Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better (2016)

Sparking Insight and Divergent Thinking

Twenty years ago—even ten years ago—I would never have thought of myself as a creative person. I was a science geek who acquired knowledge, trained my attention, built up my memory for facts and ideas, and deliberately and consciously analyzed information. None of these skills seemed remotely creative. Indeed, like most people, I thought that creativity was the exclusive realm of artists, musicians, dancers, actors, and other people who seemed to express themselves in recognizably artistic or creative ways. Sure, there were innovators and scientists from Albert Einstein to Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, who are deemed creative because of the sheer brilliance of their work. But in a general way, creative thinkers seemed to have some unaccountable, mysterious quality that most of us do not possess.

Over the past few years, that has all changed for me. Not only do I now think of myself as creative but I believe we all have the potential to be creative. In many ways, this entire book is a narrative about my journey to find my own personal creative process—beginning with the connection I first made between exercise and my own brain and continuing up to this moment. For the past few years, I have been diving into all sorts of foreign territory for me, breaking down the barriers that have constrained the very way I think to uncover and understand just what creative thinking is all about. Creativity and science now go hand in hand for me.

And being creative feels different now too. I know that I am at my creative best when I feel open to life and its possibilities, I make connections between ideas easily, and I feel more spontaneous in my thinking and uninhibited by what others think of my ideas. And this perspective has carried over into my work: My research over the past few years has been much more varied, original, and spontaneous. Ten years ago, if someone had told me that I would be a certified exercise instructor studying the effects of exercise in people, I would have laughed at them! Today I bring African-style drummers to my talks to help demonstrate intentional exercise to big crowds made up of hundreds of people. I’ve come a long way, baby!

So if I now see myself as creative, what has changed? Am I now thinking in a different way from the way I had for the first twenty years of my career as a scientist? The answer to these questions is twofold: In some ways, I have always been a creative thinker, even if I didn’t look at myself that way. As a scientist, I ask questions and constantly strive to look at problems in new ways. Yet, in another way, I also believe that I have become more creative.

So what do we mean when someone is creative?

In this chapter, I share with you not only how I discovered and embraced my own creativity but how you might be able to discover and embrace yours as well.


Before we get into the discussion of the neuroscience of creativity, I want to address three long-standing myths about creativity.

Myth 1: Creativity = Right Side of the Brain

This idea is all over the Internet and is often proclaimed by the media. People are classified as either a highly creative and intuitive right brain type or a cool, collected, and highly analytical left brain type. Well, I’m here to tell you that there is no truth to the idea that only one side of the brain participates in or is responsible for creativity. While it is clear that language is housed (in most people) on the left side of the brain, the most recent studies suggest people who use both sides of their brain more are the most creative. Next time someone says he is a right brain creative type, you can simply tell him that the newest neuroscience research suggests that widespread brain areas focused in the prefrontal cortex are involved in creativity, and both sides of the brain are actually used for creative pursuits.

Myth 2: Only Certain People Are Creative

You can strike the myth that only some people are creative off your list of excuses for why you have not come up with the perfect solution for your home storage crisis. Creativity is not a mysterious process available only to geniuses like Matisse or Marie Curie. Recent evidence suggests that creative thinking is just a variant of regular everyday thinking and therefore can be studied like any other cognitive function. The difficulty becomes defining the best task or tasks to use when trying to study the brain basis of creativity.

Myth 3: All Creative Ideas Are Original

Despite my early dreams of being a neuroscience pioneer and discovering something that nobody else had ever even thought to look for, the truth is that the vast majority of creative ideas are based on preexisting notions. These new ideas are different, but are often built on the shoulders of previous work. This is especially true in science, where detailed and deep knowledge of all current research is the basis on which new experiments and new research are done. But this doesn’t make new ideas any less creative. Remember that saying, There is nothing new under the sun? True words and valuable to remember. Many of the most “creative” breakthroughs are better understood as creative remixes. One of the most famous examples is Steve Jobs and the personal computer. Technically, Jobs didn’t invent any of the elements of the personal computer, Xerox did that. What Jobs did was perfect the technological tools and package them for the home market, which ended up starting an empire. Another famous example is Thomas Edison. He didn’t invent the light bulb, but he sure did construct six thousand trials of materials for the filament and perfected it so it could be used commercially.

