The Science of Creativity

Though the creative process can seem mystical and magical there are specific neurochemical, neuroelectrical and neuroanatomical that occur during creative thought. Technically, psychologists refer to the creative process as “flow.”  Flow is best defined as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform at our best.” During flow, time distorts. It either dilates (slows down) or expands (speeds up). Both of these processes can be beneficial to the creative process.


Outside distractions recede, enabling the creative thinker to become fully immersed in the process.  Performance and creativity are heightened during states of flow as a result of the profound changes in brain function and chemistry described below.

1.       While we are in flow our brain waves experience a significant change. Our brain downshifts from states of wakeful fast-moving beta waves (cycling at 14-40 cycles per second or Hz) to more relaxed, dreamy and intuitive alpha-waves (7.5 – 14 Hz) and meditative, cusp-of-sleep theta waves (4-7.5 Hz). A certain cognitive expansiveness exists when our brain unhooks itself from our more alert, logical, and anxious beta waves and lulls itself into more tranquil brain wave territory. 

2.       The area of our brain (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) where our “inner critic” lives is temporarily silenced during states of flow.   While our DLPFC is deactivated, we are better able to nimbly explore concepts and possibilities without being hindered by feelings of hesitation, self-consciousness, and self-doubt that are more likely present while our DLPFC is humming.

3.       During flow, the brain releases a pleasure-inducing neurochemical cocktail that includes large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin.  All of these chemicals produce a sense of well-being.  Norepinephrine also promotes laser focus and our ability to link ideas together in novel ways. Dopamine creates feelings of endorsement for the efforts we make, consequently inspiring us to remain goal-direction. Endorphins are morphine-like chemicals (sometimes referred to as the “superhero” hormone) that reduce stress and diminish our perception of pain, helping up to persist through difficult challenges. Rising anandamide levels increase lateral thinking. In other words, it expands the size of the database searched while the brain gropes for connections. Serotonin has a way of making us feel significant which keeps us inspired to follow through with the task at hand.

Studies also indicate that those who experience flow more often in their daily lives have higher levels of self-esteem, report greater life satisfaction, better coping strategies, more intrinsic motivation, and lower levels of anxiety. To those upshots I’d add a great sense of self-efficacy and pride after accomplishing a long and challenging creative endeavor. With these benefits, along with the intoxicating scientific brain shifts it’s easy to understand why some find the creative process so seductive.

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Expressive Arts Therapy, Long Term Recovery, Relationships, Finding True Purpose, Attachment, and the Creative Personality. For more information visit

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