The Imaginative Powers of a Brain on Autopilot

Photo: Don Bayley/Getty Images/iStockphoto

You’re in the shower, or you’re brushing your teeth, or you’re blow-drying your hair. Suddenly, brilliance strikes: You come up with the perfect idea to present to your boss at a meeting later that morning.

It’s not your morning routine that’s responsible for your creative brilliance, but something called the default mode network, a constellation of different areas in your brain that work together and increase in activity when your mind wanders. Your brain works just as hard when you’re relaxed as it does when you’re focused on a task.

Neuroscientists Marcus Raichle, Brenda Milner, and John O’Keefe discovered this in 2014. “We discovered the default mode network when we asked participants in a study to perform tasks that were so demanding that they had to be absorbed in what they were doing,” Raichle has said. After subjects completed those tasks, the researchers noticed that “the brain seemed to revert back to a default activity level, which is there in the absence of a specific, ongoing, external task.”

It’s what the rest of us might call autopilot. When your brain isn’t focused on a task, it switches to default mode: You wash your hair and shave your legs almost instinctively because you’ve done it so many times before. Your brain doesn’t need to focus on it. But Raichle and his colleagues found that there are parts of our brain that are even more active when we’re on “autopilot.” While you’re relaxed, going through the motions, and your mind wanders, the default mode network begins to do its thing, becoming the most active area of your brain.

By contrast, our brain’s attention network allows us to focus on what’s currently going on around us, which is great for tasks like grocery shopping or putting together an Ikea chair. The default mode network sort of does the opposite: It’s focused inward and involves our episodic memory, specific time-and-place experiences that might seem insignificant and random but are nonetheless part of what we remember, whether it’s a conversation with a co-worker or the casserole we had for dinner. Some scientists call it the imagination network, the regions of the brain that make it “possible to relate to ourselves and our memories and previous experiences, i.e., the past and future,” Raichle said in an interview.

Research, like this 2014 study published in the journal Neuropsychologia, has found a relationship between the default mode network and creativity. “The ability to generate creative ideas is characterized by increased functional connectivity between the inferior prefrontal cortex and the default network,” the researchers write, “pointing to a greater cooperation between brain regions associated with cognitive control and low-level imaginative processes.”

But creativity is complicated, involving different areas of the brain working together and also working separately. Your brain’s salience network helps you switch between your attention network and your default mode network, making it a crucial part of the creative process. As Scientific American reports, “When you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the Executive Attention Network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks.”

In other words, you must let your mind wander, but not too far. A repetitive routine  — showering, chopping vegetables, running  —  offers the perfect environment for the default mode network. In order for your creativity to be functional, however (when you actually realize your great idea for that work meeting), your brain will switch back to the attention network. That way, you can figure out how those meandering thoughts actually fit into the outside world.

The Imaginative Powers of a Brain on Autopilot