The truth behind these myths should serve to make us all a little bit more optimistic, and excited to be creative. I for one feel better knowing that my whole brain, and not just the right side, has the capacity to contribute to my creative thinking. I also take comfort in the thought that creativity is not some mythic ability that comes out of thin air but is grounded in normal cognitive processes and inspired by current bodies of knowledge. In other words, everyone is capable of creativity, and moreover, like any other cognitive skill—math, speaking French, working crossword puzzles, or playing Candy Crush—the more you practice creativity, the better you become at being creative.


If there is only one new fact you take away from this book, let it be this. The idea that we use only 10 percent of our brain is 100 percent false. We know from functional imaging and other studies that we use all of the brain, maybe not all the time, but with all of the cognitive, brain-based tasks we do all day and every day, our entire brain is getting a workout. So why has this myth persisted for so long? The answer to that question can be described as a combination of plausibility and hope. If it were reality, it would mean that each of us would be in possession of an amazing well of potential in our brain, if only we tapped into it. It’s a myth tailor-made for the self-help industry too. Luckily, we do have the potential to build, stretch, and enhance the 100 percent of our brain that we are using every day because of neuroplasticity.


Over the past ten years, progress has been made in the field of the study of human creativity, and there is a growing but by no means unanimous consensus about the precise definition of the term. One definition of creativity is “the ability to produce work that is both novel (i.e., original, unexpected) and appropriate (i.e., useful, adaptive concerning task constraints).” The definition used by most scientists is “the production of something both novel and useful.” In other words, creativity is about developing new ideas to solve old problems. Some examples are Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify. Despite this simple definition, the expression of creativity is essentially as wide as our collective imagination and can be achieved in a vast number of ways.

Generally, creativity can be deliberate or spontaneous (the Aha! moment). Each one of these two major categories of creativity can be further characterized as coming from a cognitive point of view or an emotional one. Many science experiments are characterized as deliberate cognitive kinds of creativity. These are typically experiments that discover something important and new but are informed by a whole slew of previous related findings. For example, my own discoveries of the importance of the cortical areas surrounding the hippocampus; discovering the role of the perirhinal and parahippocampal cortices (see Chapter 2) for memory is a classic example of a deliberate cognitive form of creativity. These areas had simply been ignored, and it just took someone to apply some powerful experimental approaches to identify their critical role in memory. But not all science experiments are deliberate. Other scientific discoveries have been inspired by more spontaneous Aha! moments. One classic example comes from Otto Loewi, a Nobel Prize–winning physiologist who studied heart functions in frogs. The story goes that he had a dream one night in 1921 during which he visualized a simple yet elegant experiment that would definitively show whether communication between different brain cells occurred through electric or chemical signals. He sat up in bed and scribbled some notes, but to his dismay, when he arrived in the lab the next day, he found he could not read his notes or remember the dream. Luckily for the field of neuroscience, the dream came to him again the next night and instead of waiting until the morning he immediately went to the lab and did the experiment that night. And so he showed definitively that in addition to electrical signals the nervous system uses chemical signals to communicate. Why was this experiment so important? We call these chemical signals neurotransmitters, and once identified, our understanding—both medically and scientifically—of how the brain works became much clearer. Loewi’s discovery was an example of a spontaneous cognitive form of creativity. Isaac Newton and his understanding of gravity by watching an apple fall from a tree is another example of a spontaneous cognitive form of creativity.

What about the emotional side of creativity? This typically does not come out as often in the realm of science, but examples of emotional forms of creativity (deliberate emotional or spontaneous emotional) abound in the arts. For example, an example of deliberate emotional creativity are the cutout forms Matisse created, deliberately experimenting with different shapes and sizes and colors inspired by the emotional response he had to the resulting striking visual images. An example of a spontaneous emotional form of creativity is Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, which was said to be inspired by learning of the tragic bombing of the city of Guernica in the Basque country of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. While these categories of creativity can be useful, creativity can also mean conceptualizing a whole new way to paint or sing or perform and then having the raw talent to execute that new conceptualization. Think of Frida Kahlo, Billie Holiday, and Lady Gaga—all of these artists reinvented their specific art form so that we experience a completely unique vision of the world through their painting, voice, and performance.


