The Neuroscience of Creative Flow

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Heather Berlin

What makes us have especially productive sessions — those minutes or hours when you’re so immersed in what you’re doing that everything melts away? What exactly is going on in our brains to make us feel so focused?

These are exactly the questions that drive Dr. Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She studies the neuroscience of imagination, creativity and improvisation.

Kurt Andersen: What is happening in the brain when we’re being creative?

Heather Berlin: There are different types of creativity. We know a little about what’s happening when we’re being spontaneously creative or improvising. What you’re having is basically an increase in the internal generation of ideas. There’s a decrease in a part of your brain that has to do with your inner critic — your filter system — that has to do with making sure that you conform to social norms. So you’re in a state of free flow.

Artists of various kinds talk about creative block. Is that a real thing?

If you can’t get into that flow state, if you let it go you actually can come to a greater understanding because the unconscious can do much more complex processing.

So it’s like the elves doing the shoemaker’s shoes in the middle of the night?

Exactly. Creative people have to take in all the information and then go for a walk. Go out, do something else. Because the people who sit there and just obsess over it too much — using your prefrontal cortex — you’re actually limiting yourself. 

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