The Science of Inspiration: What Happens When Ideas Click

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you ever have sudden bursts of inspiration that lead you to a solution to a problem? What’s going on in your brain when that happens?

Sometimes, ideas result from slow hunches that develop over time. Other times, they come quickly in an epiphany. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson explores the fascinating science of inspiration.

Keep reading to discover how some good ideas just pop into your head.

The Science of Inspiration

Sometimes ideas can click suddenly into place as a result of inspiration or insight, writes Johnson. Rather than coming together purely from steady, incremental development, an idea that you’re mulling over can be spontaneously completed by an epiphany.

(Shortform note: The feeling of having an idea click into place from an epiphany can be extremely satisfying and often causes people to feel grateful for the insight. Experts recommend practicing introspection and opening your mind up to personal change in order to prompt more epiphanies.)

In his discussion of the science of inspiration, Johnson explains how the brain goes through periods of neural synchronization—called neural phase locking—that alternate with periods of chaos. During neural phase lock, the brain’s neural networks are firing simultaneously at the same frequency. In contrast, there are other periods where all the neurons are firing completely out of sync with each other. During these periods of chaos, scientists believe the brain is making links and associations that it wouldn’t normally make, resulting in new ideas and connections. Research into neural phase locking in children showed that individuals varied in the amount of time their brains spent in each phase and that longer periods in the chaotic phase correlated with higher IQs.

(Shortform note: Phase-locking and its effects on the brain are not fully understood, but research suggests that it facilitates greater communication between brain areas, which can make it easier to “train” your brain. While the chaotic states outside of neural phase-locking are greatly conducive to creativity, phase-locking may enable you to focus and learn more easily. Some scientists are working to create music that can induce a state of neural phase-locking, which they believe will help people focus and may one day replace the medication for conditions such as ADHD.) 

The brain also makes new links and connections when dreaming or daydreaming. Dream states are also states of neural chaos, where the brain triggers memories and thoughts at random that cause us to dream—and sometimes result in moments of brilliance. Johnson explains, for example, that German scientist August Kekulé had a sudden insight during a daydream that enabled him to understand the structure of the benzene molecule. 

(Shortform note: Research suggests that dreaming and daydreaming facilitate creative thinking by activating the brain’s default network. This is a group of neural structures that activate when you’re resting or doing a passive activity. However, while there is substantial evidence to suggest that the activation of this network produces a creative state, a causal link has not yet been proven, and there is scientific debate about what parts of the brain constitute the default network and what causes them to activate. Additionally, some historians believe that Kekulé didn’t discover this insight while daydreaming but rather stole the idea from two other scientists who were studying the concept.)

The Science of Inspiration: What Happens When Ideas Click

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Here's what you'll find in our full Where Good Ideas Come From summary:

  • How the world's best inventions grow from minor inklings
  • How capitalism negatively impacts innovation
  • Why making mistakes is essential to great innovations

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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