Given the complexity of creativity and the wide range of different kinds of creativity currently recognized (deliberate, spontaneous, cognitive, and emotional), it makes sense that multiple areas of the brain are involved in these processes. One of the major brain areas involved in creative pursuit is the prefrontal cortex, a region that we’ve discussed throughout this book. Specifically, researchers have discovered that one particular subdivision of the prefrontal cortex, called the dorsolateral portion (DLPFC), is involved in three key functions critical for creativity. The first is working memory, which is the ability to process information online or, in other words, to keep information in mind as you are trying to solve a problem. Working memory is what allows us to monitor ongoing events and keep relevant information in mind so we can consider, evaluate, and mentally manipulate it to solve a problem.

Working memory is also involved in the second key function of the prefrontal cortex that plays into creativity: cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility allows us to shift between modes of thinking and between different rules. Damage to the DLPFC reliably causes impairments in cognitive flexibility. Normal people can quickly and flexibly adapt to the changing rules, but patients with damage to the DLPFC instead perseverate (get mentally stuck) on a single rule and can’t seem to explore other options despite feedback telling them that their answers are wrong. The ability to manipulate information in your working memory and then flexibly combine it, looking at it (in your mind’s eye) forward, backward, upside down, and inside out personifies what creative people often do.


These Brain Hacks can make your brain think of a new way to approach a familiar habit or routine and possibly lead to creative problem solving and invention.

• Think of two new ideas to make your workday more efficient. You might rearrange your desk or the art on your walls. Or try changing the order in which you tackle tasks, starting with what you usually do in the middle of the day. Let this new order of activities or events create new neural patterns.

• Think of two ways to streamline the organization of your desk at work to improve productivity.

• Create a new kind of date to have with your partner, spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. Instead of going to your favorite restaurant, take an art, singing, or dancing class together. Or go to an interactive play or dance performance, in which the audience gets to be part of the action. Or try a brand-new kind of exercise class together.

• Try to cook something you have never cooked before, maybe something Persian or Russian or Cambodian. Try something that will allow you to play with new flavor combinations.

But that’s not all the DLPFC does. This region has also been strongly implicated in directed attention, which is the ability to focus attention on a particular idea, item, or spatial location for long periods of time. This function is critical for deliberate forms of creativity in which attention to lots of things at the same time is often needed to sort through complex problems.

These three key functions of the prefrontal cortex—working memory, cognitive flexibility, and directed attention—are all critical for creativity. But this does not mean that this brain region is the sole site of creativity. Indeed, the prefrontal cortex is connected to other key brain areas that bring in and manipulate information in the service of creativity.

What are those other areas? As I mentioned earlier, emotion plays a critical role in creativity. Previous studies have shown a strong link between creativity and positive emotions such that people are more likely to have creativity breakthroughs if they report that they were happy the day before. Creativity is positively correlated with positive emotions, such as joy, love, and curiosity; art is often used to take viewers on an emotional journey through visual or auditory or even tactile stimulation. While emotions like fear and anger are typically not correlated with high levels of creativity, other studies show that strong negative emotional responses can sometimes be channeled into something positive and highly creative. For example, women whose children were killed in car accidents created Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). This was a situation in which profound grief and anger sparked the creation of a powerful new organization. So there are examples of creativity being inspired by the whole spectrum of emotion from joy to devastation and back. Three key brain areas involved in emotional processing are the amygdala, within the temporal lobe; the cingulate cortex, located in the middle of the frontal lobe; and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, also part of the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala and cingulate cortex process emotional information and then send it to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in higher levels of social functions, personality, emotional planning, and emotional regulation.


There is still more to understanding what is happening in the creative process. Recent studies have shown that the hippocampus does more than just provide information in the form of long-term memory to the prefrontal cortex. It also seems to have a role in another important form of creativity: imagination.

