Alpha Brainwaves, Aerobic Activity, and the Creative Process
Alpha oscillations may facilitate “Aha!” moments by helping us connect the dots.
Posted January 10, 2019
About a month ago, while reading some neuroscience-related press releases, a headline, “Brainwaves Suppress Obvious Ideas to Help Us Think More Creatively,” jumped off the page and grabbed my attention. This press release from the Queen Mary University of London was about a new study (Luft et al., 2018) which found that alpha brainwaves in the right temporal lobe function as a neural mechanism that helps the human brain inhibit obvious associations in order to connect the dots of seemingly unrelated ideas in fresh ways.
Immediately after reading the recent QMUL press release and study abstract, I recalled writing a blog post four years ago about how alpha brainwaves play a role in helping the brain ignore distractions. That post referenced a study (Sacchet et al., 2015) by neuroscientists at Brown University about how the synchronization of alpha and beta rhythms across different brain regions helps us ignore task-irrelevant information and achieve what the researchers called “optimal inattention.”
Another study (Lydyga et al., 2016) from a few years ago, “The Athlete’s Brain: Cross-Sectional Evidence for Neural Efficiency During Cycling Exercise,” found that people who exercise regularly and have better cardiorespiratory fitness (as marked by higher VO2 max) are able to inhibit task-irrelevant cognitive processes via increased alpha-band oscillations in relation to their beta rhythms.
"The Act of Creation": Alpha Brainwaves Facilitate Creative Breakthroughs
The three abovementioned studies on alpha brainwaves are only loosely tethered together thematically and may seem unrelated on the surface. That said, in my mind, these articles corroborate a “proof-of-concept” hypothesis I've had incubating for a few years about how alpha brainwaves facilitate the creative process.
The recent neuroscience-based findings by Luft et al. on how alpha brainwaves may help the human brain suppress obvious ideas and pave the way for accessing more remote ideas dovetail seamlessly with Arthur Koestler's hypotheses about the creative process. This study also adds a new dimension as to why so many people anecdotally report problem-solving while performing any type of aerobic activity (e.g., walking, jogging, biking, etc.).
In their recent study, Caroline Di Bernardi Luft and colleagues used transcranial alternating current brain stimulation (tACS) to stimulate the right temporal part of the brain in the alpha-band frequency of 6-12Hz. In a statement, Luft describes the significance of her team's findings:
“Obvious associations are like walls which prevent you from reaching novel ideas. For example, if we need to generate alternative uses of a glass, first we must break away from our past experience which leads us to think of a glass as a container. Our study’s novelty is to demonstrate that right temporal alpha oscillations is a key neural mechanism for overriding these obvious associations; they help us by actively breaking those walls."
Reading the above statement by Luft triggered a mini “Aha!” moment for me in terms of realizing how I’ve consciously used alpha-band states to facilitate creative thinking during both meditative practices and aerobic exercise over the years. Although Luft and colleagues used tACS to create alpha brainwaves, countless other studies have shown that daily physical activity and meditation-mindfulness training also facilitate alpha states. (See, "The Neuroscience of Imagination" and "Flourishing In Life Does Not Require Straight A's")
Anecdotally, the most famous example of someone "suppressing obvious ideas" and having the ultimate "Eureka!" moment is probably Albert Einstein, who said of E = mc², "I thought of that while riding my bicycle." Einstein loved to ride his bicycle and did so regularly. Based on the findings by Sebastian Lydyga on how regular bike riding increases neural efficiency and the ability to overlook "task-irrelevant" information via alpha brainwaves, one could speculate that these neural mechanisms may have helped Einstein problem-solve during his thought experiments about the theory of relativity and beyond. Although Einstein is the epitome of cerebral genius, in my opinion, he also had what Lydyga et al. would describe as an "athlete's brain."
In 1964, Arthur Koestler published a seminal book, The Act of Creation, which deconstructs the creative process. Google books describes this work as, "A study of the processes of discovery, invention, imagination and creativity in humor, science, and the arts. [The Act of Creation] lays out Koestler's attempt to develop an elaborate general theory of human creativity. From describing and comparing many different examples of invention and discovery, Koestler concludes that they all share a common pattern which he terms 'bisociation.' [Which is] a blending of elements drawn from two previously unrelated matrices of thought into a new matrix of meaning by way of a process involving comparison, abstraction and categorization, analogies and metaphors."
One of my favorite quotations from The Act of Creation captures the "Aha!" moment when alpha brainwaves help the brain unearth remote ideas in fresh ways that create a "new matrix of meaning." Koestler (1964) writes,
"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 of consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.”
We’ve all had miraculous “Aha!” moments that seem guided by invisible links in the brain and mind. For instance, after wrestling to solve a problem for what seems like a frustratingly long time, something causes you to stop overthinking... Then, suddenly, out-of-the-blue it feels like your mind "unclamps*" while all the tumblers in your brain seem to align in ways that allow a "Eureka!" flash of insight to burst forth into your conscious awareness. Arthur Koestler described this phenomenon a half-century ago in The Act of Creation without referencing neuroscience; now we know that the "sudden emergence of a new insight" may be linked to alpha brainwaves. (*In "The Gospel of Relaxation," (1911) William James famously said, "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.")
Based on the latest research on alpha brainwaves by Caroline Di Bernardi Luft and other evidence, one could speculate that finding ways in our day-to-day lives (e.g., aerobic activity, meditation) to create alpha-band rhythms (with or without transcranial alternating current brain stimulation) helps to stimulate creative thinking. For more see, "Aha! Aerobic Exercise Facilitates the Free Flow of Thought."
Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, Ioanna Zioga, Nicholas M. Thompson, Michael J. Banissy, and Joydeep Bhattacharya. “Right Temporal Alpha Oscillations as a Neural Mechanism for Inhibiting Obvious Associations.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PNAS (First published online: December 12, 2018) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1811465115
Sebastian Ludyga, Thomas Gronwald, and Kuno Hottenrott. "The Athlete’s Brain: Cross-Sectional Evidence for Neural Efficiency During Cycling Exercise." Neural Plasticity (First published: October 2015) DOI: 10.1155/2016/4583674
Matthew D. Sacchet, Roan A. LaPlante, Qian Wan, Dominique L. Pritchett, Adrian K.C. Lee, Matti Hämäläinen, Christopher I. Moore, Catherine E. Kerr, and Stephanie R. Jones. "Attention Drives Synchronization of Alpha and Beta Rhythms between Right Inferior Frontal and Primary Sensory Neocortex." The Journal of Neuroscience (First published: February 4, 2015) DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1292-14.2015
Arthur Koestler. "The Act of Creation" (1964) Hutchinson Publishers (UK), Macmillan Publishers (USA).
William James. "On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men. The Gospel of Relaxation." (1911) Henry Holt Publishers