What to do When the Creative Juices Run Dry

Okay, all I need are some new ideas.

Yep.

Here we go… get ready…

4 hours later.

I’m out of ideas.

What do I do now?


Where does creativity come from anyway?

Do you remember the 1990s when everyone was wondering if they were right brained or left brained? The popular theory was that right-brained people were more creative and artistic and left-brained people were more logical and analytical. Yah, that’s not really how creativity works.

Creativity doesn’t happen in any one place but rather in what researchers call “hubs.” These hubs have far more connectivity to other areas of the brain which encourages the quick transfer of information over the vast distances of the brains networks.

When you are first creating, you want to draw those broad imaginative strokes—that’s activating the Default Mode Network. When, however, you need to actually implement and fine tune these ideas, you use Central-Executive Network. It’s not just any one network all the time.

There was this study that examined the minds of freestyle rappers to see how creative thoughts spring up in real time. Improvisation resulted from increased activation of their Default Mode Network and decreased activation in the more cognitive portion of the brain. The networks were in constant communication with one another via the Salience Network.

Creativity feels more difficult to us, which is why some of us just chalk it up to not having the right brain for it. But really, it’s just about letting go.

The other part of the creative pie

Your brain is assailed with a bunch of input every single day. If you were to try and process every bit of information that your brain receives, it would be very difficult to get anything done.

The brain uses a variety of filters to screen out this information and one of them has been found to pertain directly to creativity. It’s called latent inhibition (LI). LI is an automatic brain process that allows you to discount stimuli until a later time. It’s how you ignore seemingly insignificant input (so you can focus) until your brain’s attentional resources free up.

Research indicates that creative individuals, and those who are more open to new experiences, often have low latent inhibition. These people can’t screen out a lot of the stimulus that bombards them each day, but the result of this is that they are able to make connections regarding what they see and experience early on. This allows for more original thought to occur, especially when it is coupled with a high IQ.

To understand creativity in the brain you have to look at the entire brain, it doesn’t just happen in one place.

When you think you can think no more

Sometimes, my brain feels like totally, horribly empty.

When this happens, I just kind of stare at my computer screen expecting genius to strike me only to be immensely disappointed when it doesn’t.

So you want to free up your brain? Want to get those creative juices flowing? Want me to stop with the metaphors…great…great…

Daydream

People spend anywhere between 15-50% of their awake-time daydreaming and that’s a good thing, it’s a vital thing.

“When people came up with new ideas researchers recorded alpha waves over the prefrontal cortex. These eight-to-12-hertz waves are typically a sign of relaxed wakefulness and diffuse attention.”—Evangelia G. Chrysiko

A more relaxed mood— which is associated with alpha waves—is a better way to think of creative solutions. It’s important to note, however, that a little prefrontal cortex goes a long way. Too much involvement from the PFC hinders creative thinking.

Remember the Default Mode Network? Well, scientists believe it is what is responsible for giving you the ability to daydream. Daydreams allow you to move rapidly between past, present, and future. This can help you see patterns or make connections with seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts.

“Albert Einstein imagined himself running alongside a light wave, a fantasy that ultimately led to his theory of special relativity.”—Josie Glausiusz

It’s not enough to just have daydreams, that’s only part of the work. You need to actually pay attention to them. You know how you always tell yourself to remember that really good idea you had only to not remember it at all later? Believe me, you won’t. Getting into the habit of writing down a few words about your daydreams can help you gain more creative insights into your self and the world around you.

Flexible is as flexible does

To be creative, to think creatively, you’ve got to be flexible. You have to give your brain a reason to forge new connections and use existing ones in a novel way.

If you were to look up advice on creativity, you’d see some similar themes which all center on being more flexible:

What does being flexible really mean? Being open, being less afraid. That’s much easier said than done. Your brain spends a good portion of time avoiding and mediating risks to minimize their impact on our lives, but we know it can be done.

Musicians see decreased activation of their prefrontal cortex when they are in the process of creating. The prefrontal cortex is your brains CEO. It helps regulate your decisions, your emotions, it just does a whole helluva lot. The PFC is what gets in the way of you bring creative. It’s NOT as flexible as your Default Mode Network, it’s not meant to be.

That’s why when you really want to be creative you shouldn’t focus on problems, you shouldn’t focus on anything. You have to actively choose to work against what your brain is hardwired to do.


Creativity is a constant challenge and make no mistake we all struggle with it. There’s no singular way to find your next creative inspiration. That’s because there are innumerable ways in which a new idea can spring up.

The creative process is as much about the failures, the nonstarters, the near misses, as it is about what eventually ends up as a success. The real work comes from learning how to love that process, to be flexible with it, and not give up.