Imagination is defined as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” Imagination is related to but not identical to creativity. While creative ideas can germinate and percolate in our imagination, imagination alone does not guarantee that these ideas are implemented. By contrast, creativity includes both the germination/percolation of ideas aided by imagination and the abilities that lead to implementation. In other words, it’s fine to imagine something, but to follow through on that idea or insight is the truer measure of creativity.

The link between the hippocampus and imagination was first made by examining patients who had hippocampal damage. A research group in London examined a group of patients with damage thought to be limited to the hippocampus and a control group. The two groups were given tests in which they had to provide a description of new, imagined experiences. For example, the participants, none of whom had been to the tropics, were asked to imagine a scene in which they were lying on a white sandy beach along a beautiful tropical bay. One control subject responded like this:

It’s very hot and the sun is beating down on me. The sand underneath me is almost unbearably hot. I can hear the sounds of small wavelets lapping on the beach. The sea is a gorgeous aquamarine color. Behind me is a row of palm trees and I can hear rustling every so often in the slight breeze. To my left, the beach curves around and becomes a point. And on the point there are a couple of buildings, wooden buildings.

A subject with hippocampal damage responded like this:

As for seeing I can’t really apart from just sky. I can hear the sound of seagulls and the sea. I can feel the grains of sand between my fingers. I can hear one of those ship’s hooters—that’s about it.

Why would a brain area involved in creating the long-term memories for the events of our lives (that is, the episodic memories managed by the hippocampus) also be important for imagining events? These two functions may not be as distinct as they seem. The idea is that the same brain areas important for thinking about the past (such as the hippocampus retrieving memory) are similarly active when we think about the future (or using our imagination). Functional imaging studies have shown that a network of interconnected brain areas, including the hippocampus, is activated for what neuroscientists call past and future thinking. This is an exciting new development and suggests that the hippocampus is not just specialized in memory but also is involved in constructing episodes—both past and future. This ability also reinforces the hippocampus’s ability to link items together as remembered experiences.


Sometimes creativity is thought of as divergent thinking: the ability to use an object for an original or novel purpose. Here are some exercises to help you think differently.

• Think of four new uses for common items that you see every day: toothbrush, toaster, stapler, rubber band, and so on.

• Think of a new way to drink your cup of coffee.

• Think of three new ways to ask your kids (or someone else) what they did today at school (or work).

• Think of three new ways to walk your dog or play with your cat.

• Find a new use for all the items that you would typically recycle.

• Find a new way to get to work and try to make it even more efficient than the way you are doing it now.


While we are starting to appreciate how many different brain areas are involved in creativity, we are still far from a clear understanding of the neural basis of the creative process. One of the reasons creativity has been such a difficult nut to crack is the difficulty in finding a powerful and appropriate way to study the creative process. What is the best way to study creativity? Scientists have developed a few key tasks to be used as standard measures of creativity, focused on divergent thinking. One example is a test called the Alternative Uses Test. This test simply asks subjects to come up with all the possible uses for a brick that they can think of (for example, paperweight, doorstop, bug squisher, weapon). Most agree that this is a useful way to measure creativity, but it’s important to keep in mind that this test alone cannot survey all aspects of human creativity.

One of the most powerful tools we have to study creativity is to observe patients with brain damage, just like the famous amnesic patient H.M., whom we discussed in the beginning of the book. One recent study tested a group of forty patients with various brain lesions and a group of control subjects. All of the subjects took the Alternative Uses Test. Scientists found that patients who had damage to the part of the frontal lobe toward the middle of the brain, particularly on the right side, had lower creativity scores, consistent with the old right brain equals creativity idea. On the other hand, they found that patients with lesions in areas on the left side, including in the parietal and temporal lobes, had higher than normal creativity scores compared to control subjects.

