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Snugli — Nurse Ann More was inspired by the hands-free cloth baby-carrying slings from West Africa and invented the Snugli to carry a baby. She went on to invent a carrying device for oxygen tanks as well.

Insights into the Neuroscience of Creativity

Vision, thinking, creating, and imagination are interconnected experiences that reside within our mind, courtesy of our brain’s functions.

Presently, what we don’t know about the brain far exceeds what we know about how the human mind works. As a result, every teacher has the potential to be equal parts practitioner and researcher when it comes to questions concerning creative cognition. This dual role gives teachers a unique opportunity for understanding why designerly ways of thinking are so powerful. Because research repeatedly highlights the ability of the brain to change both naturally and through deliberate practice by students, use of research informed whole-class and personalized strategies helps develop new instructional protocols and practices. Through the work of the CTTL and the D!Lab, we also know that transdisciplinary research informs and constantly changes the design thinking process at all levels. It is through such evolving research and education methodologies (and by fully embracing them internally as a school) that interaction among disciplines, researchers, and teachers produce deep insights about the design of instruction itself. This section provides a compass for understanding the range of that research.

By proportion of function, half of our brains’ allocation of resources is aimed at interpreting what we perceive visually. It is fair to say that our minds are making internal pictures of the external signals that our eyes send our brains. But what about the things our minds “see” and the pictures they create internally? What about imagination and creativity?

Our brains are three-pound organs that consume about 70% of our bodies’ glucose and 25% of our oxygen. The brain is made up of a 100 billion neurons that produce over 1 quadrillion connections. Eighty-three percent of the brain’s neurons are in the cerebral cortex of our brains. Studying the origin of our minds’ thoughts, actions, and ingenuity are at the frontier of neuroscience.

There are many physical ways to describe our brains, but our ability to create, monitor, and maintain creative ideas is harder to describe. Vision, thinking, creating, and imagination are interconnected experiences that reside within our minds, courtesy of our brains’ functions. The brain is largely electro-chemical energy that produces an extraordinarily complex range of ideas and skills. The conditions by which we harness those electro-chemical signals into insight are still a mystery.

This chapter focuses on the research that demonstrates how our minds foster creativity and organization in the design process. The following research provides a glimpse into the magnificent scope of creativity research.

1. Wandering Minds

As soon as I started writing this section, my brain started wandering.
My mind thought about the print job in the 3D printer, the eyeglasses that I dropped in the street this morning, and the impact of rain on weekend kayaking plans. That experience is not uncommon. Researchers believe that our mind wanders off-task almost one-third of the time. Kalina Christoff, PhD at the University of California, thinks that mind wandering is beneficial. Her research indicates that the more our minds wander, the more creative and better problem solvers we are. It appears that our brains can both be focused on a task and in the background scan the mind for connections. If the research is confirmed, the complete attention that teachers demand of their students may only be a fond dream.

2. Sleep-Inspired Insight

Ulrich Wagner (2004) investigated participants’ ability to use higher order mathematics when challenged to see relationships between different sets of numbers. Participants who took a nap were 40% more likely to identify the relationship and discover a shortcut to the solution. It appears that sleep increases our cognitive ability to be creative. For youngsters, sleep sometimes seems like the enemy, but a growing body of evidence demonstrates that nothing may be more important to health, emotional well-being, and creativity.

3. Define, Design, Defend

It may seem counterintuitive, but it takes structure to unlock creativity. There are billions of neurons in the brain. We remember bits of information stored as neural connections. Scientists believe that cognitive organization helps our brains with tasks. Cognitive structures help students identify patterns and relationships that help them to be creative. In his book, The Innovator’s DNA, Jeff Dyer writes about how the United States Air Force created a mnemonic device (called the OODA Loop) for fighter pilots to remember vital training elements. The OODA Loop describes the behaviors that are the result of a strong structured mindset. John Boyd created the OODA Loop for pilots to remember the words, “observe, orient, decide, act.” Pilots learn to automatically respond, which enables more effective and decisive action.

