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The Neuroscience of Imagination

Aerobic Exercise Stimulates Creative Thinking

Albert Einstein said of the theory of relativity, "I thought of it while riding my bicycle." Anyone who exercises regularly knows that your thinking process changes when you are walking, jogging, biking, swimming, riding the elliptical trainer, etc. New ideas tend to bubble up and crystallize when you are inside the aerobic zone. You are able to connect the dots and problem solve with a cognitive flexibility that you don't have when you are sitting at your desk. This is a universal phenomenon, but one that neuroscientists are just beginning to understand.

Aerobic exercise clears the cobwebs from your mind and gives you access to insights that are out of reach when you are sedentary. On the complete flip side, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (when we are dreaming) is probably the most creative state of mind we experience daily. Keith Richards came up with the song 'Satisfaction' in his sleep. There are thousands of anecdotes of creative greats having eureka moments when they dream. Each of us knows from first-hand experience how our imagination streams unrelated ideas together when we dream. Regular exercise and sleeping well go hand-in-hand. Regular exercise allows you to sleep deeper and dream better. The more regularly you exercise, the better you will sleep and the more of a creative powerhouse you will become.

Creativity is the ability to bring together disparate ideas in new and useful combinations. What is happening to the electrical, chemical and architectural environment of our brains when we exercise that stimulates our imagination and makes us more creative? What is the parallel between the waking dream state induced by exercise and the REM dream state experienced during sleep? Although these questions remain enigmatic, neuroscientists have identified that the non-thinking 'default state' of consciousness is key to creative thinking. In this entry I will focus on the architectural changes that occur when you are in a dream-like default state. I will explore the chemical and electrical changes that take place during sleep and aerobic exercise that make us more creative in future Psychology Today entries.

Many scientists believe that the creative process springs as much from the subconscious as it does from a conscious thought process. Most often, creative solutions are not wrestled from your mind through sheer force of will. Eureka moments tend to occur spontaneously, almost always when the conscious mind is thinking of something else, or nothing at all. This is where the daily athletic process is crucial to creative breakthroughs. The creative hunter must be intensely interested in solving a particular problem while having a laid-back attitude about finding a solution.

In an essay from 1911 called On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men and the Gospel of Relaxation William James said, "when you are making your general [creative] resolutions and deciding on your plans of campaign, keep them out of the details. When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good." In order to stop over-thinking a problem remember to UNCLAMP and let ideas that are buried in your unconscious mind surface into the light of your conscious mind where you can access them intellectually.

Sweat is like WD-40 for your mind-–it lubricates the rusty hinges of your brain and makes your thinking more fluid. Exercise allows your conscious mind to access fresh ideas that are buried in the subconscious. Every thought that you have is a unique tapestry of millions of neurons locking together in a specific pattern-this is called an engram. If you do not 'unclamp' during the day, you get locked into a loop of rut-like thinking. If for any reason you are unable to do aerobic activity, focused meditation is also an excellent way to create a default state.

The urge to force a creative solution by never letting up is a mistake that many "Type-A" personality types typically make. Loosen up! Allow yourself to 'space out' and daydream--doing so will allow the creative juices to flow more easily. If you do not break apart the engrams connected to the static thinking of your daily routine, you will not create new neural networks needed for imagination. The answer will come, if you keep hunting it down consciously, but you must also step back and unclamp in order for ideas in your unconscious mind to bubble up and reveal their wisdom.

Arthur Koestler once described the experience of finding the conscious truth by connecting to the intuitive subconscious when he explained the 'a-ha' moment by saying:

The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flushes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.

I like to use a split-brain model of "Down Brain/Up Brain" to visualize the divide between the conscious and subconscious minds. Although the entire brain is always working in concert, I find that it is useful to imagine your conscious mind as being housed north of the mid-brain in your 'Up Brain' of the cerebrum and prefrontal cortex and that your subconscious mind is tucked below the mid-brain in the 'Down Brain' of the cerebellum and brainstem. These are terms that I came up with as a hypothetical model to help make abstract concepts of neuroscience easier to visualize and apply to daily life. It's easy to picture ideas incubating 'down below' before they 'pop up' and reveal themselves in your concscious mind because this is how it actually feels and is universally described.