Wait a minute, what? Lesions on the left side can increase creativity? What’s going on here? It turns out that brain damage leading to enhanced creativity has been seen before and is associated with a neurological condition called primary progressive aphasia (PPA). Damage to the language-associated areas on the left side of the brain, together with damage to the striatum, is commonly seen with PPA. Remember, the striatum is located deep in the middle of the brain and is associated with the brain’s reward system but is also involved in movement. PPA is a degenerative neurological condition that gradually erodes speech and language functions. One of the most striking and well-documented cases of a patient with PPA is a woman named Anne Adams.

Adams received degrees in physics and chemistry before getting her doctorate in cell biology and worked for many years in academia. When she was forty-six, she took a leave of absence from her academic position to take care of her son, who had been in a serious car accident. During this time, she began to paint. Her early work was in the classical style, but relatively simple. Over the following six years, however, her painting evolved dramatically to a style that was bold, vibrant, and abstract, with great attention to detail.

When she was fifty-three, seven years before her first symptoms of PPA appeared, Adams painted what could probably be considered her masterpiece. She called it Unraveling Bolero, and she based it on the famous symphonic work Bolero by the composer Maurice Ravel. In this painting Adams meticulously translated Ravel’s musical score into a visual modality.

Bolero is so powerful as a piece of music because it is unrelentingly repetitive, even perseverative in nature, building up to a surprising auditory climax at the end. Adams was incredibly systematic in her visual translation of the score. Each bar of the piece was represented by one upright rectangle, with the height of the rectangles representing the increasing volume of the music. The piece remains in the same key, represented by a unified color scheme in Adams’s painting, until bar 3,236. At this point, Adams represents the dramatic conclusion of the piece with a brilliant burst of visually salient orange and pink bars.

Adams continued to paint voraciously, moving on to pieces focusing on abstract concepts, like the number pi (π), but then shifted her focus again away from multisensory and abstract themes to paintings focused on photographic realism. Initially, it seemed as if Adams were simply a woman who discovered her creative gifts later in life. But when Adams turned sixty, six years after she painted Unraveling Bolero, she began developing language problems and difficulty initiating speech. These were the first clinical signs of PPA. Sadly, her symptoms continued to progress, rendering her mute and affecting her motor functions; but through much of her disease, she retained the drive to paint and continued to do so as long as she was able to hold a brush. Adams died at the age of sixty-seven.

Because brain scans were taken on Adams from the time of her diagnosis until her death, we now have a rare window into not only the progression of her neurological disease, but also her creative output. MRI scans identified two key sites of change in Adams’s brain. First, consistent with other patients with PPA, she showed severe damage in the left frontal lobe, which extended into the striatum, a subcortical region important for motor control. This left frontal damage included key language areas, which caused her initial language deficits. The striatum is the motor-related area damaged in Parkinson’s disease and was likely the cause of Adams’s difficulty in speech initiation. The damage on the left frontal lobe is consistent with studies, described earlier, suggesting that patients with damage to this region exhibit enhanced creativity. What else besides language do these left frontal regions do? It is thought that they supervise, or control, our attention and our ability to make particular responses. The idea is that if this part of the brain is damaged you lose your supervisory power over the attention and response areas, which could result in less supervised (less inhibited) and more creative thinking.

The second major change in Adams’s brain was even more surprising. Researchers found that parts of her brain on the right side were actually significantly enlarged (compared to the brains of people of her age and education background). These enlarged brain areas included more posterior areas (toward the back of the brain) in the parietal and occipital lobes, which are critical in perception and imagery. This may have allowed Adams to make the links she did between the auditory modality of Bolero and the visual/perceptual aspects of her painting. In other words, it was no accident that Adams’s art mixed two entirely different media—music and painting.

So what do we think was going on in Adams’s brain? The idea is that her blossoming creativity in her fifties was initiated by the left side frontal damage caused by the earliest signs of PPA. This weakening of that brain area could have released the supervisory control over more posterior areas, enabling her to let her creativity flow.

It will never be known if Adams was born with larger parietal and occipital brain areas, or if their enlargement was a result of her disease. But it seems likely that those enhanced posterior areas played a role in her attention to visual and auditory detail and were responsible for the creative growth spurt that came later in her life.

