Colin Martindale and Nancy Hasenfus used EEGs to record brain wave patterns over the course of the creative process. The pair found that ‘creatives’ exhibited more alpha waves in the period immediately preceding their creative idea.
A brain wave describes the wave pattern produced by an electroencephalogram (EEG) in response to your brain’s electrical activity.
Brain waves are measured by their frequency—the number of wave cycles that occur per second.
Compared to the other waves our brains produce, alpha waves have a mid-range frequency. Your brain generates them during states of wakeful rest (Larson, 2019).
A small 2015 study found that researchers could increase creativity in subjects using transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) to increase alpha wave activity (Lustenberger et. al., 2015).
While it’s probably not wise to attach electrodes to your head in search of inspiration, the study does suggest a connection between alpha frequencies and creativity.
It’s likely that no single brain region or system governs creativity, per se (Kaufman, 2016). Rather, creativity is a complex and varied process that involves the entire brain.
On a similar note, several neural imaging studies suggest that high levels of creativity are associated with disinhibition across neural networks, which leads to an increase in novel associations (Kaufman, 2016).
Long story short, like other elements of creativity, on a neurological level inspiration is likely linked to communication between brain areas and the constant generation of fresh neural pathways--not a single area (or hemisphere) of the brain.
While it would be nice to point to the brain’s inspiration button, it makes sense that a high-level, conceptual state wouldn’t fall into neat neurological boxes.
Available evidence points to inspiration as a complex state that integrates multiple brain systems.
Furthermore, states we experience as inspiration produce distinctive patterns of electrical activity associated with relaxed, wakeful activities like daydreaming or meditation.
Of course, a neurological approach is just one way to understand inspiration. Scientific descriptions don't need to detract from an appreciation from the mystery and magic of sudden insight.
So light your candles, throw on a guided meditation, and invite some alpha waves into the room--it's time to have a long talk with your personal muse.