The design process can be summarized. Here is one way:


  • Understand (There is a problem to solve)
  • Investigate related ideas (Ideas are always connected to other ideas)
  • Brainstorm solutions (Two heads may be better than one)


  • Craft a solution (Make what your brain creates)
  • Experiment and test (This is where the science is applied)
  • Redesign the solution (If you do not succeed, try again and again)


  • Evaluate (Don’t be timid — be critical of things not people)
  • Share (Give and get ideas from others)

Cognitive structures and training appear to increase our minds’ ability to organize information so that informed action is possible.

4. Play and Creativity

For years, the floor of my study at home was a changing landscape of Legos that I navigated on tiptoe… with varying degrees of success. Any afternoon or evening, my wife or I eavesdropped as my son and daughter created representative places, people, and stories. Their play was pretend-reality.

Play allows alternative possibilities to exist in the life of the young mind. Play allows changing narratives to develop. Endings alternate, reality is suspended, and before the story ends, youngsters have practiced the important skill of developing new ideas within a familiar context of their own design. Researcher Mariah R. Whitehead writes about this unique time: “Play enables the species to predict or make up stories about likely outcomes as well as remote possibilities.” Whitehead believes that creative ideas first developed in the brain as play, can later be translated into tangible and complex forms. It is no wonder that the power of play is central to the design process. R. Keith Sawyer at Washington University writes that, “Improvisational play is a valuable contributor to the development of the collaborative and conversational skills that are essential to group creativity in adults.” Sawyer argues that play interventions among 10 and 11-year-olds show dramatic increases in the figural and verbal scores on the Torrence Test of Creative Thinking.

5. Visual Arts Develop Creativity

In his book, Insights of Genius, Arthur Miller makes a strong case that the freedom of expression and exploration present in the visual arts allows the mind to possess greater options and variety for creating something new. In fact, art in all forms (poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, storytelling, photography, dance, theater, architecture) provides additive range to the creative mind. According to Dahlia Zaidel, “Artistic creativity permits infinite possibilities and it may be that imperfect… display of creativity is precisely what creativity is: a process that computes deviations and incongruities.” In other words, art develops an unbounded reflex where inspiration thrives.

6. Problem-Finding

Corporations that look to improve a product often quickly narrow the range of problems for engineers to solve. Research by scientists suggests that more creativity arises when fewer boundaries are initially placed on people’s thinking (Ellwood, S. et al. 2009 ). By allowing people’s brains first to seek the problem, the solutions that follow are ranked as being more creative. Finding the problem is an essential element to creativity. Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld once wrote, ”The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution.” Research supports this notion. If corporations want better products, perhaps the question posed should not be, “How do I solve this product problem?” but rather, “What problems are there to solve with this product?” Solving ill-defined and unknown problems don’t rely on existing models, and therefore may lead to a range of possibilities and solutions. Problem-finding primes the mind to seek and solve.

7. Popcorn and Creativity

It’s true. Expecting students to be creative and telling them to be creative matters. In a study by R. Baumeister, subjects were given a descriptive story about a heated kernel of corn becoming a fluffy puff of popcorn. One group was asked to write a title to the story and another group was asked to write a creative title to the story. Just adding the word creative seemed to activate the conscious mind to do just that. The creative-title groups produced more creative titles. “The conscious intention to be creative results in increased creativity” (Baumeister, 2007). Supported by other related research, Baumeister concludes that the conscious (what we are told) and unconscious mind (how and what we think) collaborate and thereby enable creativity.

8. The Habit of Creativity

If creativity is to become a habit and practice for our students, then how long might this reflex take to develop? In 2010, Phillippa Lally published a study asking how long it took habits to form. Subjects in her study were forming an everyday behavior that involved eating or drinking. While the results varied with individuals, it appears that on average it took almost 70 days to create a habit where none existed before. Habit formation was delayed when multiple consecutive days were missed. She concluded habits were born of consistent practice, so if we want students to be creative, they need consistent practice.