Adams’s case is striking in one other interesting way. While she was not aware of this when she painted Unraveling Bolero, Maurice Ravel composed his masterpiece when he was at about the same stage of PPA as Adams was. In fact, Ravel was probably the most famous patient with PPA to have been described in the medical literature. Ravel, like Adams, was attracted to repetition, which is a major theme in Bolero. But rather than being monotonous, Ravel created a growing tension in the piece with a beautiful and haunting melody that kind of carries us along, mesmerizing us until the very end. From her notes, it was clear that Adams was fascinated with Ravel’s work. Her case, together with other examples of patients with PPA, suggests that one key to creativity is a release from control that may come naturally in some and from a neurological condition in others.


Adams’s story provides another example of how information about patients with brain damage can help us understand brain function. But another approach to understanding the brain basis of creativity is to examine the brain activity in highly creative people. The tricky part is to pick the right category of artist to study. It becomes kind of like a riddle: Name an art form that can be quickly generated and evaluated, and can be performed while lying in an MRI scanning machine. Does such an art form exist?

My favorite answer to this riddle has been the study of musical improvisation, or the ability to quickly and extemporaneously create a melody. Two main forms of improvisation have been studied by neuroscientists: jazz improvisation on a piano and lyrical improvisation by rappers.

I have become particularly interested in the brain basis of rap. Several years ago I was doing a program for the World Science Festival in New York called Cool Jobs. The emcee of that event was a science rapper named Baba Brinkman. What, you may ask, is a science rapper? A science rapper is like any other rapper, but Brinkman raps about science. He’s written rap based on the science of mating, evolution, and human nature. The two of us started talking about the neurobiology of improvisational rap, and I invited him to lecture at NYU on the history of the rhyme and rhythm of rap. His lecture naturally led to a fascinating discussion of the neurobiological study of the brain areas involved in improvisation and in rap.

While there is only one fMRI study that has examined the brain areas involved in improvisational rapping, there are more studies that have looked at the brain areas activated during jazz improvisation. In both the rap and jazz studies, scientists compared the patterns of brain activation during freeform improvisation with brain activity when the artists performed memorized pieces. The question was, What additional brain areas were activated in the improvisational condition compared to the memorized condition? In both cases, the results showed the same major patterns of activation within the frontal lobes. First, researchers found that in the improvisational condition there was activation of the part of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex on the left side. This region has also been associated with organizing internally motivated behaviors. In addition to the increased activation of this region, there was a deactivation of the dorsolateral portion of the prefrontal cortex in both the jazz and the rap study. The deactivated region is thought to be involved in self-monitoring and may be the origin of that inner critic that tells us, “Don’t say that—that’s stupid!” Or “If you do that, everyone will look at you funny.” These self-monitoring areas appear to be inactive in situations of free improvisation.

Self-monitoring or, rather, the inhibition of self-monitoring is a critical aspect of all artistic performance and the creative process. It’s fascinating that studies of improvisational jazz and rap have pinpointed the area that may be the key to letting go and going with the flow.

But the studies of improvisation are only in their baby stages. There are so many more fascinating questions to address, including what happens when rappers or jazz musicians start interacting with other musicians or with the audience and begin to respond to feedback. Are there structural differences in the brains of improvisational artists compared to the brains of other artists that might explain their talent in these areas? In the meantime, we have a small window on what might be happening in Jay-Z’s brain as he performs live and off the cuff, as he is famous for doing.


As I have told you, I grew up loving the theater and the movies. My childhood favorites included not just musicals but great dramas like Gone with the Wind, Sophie’s Choice, and The Godfather. I very much admire actors who can make us feel as if real life is unfolding on the screen. I had an opportunity to get a deeper insight into the craft of acting at an event hosted by NYU’s Emotional Brain Institute a few years ago called “Once More with Feeling.” This was a panel discussion between the actors Tim Blake Nelson and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman and the neuroscientist Ray Dolan. The panel was moderated by actor-director and professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Mark Wing-Davey. It was a fantastic event that started with some general questions for Hoffman and Nelson about their approaches to acting. Their answers were interesting, but the most memorable exchange of the night came when Wing-Davey asked the neuroscientist, “Is acting akin to inducing a false memory? In other words, is it a true emotion up on stage or is it [something] different?”

