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How Neuroscience Relates to Creativity

In this article, we discuss five key concepts based on basic brain processes that relate to our capacity to be creative.

Onarheim and Friis-Olivarius (2013) present five key concepts based on basic brain processes.

These are not only mental processes, but they relate in some ways to our capacity to be creative, and through understanding these principles we can be more intentional in our creative practices:

  • Priming
  • Close and remote associations
  • Inhibition
  • Fixation
  • The release of inhibition (referred to as incubation)

These are concepts that can be used to understand why a particular creative exercise may be helpful or when it may not be helpful. Many of us may have been in a workshop where we are asked to participate in a creative exercise, but we are not told anything about how the exercise will help the brain do what we want the brain to do (come up with new ideas for example) or what may hinder our creativity.

If we are aware of these cognitive concepts, we can better understand why we find some creative exercises difficult, when some of them are not useful, and what we can do to make them easier. It can also help us to identify which are more difficult or easier for us personally.


Priming has been explained as a ‘non-conscious form of memory that involves a change in a person’s ability to identify, produce or classify an item as a result of a previous encounter with that item or a related item’ (Schacter, Dobbins & Schnyer 2004). Stereotypes work like this; we judge something based on our own past experience or information.

It can also be understood as an intervention when you show someone a series of stimuli (pictures or words) and then measure their behaviours towards something afterwards.

Minas and colleagues (2017) explain this in a clear way:

‘Thus, if we prime the idea of popcorn and ask individuals to name celebrities, they would be more likely to name movie stars than rock stars because the semantic network associated with movies is active’
Priming appears to be accompanied by reductions in cortical activity (Schacter, Dobbins and Schnyer 2004), which suggests it is a way for the brain to work less. The brain wants to take a short cut and jump to conclusions.
But we can use this to our advantage. Priming can be used to come up with new ideas. When using 25 images that relate to the concept of ‘achievement’ to encourage creative ideas, Minas et al (2017) found that ‘achievement priming increased the number and creativity of ideas’.

Close and remote associations

Close and remote associations happen all the time and it occurs when we make connections (associations) between things. Close associations are easiest and do not require the same ability to connect different ideas into new relationships as remote association. Remote association is most linked to creativity because it is the process that leads to more originality.
Remote association is often seen as a test for creativity (Marko, Michalko & Riecansky 2019). Remote association involves more brain regions and more networks than close association. Sometimes remote associations can be triggered by introducing some random thing or experience. The idea may appear in an unconscious way, but it is possible to intentionally try to make associations that do not make sense at first. All associations, however, will be based on what you already know (remember, the brain only uses what it has access to). The trick is to encourage the brain to make associations that are less obvious.


Inhibitions (or inhibitory control) relates to our ability to control a situation and not get sidetracked (Jeggan et al 2018). We do not let our emotions or external and irrelevant things control us.
We can think it through and plan our activities. This is often important and allowing for this means that we are not trying to ‘go wild’ with ideas, but instead we are more focused and can develop or refine an idea we have. It is linked to normative cognition. This is an important part of innovation, but there are times when we don’t want to have inhibitory control, when we want ideas to flourish. Then we need ways to loosen up and remove inhibitory control. One way can be to introduce play or games, so we are less serious or rigid.


Fixation means we can get stuck on something; our gaze is fixated on the object we are focused on. It does not allow for cognitive flexibility or different network connections. Fixation can be very important, but it can also mean we get fixated on an idea or thing and unable to see any other possibility.
If you are coming up with ideas, you do not want to stay on one idea for too long, since the more you think about the idea, the more the fixation effect happens. Fixation usually leads to a smaller number of creative ideas. This is easy to do, you come up with the idea, and it is hard to let go because you think it’s great.
To avoid this, you need to be aware that it is a problem and find a way to leave an idea behind and move on, try something else, or introduce something that will break the fixation (even if it is just for a while). In a previous step we learnt how the team at Pixar presented ideas early, and often. This is a way to over-develop an idea and become fixated, simply put it out there before you are too attached.


Incubation is the in-between movement when you are not thinking about a problem. This can also be understood as ‘mind-wandering’ or daydreaming. We all do this, mostly unconsciously. It is this moment that can lead to a thought suddenly popping into our heads.
Some studies have hypothesised that people prone to allowing their mind to wander are more creative (Sawyer, R.K. 2011). This suggests that it is important to allow the brain to be a bit silent or think about other things. We have learnt how some people may go into nature, or out for exercise. Maybe in your instance playing a game of solitaire or listening to death metal will help the incubation of ideas to happen.
‘Even Albert Einstein would take time off from his laborious mathematical calculations to play his violin, sail a boat, or read a book.’…‘Even a simple walk in the park can stimulate creativity’ (Simonton 2019, p.144)

So why are these 5 principles useful?

Well, if we understand how they influence and impact the creative process, we can better understand what kind of mental processes will help the creative process.

If you are asked to brainstorm ideas and you just sit and will yourself to ‘think, think, think’, you do not actually allow the brain to tap into its creative potential. It is like telling yourself to draw just because there is a pen in your hand and hoping it will turn out great, it is much better to remove the fixation and allow inspiration to come more organically.

In creative classes you can therefore be a bit more targeted and attempt to target one of the brains processes or trigger it. Maybe you need to introduce some playful game or get people to move between different experiences to trigger different associations.

A quick exercise

Take a pen and piece of paper and:

  1. Simply draw two items, one that you can see from where you are sitting, and one that you might find or see in a totally different environment like a rainforest or a theme park (kudos if you are completing this course from the Amazon!)
  2. Now connect the two things and come up with an unusual combination or a hybrid and decide what kind of use/s this new thing may have.

For example my hybrid idea is a pineapple TV, where the fronds are the aerial.

(This exercise is inspired by Michael Michalko’s book Thinkertoys)


Sawyer, R. K. (2011). The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. A critical review. Creativity Research Journal.
Onarheim B and Friis-Olivarius (2013) Applying the neuroscience of creativity to creativity training
Schacter, D. Dobbins, I & Schnyer, D. Specificity of priming: a cognitive neuroscience perspective: Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 5 p. 853-862 (2004). Link.
Simonton, D K & Lebuda, I (2019) A golden age for creativity research: interview with Dean Keith Simonton Creative Theories – Research – Applications 6(1), 140-146.
Marko, M. Michalko, D & Riecansky. Remote associates test: An empirical proof of concept. Behav. Res. 51, 2700-2711 (2019) Link.
Minar, R. K. Dennis, A. R. & Kamhawi, R (2017) Triggering Insight: Using neuroscience to understand how priming changes individual cognition during Electronic Brainstorming. Decision Sciences. Vol 49(5), pp. 788-826. [Link.](
Tiego, J. Testa, R. Bellgrove, M. Pantelis, C. Whittle, S. (2018) A Heirarchical Model of Inhibatory Control. Frontiers In Psychology. 2 August. Link.
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