9. Looking in a Mirror

When we see another person’s emotion, our brain “feels” and registers that same emotion. This is what Daniel Siegel in his book Mind refers to as “the flow from neuronal activity to human narratives.” Research by Nicola Canessa (2009) demonstrated through fMRI, indicated that when subjects viewed a particularly strong emotion like sadness or regret reflected in the face of another person, the very same area of their brain registered sadness or regret. This appears to be a beneficial evolutionary adaptation to bond and form connections. A mirror neuron is a neuron in the brain that fires when a person views an action or an exhibited emotion in another person. The neuron “mirrors” the other person’s emotion as though the observer was experiencing the same feeling. This finding has strong implications for empathic design and direct engagement during the problem-finding stages of the design process. When confronted with real emotion our brains are wired to feel the same emotion, thereby providing a deeper connection to that person. Emotion provides a channel for understanding a problem so that caring and creativity can be engaged. The design process therefore involves engaging our students in settings and conversations that provide the opportunity to hear stories as well as to see and to feel emotion.

10. The Whole Mind

Scientists that have reviewed over 60 peer review research articles and 50 papers conclude that the following is known about the brain and creativity.

Creativity is not especially associated with the right hemisphere of the brain. Both hemispheres of the brain are active in creative pursuits.

Defocused attention is not better suited to creativity than focused attention.

Dopamine acts as a reward system for creative behavior.

Our brains possess a plasticity that is highly receptive to new pathways of learning and problem-solving.

The entire brain is active when a creative task is being accomplished.


1. Wandering Minds:
Christoff, K., Irving, Z.C., Fox, K.C.R., Spreng, R.N., & Andrews-Hanna, J.R. (2016). “Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: A dynamic framework.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17, 718-731. 

2. Sleep-Inspired Insight:
Ji, D., & Wilson, M. A. (2007). “Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 100-107.

Ullrich Wagner (2004), “Sleep inspires insight.” Nature, 427, 352-354.

3. Define, Design, Defend:
Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton M. Christensen. The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Boston: Harvard Press. 2011. 

4. Play and Creativity:
Sawyer, K. Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. NY: Oxford University Press. 2006.

Whitehead, M. Developing Language and Literacy with Children; Educational Publishing, California, 2007.

5. Visual Arts Develop Creativity:
Miller, A. Insights of Genius. Boston: MIT Press 1996. 

Zaidel, D.W. (2009). “Brain and art: Neuro-clues from the intersection of the disciplines.” Neuroaesthetics, 153-170.

6. Problem-Finding:
Ellwood S., Pallier G., Snyder A., Gallate J. (2009). “The incubation effect: hatching a solution?” Creativity Research Journal, 21, 6–14. 

7. Popcorn and Creativity:
Baumeister, R.F. et al. (2007). “Is the conscious self a help, a hindrance, or an irrelevance to the creative process?” Advances in Psychology Research 53, 137-152. 

8. The Habit of Creativity:
Lally, Philippa, Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., and Wardle, J. (2007) “How are habits formed.” European Journal of Social Psychology 40, 998-1009. 

9. Looking in a Mirror:
Canessa, Nicola, Moterlini, M., Di Dio, C., Perani, D. Scifo, P. (2009). “Understanding other’s regret : A FMRI study.”  PLoS One 4, 7402. 

Siegel, D. Mind : Journey to the Heart of Being Human. London: Norton Press. 2017. 

10. The Whole Mind:
A. Dietrich, R. Kanso (2009), “A review of EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies of creativity and insight.” Psychological Bulletin 136, 822-848.

Dietrich A. (2004), “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity.” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 11, 1011-1026. 

Jung, Rex and Haier, R., Creativity and Intelligence. Boston: MIT Press, 2013.