Of course, no one really knows the actual answer to that question, but Dolan gamely offered an explanation. He said that acting was not the same as real emotion because, of course, when you are on stage, you are aware of the audience and you are monitoring your emotions in a different way from when you are feeling them for real. He suggested that there are some key elements of real emotion, but when acting, the emotions are just not the same.

No sooner had those words left Dolan’s mouth than Hoffman immediately said, “I disagree!” He said that when he is acting, he feels every emotion he portrays.

When he said that, I think everyone else in the audience simultaneously thought, “And that’s why you are such a brilliant Oscar-winning actor!”

Hoffman countered the argument that acting is different from real life because there is more monitoring happening. He said that we are always monitoring ourselves. We monitor ourselves when we go the grocery store to pick up some milk, when we are giving an important presentation in front of others, and when we are on stage.

He said, “The emotions that I have up there are real—even if the scene I’m playing is not. You are still living and experiencing life.”

Nelson offered a different perspective, saying that when he has a fight with his pretend wife on stage it is different from when he has a fight with his real wife at home because the actor knows he is being watched when on stage.

But Hoffman stuck to his guns that people monitor themselves all the time, blurring the lines between real life and acting. He went so far to say, “I think people wake up and think, I should be paid to do this!” He certainly deserved to be paid to do it.

What became clear is that there are many different yet effective ways to approach the art of acting. Differences in philosophies of how to best play a scene abound, but all seemed to agree that when a scene is played well, everyone can appreciate it in the same way. That night I realized how difficult it would be to study the neurobiology of acting given all the different ways people think about the craft. My peers seem to agree, as I couldn’t find any studies on this. The closest I came was an article in the UK paper The Guardian about an fMRI lab in London that studied the brain of actress Fiona Shaw. The study compared her reading lines from a poem to her simply counting a series of numbers. The story reported more activation in a region of the parietal lobe important for visualization when she was reading the poem. Unfortunately, this is where the findings end, and clearly this is a field left open for study.


While we may not be world-famous rappers or actors or have brain lesions that enhance our creativity, many of us (myself included) strive to maximize our creativity in everyday life. And luckily for us, neuroscientists and experts have useful information to help us spike our creativity.

Creativity gurus suggest that the concept of moderation is key to improving creativity. That is, while divergent thinking is useful for creativity, too much may lead to irrelevant ideas. Other studies have emphasized the importance of focused attention to enhance certain forms of creativity, but too much focused attention and you can lose the forest for the trees. Yet others suggest a shift in perspective or trying something counterintuitive can contribute to new insights, but a shift too large can take you too far away from the problem at hand.

So where does that leave us? Keep moderation in mind as you test your divergent thinking, shift your perspective, and focus your attention.

One of my favorite studies related to improving creativity was done by psychologists at Stanford University in 2014. This team studied the effectiveness of walking on creative thinking. I guess I am not the only one who had noticed that creative ideas suddenly come to me while walking the streets of New York. Stanford researchers tested this idea directly by comparing performance on a divergent thinking test (the Alternative Uses Test) during indoor walking on a treadmill and outdoor walking versus a control group. In one experiment, 81 percent of the participants increased their divergent thinking task score while walking relative to sitting. In another experiment, which focused on the generation of analogies, scientists found that relative to sitting, 100 percent of the subjects who walked outside generated at least one new high-quality analogy while only 50 percent of those seated inside did.

While these findings provide evidence that physical activity can increase aspects of creativity, the mechanism by which these effects occur is still unknown. It’s possible that other forms of mild physical activity that free your mind, like knitting or fishing, would work in the same way. It’s also possible that walking might improve mood and therefore make you more apt to be creative. So, while we don’t yet know the connection between movement and creativity, the finding is both useful and immediately implementable. If you want a boost in your creativity or need to dislodge a creative block, take a walk. So, once again, exercise is good for your brain!

