Psychology of us


There’s an extraordinary new type of brain scan called an fMRI that allows us to witness creative thinking while it’s happening. For the first time, we can see that creative thinking is not a mystical or divine force that shines down on us from the heavens (sorry, Elizabeth Gilbert!).

Rather, creative thinking is our brain networks firing on all cylinders to make new neural connections. Creative thinking is not a left-brain function (as previously thought), it is an all-brain function.



Creativity researcher Scott Barry Kaufman suggests that the entire creative process – preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification – requires interplay between three brain networks. The Imagination Network lights up when we think divergently, explore and engage with new ideas. The Executive Attention Network brings us back down to earth with practicalities and critical thinking. Our Salient Network allows us to toggle between imaginative and critical thinking, and to take in outside information, connect with past memories, and play with meaning making. When creative thinking happens, our brain lights up like a Christmas tree.


To use more common analogies, our Imagination Network enables what Thinking Fast and Slow author, Daniel Kahneman refers to as ‘System 1’ thinking whereas our Executive Attention Network enables ‘System 2’ thinking. Normally System 1 and System 2 work separately. However, creative thinking requires that we switch fluidly between the two systems depending on the task. The better we get at doing this, the more creative we become.

Creative Interplay

System 1: Imaginative Thinking      

Incubation and Illumination

Experiential thinking

Mind wandering

Sensory influences

Emotions and past experiences

Working memory (short-term)

Here-and-now thinking




System 2: Rational thinking

Preparation and Verification

Rational thinking




Episodic memory (long-term)

Evidence-based influences

The Sweet Spot

When experienced rap artists create spontaneously, they access their well-honed improvisation skills, their inner critic shuts off, they feel elation, and they report that the words flow from their lips like magic.


Though flow might seem magical, anyone can access it. In creative work, our creative thinking can become so fluid that we lose our self-consciousness. We’ve hit the sweet spot, work becomes fun, and we access the full extent of our idea-generating, problem-solving awesomeness.


 References and  Contributions

  1.  Adam Grant. Discusses the Art of Managing Fear. The Quiet Leadership Institute blog.
  2.  Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg. (2016). Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.
  3. Daniel Goleman. (2006). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
  4.  Daniel Kahneman. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow.
  5.  Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. (2015). Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.
  6. Scott Barry Kaufman and Jerome L. Singer. (2012). The creativity of dual process “System 1” thinking’. Scientific American blog.
  8. Tom Kelley and David Kelley. (2015). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All.
  9.  J.S. Mueller, S. Melwani, J. Goncalo. (2012). The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire Yet Reject Creative Ideas Psychological Science; 21(1), 13-17.
  10.  Catherine Pittman and Elizabeth Karle. (2015). Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry.

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