In a landmark study of the creative process Nancy Andreasan found the same general descriptions of the creative process repeated again and again. The common phrases that Dr. Andreasan heard repeatedly were things like: "I can't force inspiration. Ideas just come to me when I'm not seeking them-when I'm swimming or running or standing in the shower." "It happens like magic." "I can just see things that other people can't, and I don't know why." "The muse just sits on my shoulder." "If I concentrate on finding the answer it never comes, but if I let my mind just wander, the answer pops in."

The creative process moves through five stages. It begins with preparation--an analytical time when the basic information or skills are assembled. It continues on to incubation–a more intuitive and subconscious time in which you connect the dots in a default state. If you stick with it through perspiration, this process will eventually lead to revelation–the eureka experience when you literally feel the tumblers of your mind click into place and you say: 'A-ha, I have found the solution!' The creative process ends with production, a time when the insights are put into a useful form and shared with others.


Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Thoreau: "The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all." I have dedicated an entire chapter of my next book (Origins of Imagination: Exploring the Neuroscience of Creative Thinking) to examples of writers throughout history who have used physical activity as part of their process. Because it is nearly impossible for neuroscientists to track the link between exercise and creativity using current brain imaging technologies, I like to look at the daily habits of creative greats to find empirical proof of how aerobic exercise facilitates the creative process. Below are a few examples of writers who use aerobic exercise as part of their creative process.

Louisa May Alcott tapped into the power of running in a way that must have seemed bizarre in the 1800s. She had an ecstatic connection to running that seemed embedded deep in her cells. She loved to run through the woods, in fact, she was an unexpected 'ultra-runner' of her day. Louisa May Alcott famously said:

Active exercise was my delight from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend until I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy. . . My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild.

Henry Miller, who was an avid endurance cyclist, described the importance of creating a default state to improve his writing process by saying:

Each man has his own way. After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I'd say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you're walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever. . .You're working, your mind is working on this problem in the back of your head. So, when you get back to the machine it's a mere matter of transfer.

Joyce Carol Oates, who is a devoted runner, has written one of the best descriptions of how running facilitates her writing process:

Running seems to allow me, ideally, an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I'm writing as a film or a dream. I rarely invent at the typewriter but recall what I've experienced. I don't use a word processor but write in longhand, at considerable length. (Again, I know: writers are crazy.) By the time I come to type out my writing formally, I've envisioned it repeatedly. I've never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page but as the attempted embodiment of a vision: a complex of emotions, raw experience. The effort of memorable art is to evoke in the reader or spectator emotions appropriate to that effort. Running is a meditation; more practicably it allows me to scroll through, in my mind's eye, the pages I've just written, proofreading for errors and improvements.

Haruki Murukami published a book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running in 2009. When describing his daily writing process Murukami says:

When I'm in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it's a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long - six months to a year - requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.


Researcher Dean Keith Simonton has compiled strong evidence that consistent creative output results as much from a vigorous spirit as it does from creative 'genius'. If you want to foster creativity, you need to foster a curious, bold, and tenacious personality and mindset. In every occupation Simonton studied-from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: a high number of creative breakthroughs is directly linked to the quantity of work produced and a refusal to let failure dampen enthusiasm or persistence. Regular physical activity reinforces the personality traits needed to be a creative dynamo across the board.

Renowned creative greats like Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci didn't create a constant stream of brilliant works. They had the stamina and boldness to keep going after failure and the confidence to admit that most of their ideas were probably going to be duds without losing enthusiasm. Thomas Edison once said "I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don't work....genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."

Creative greats have the resilience and drive to not get beaten down by 'losing' at a creative challenge. Just like athletes, they have the tenacity to get up, dust themselves off and refuse to quit. This mindset of determination is key to the creative process. Being creative is almost like throwing spaghetti against a wall and seeing what sticks. The more prolific and uninhibited you are about tossing out new ideas, the better your odds become of having creative breakthroughs and being an innovator.


Part of the work I'm doing politically is to help create public policies and initiatives that make physical activity available to people from all walks of life. The more Americans we have being physically active and sleeping well at night the more innovation, trademarks and patents our nation will have and the more competitive we will be in the global economy. In my eyes, the effect of inactivity and obesity in our nation goes well beyond health-care costs, absenteeism and a collective depressed mood. I believe that having more Americans: exercising regularly, getting outdoors, living in the 3-dimensional world (not the 2-dimensional interface of a digital screen), sleeping well at night and dreaming big will lead to a revitalization of our collective creative output, our vital energies and our economic strength.

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