My own exploration of creativity has been one of transitions and evolution. I started out a very classic deliberate creative thinker, slowly building up my cognitive knowledge so I was able to ask interesting scientific questions about how memory works in the brain and how new long-term memories are born. I explored previously unexplored brain areas and discovered new things about them. More recently, I have moved beyond deliberate and focused creativity and started to explore the more spontaneous and emotional aspects of creativity in my work and in my life. My exercise research was inspired by my love of the practice and a genuine hope that I could harness the power of exercise to improve people’s learning, memory, and cognition. I still use a great deal of incremental focused attention to study neuroscience and come up with key experiments that will help me reach this goal, but now I feel that my scientific work is infused with much more emotional resonance than it was when I started in this field. The artists, musicians, and other creative types in my circle of friends help feed the creative spark in me.

But maybe the biggest shift I see in my own creative life is my reaction to what my friend Julie Burstein, a public radio producer and bestselling author of the book Spark: How Creativity Works, calls the “tragic gap” or, in other words, the unknown. Early in my career that tragic gap terrified me. I knew this was part of science, but my approach to not knowing was just to put my head down and work as hard as I could until something interesting emerged. Maybe the strategy was okay, but the attitude definitely needed tweaking. The adventurous side of me was attracted to science for exactly this reason: to be able to explore the unknown corners of the brain and see what I could find. But then the reality of tenure and the number of high-quality publications I needed to produce to get tenure got in the way of that romantic dream, and I went about reaching my goals in the only way I knew how—with focused, unrelenting work.

The biggest change in my own approach to science today is that I am now able sit in that tragic gap of the unknown and appreciate that this is the place where the most creative ideas occur, when you don’t know what the answer is or how an experiment is going to turn out. It’s an uncomfortable, scary, lonely place, but ultimately, if you let yourself dwell there long enough it becomes, more often than not, a rewarding experience. The process involves letting go of expectations and quick answers and being open to strange ideas and intense feelings. This is where my meditation practice also helps enormously. And from this collision, new ideas emerge. No amount of controlling will help. You have to believe that by keeping an open mind and an open heart, you will encounter or discover an interesting path, and that seems, to me, the essence of the creative spirit.

There has been one last realization that I have made about my own creative process that I’d like to share.

While I’m convinced (and there is good supporting evidence available) that increased and sustained aerobic exercise has improved my learning, memory, attention, and mood, I also think that exercise may have improved my creativity. Why? Because exercise not only enhances the functions of the prefrontal cortex, which we know is important in creativity, but also enhances the function of the hippocampus, a key area involved in future thinking, or imagination. Improved mood has also been implicated in higher levels of creativity. Currently, this is not a proven fact, just a personal observation. But just as walking can help give you a creative burst, I suspect that long-term increases in aerobic exercise may work to grease the wheels of creativity and help you let go, be open to novelty, face your limitations, and sit happily in the tragic gap.


• Creativity involves both sides of the brain and involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex interacting with emotional areas (the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex) and areas involved in long-term knowledge and memory (the cerebral cortex and hippocampus).

• The hippocampus is also implicated in imagination and future thinking, which are critical for the process of creativity.

• Some studies note that damage to the left frontal lobe causes a release from control, resulting in striking bursts of creative output in some patients.

• All these findings together support the idea that creative thinking is just a particular version of regular thinking that can be practiced and improved like any other cognitive skill.

• A key to creativity is learning to be in the tragic gap between ideas and to enjoy the process of discovering the unknown.


Creativity can be jump-started when you use more of your senses at one time. It can also be stimulated when you get out of your comfort zone and test your abilities. Try to learn something new!

• Use toothpicks and jelly beans or other soft candies to make a geometric sculpture.

• Get colored paper and try to make cutouts (like Matisse did) that look good to you.

• Go to the kitchen and create something good to eat using only what you have on hand (this will probably take more than four minutes, but you can try to plan the cooking strategy in four minutes).

• Make up new lyrics to one verse of a favorite song.

• Sit outside and blindfold yourself; for four minutes, listen to the world’s sounds in a new way.

• Try to fix something in your house that you have never tried to fix before.

• If you are not already an actor, read part of a Shakespeare sonnet or a poem out loud with feeling.