Inspiration is fickle and difficult. We all strive for those bright "Aha!" moments, whether we work in a creative or logical field. While it's not a process you can control entirely, there are ways to enable and encourage your brain to have more of those epiphanies when you understand how they work.
How Neuroplasticity, Brain Waves and Sleep Affect Inspiration
We've talked before about how creativity works, and we established that some of the best times for being creative and finding your muse aren't actually when you're at your best. They're when you're relaxed, groggy or perhaps even a little drunk. The primary reason for this is due to a concept called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity basically means that your brain can continue to form new connections and neural pathways even into adulthood (which, prior to around the 1970s, was not thought possible). When you make a new connection between two ideas, it's not just a metaphor. Your brain is literally restructuring itself to accommodate new processes. Because our memory is associative (meaning we sort and connect pieces of information based on their relationship with each other), the more "plastic" your brain is, the more you're able to form creative or inspirational thoughts.
This process of carving out new pathways in the brain isn't happening at peak efficiency all the time though. When we're focused, alert and attentive, our brains exhibit high levels of beta brain waves. This is great for powering through tasks we've already learned and getting things done. As you move closer to sleep, you move through slower and slower brain waves. Your brain exhibits alpha brain waves as you get relaxed, and theta brain waves just before you start to drift off to sleep. The slowest brain waves, delta, occur during deep sleep, just prior to REM sleep.
Of course, this is a bit overly simplistic — your brain isn't wholly in one state or another at all times, for example — but the basic principle still applies. The more your brain is able to create new connections (or weaken unfavourable ones) — essentially, the more plastic your brain is — the more of those "Aha!" moments you'll be able to generate.
How to Boost Neuroplasticity and Encourage Inspiration
On a general level, you can encourage higher levels of plasticity in your brain. Some of them may even be things you already do on a regular basis (go you!), but if you're not already doing it, boosting brain power is just another great reason to do so:
- Exercise: Some studies have shown that the mere act of exercising can facilitate neuroplasticity in certain brain structures.
- Read: LeVar Burton had it right. Reading can help build new neural connections in your brain and encourage greater plasticity.
- Meditate: As we've discussed before, meditation has a wide array of positive effects including decreasing anxiety, increasing creativity and compassion, and improving memory.
- Play video games: Yes, I'm giving you an excuse to play video games. As some researchers have pointed out, playing certain video games can actually lead to an increase in grey matter. This is just one of the many benefits of video games we've noted.
The list of ways to increase the neuroplasticity of your brain can go on and on, but they all have a similar theme: do things with your brain that exercise it. Your brain isn't going to carve out new pathways when it isn't being challenged to do so. It's tough work, and your brain can get tired just like any other muscle, but if you want to increase your overall chances of putting two and two together to make magic, this is how to do it.
Of course, this is all long-term stuff. It doesn't really help you if you need inspiration now, does it?
How to Set Yourself Up for Inspiration When You Need It
You've got a project going on, you know you need to come up with some brilliant ideas, and you have to make it happen. You can't just wait around for something brilliant to appear out of thin air. So, what do you do? Well, there are a few basic steps you can follow to prime yourself:
Get Input First
A blank slate is the most difficult place to come up with a great idea. It's directionless, aimless and frustrating. If you have a specific goal that you need to accomplish, ask questions and get as much information as you can before you mull it over. If you have to create something out of the ether, embrace your bad ideas. Explore everything. You don't have to come up with a genius thought right off the bat. You just need something to put into your brain. This gives you something to process when you get to those alpha and theta states.
Know Your Idea Pools
If you're doing some creative work, it helps to look at similar work before you get started. As an example, before I fire up Photoshop to do some messing around, I like to check out Art of the Title, which showcases and discusses motion picture title sequences. Maybe you have a favourite playlist. Whatever work it is that you do, there's never a reason to lack inspiration.
Make it as Easy as Possible to Document Ideas
When inspiration finally does strike, you don't want to have to muck about with a pen with no ink or clumsy software. Everyone has their own way of documenting their ideas, but when that time comes, the important thing is that you're able to do it as easily as possible. It's particularly important to make sure that you have a way to document ideas when you're in bed. As we stated before, there are no bad ideas, so write down everything. Notes cost nothing, but a missed stroke of brilliance can never be recovered.
Allow Yourself to Be Lazy
An always-on, active lifestyle can lead to an overwhelming sense of guilt when we procrastinate or indulge laziness. This is bad. Not only can forcing yourself to be active and productive be harmful to your creativity, it doesn't even work. Creativity and inspiration come from a place of mulling and rumination, not forceful whip-snapping. Give yourself a period of time every day to stop, reflect on what you've filled your mind with, and indulge your mind-wandering.
Your brain can only come up with so many ideas by itself. Even if you do everything else in this article, you'll never come up with everything on your own. Bouncing your ideas off of other people creates a positive feedback loop of more ideas. You don't even necessarily need to talk with people who understand what you're trying to do. As The Oatmeal suggests, someone may give you an idea that you won't use, but can help you see one you will use more clearly.
Inspiration isn't always the easiest thing to pin down, but like everything else, it gets easier with practice. The good news is that your brain isn't static. Regardless of how well you can come up with brilliant ideas right now, you're not locked out. Exercise your brain, be ready to catch the great ideas, and your brain will take care of the rest.