Knowing Neurons
CognitionConsciousnessLearning and Memory

Have You Ever Thought: “How Did I Think That Thought?”

By Idha Sood

“Creativity is seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought.” -Albert Einstein

Has an idea popped into your head while having your afternoon tea? Have you ever come out of a brainstorming session with successful solutions? Or did the proverbial light bulb ever go off spontaneously after spending hours wracking your brain?
This process of useful innovation is called creativity, and it can either be deliberate (i.e., a solution emerging as a result of logical problem solving) or spontaneous (i.e., conceptualizing a new idea in a relaxed mindset) (Xie et al., 2021).

Creativity can be either deliberate or spontaneous

For any new idea to be born, certain essential ingredients are required. These come under the umbrella of perception, background knowledge, and cognitive abilities. This last element comprises of a plethora of mental functions which humans use to go about the business of daily activities — ranging from the mundane to the profound. Out of these cognitive abilities, the ones specifically tasked for the purpose of idea generation include working memory, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility, and judgment of propriety. Various neuroanatomical structures come together to perform each of these functions, and the optimal application of each skill gives rise to a novel idea (Dietrich, 2004).

Perception is a continuously ongoing phenomenon wherein the temporal, occipital, and parietal (TOP) neurons of the brain take in information in real time from all around a person’s environment. These neurons make a copy of all this data which can be later retrieved by the prefrontal cortex and applied as needed. TOP neurons, along with neurons in the hippocampus, become a hub of stored background knowledge. This acts as a scaffold for new combinations of the underlying information to occur, and hence new ideas to be generated (Boccia et al., 2015).

For all the Harry Potter fans out there, do you remember Tom Riddle’s Diary in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”? Our working memory is quite similar to that. Information is constantly being written on it, changed, and eventually wiped off, all in real time. Specifically, the mid-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) chooses relevant information and retrieves it from storage, while the mid-dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) applies sustained focus in order to keep the information written on the pages (Nyberg et al., 2003). In other words, the prefrontal cortex has control over not only the subject matter that is selected to enter the working memory buffer — and hence consciousness — but also the amount of time that content is represented on working memory so that attention can be devoted to it. Much like the dimensional constraints of Tom Riddle’s diary, the working memory buffer has limitations to the amount of information that can be written on it and the time before the ink is wiped off. Experiments have shown that humans’ working memory capacity limit is about 4 ± 1 mental notes, with the maximum achievable only if those notes agree to preexisting logic (Cowan, 2001). When mental notes are contradictory, our working memory will support even fewer pieces of information on it. The capacity of the prefrontal cortex to concentrate on the content of working memory buffer is also limited — the brain, much like other parts of the body, can become fatigued (Dietrich, 2004).

Neural circuits can be viewed as a highly integrated wiring system in which communication occurs at a regional, local, and cellular level (Lerner et al., 2016). The strength of these connections is represented in neural loops that run back and forth between TOP neurons and various other brain regions to finally converge in the prefrontal cortex. The functional density of these neural circuits finally dictates how “fruitful” or “productive” the brain can be (Dietrich, 2004). Information is not only exchanged between these structures continuously, but novel “blends” of this information are also being made all the time. The quality of these blends directly depends upon the expertise of TOP neurons as well as adaptability of the prefrontal cortex. The more “knowledgeable” the TOP neurons, the higher quality information is represented in the working memory buffer. Likewise, the more flexible the prefrontal cortex, the higher number of novel data combinations can occur (Dietrich, 2004). Hence, slightly tweaking pre-existing inputs can conjure up novel combinations, a process that we call creativity (Ward, 2007).

The prefrontal cortex acts as the supreme judge and either accepts or rejects an idea based on its appropriateness

However, with such integration also comes chaos. The union of drastically different streams of information can give rise to designs that are not consistent with a person’s pre-existing values and beliefs of the world and, hence, can’t be applied to real life situations. To prevent such havoc, the prefrontal cortex acts as the supreme judge and either accepts or rejects an idea based on its appropriateness (de Souza, 2014).

To summarize, a new thought becomes an insight when it becomes reflected in working memory (i.e., when one becomes conscious of the idea). Then, the prefrontal cortex fetches relevant memories and processes them in an orderly fashion. It applies sustained attention to them to generate new combinations. Lastly, it evaluates the appropriateness of the new idea, and then brings out its final version (de Souza, 2014).

This process describes instances of deliberate creativity, where we are purposely trying to come up with a solution. However, new thoughts can appear even when one isn’t trying to analyze or solve a problem. You might have experienced an unexpected epiphany when you weren’t focusing on anything specific. Sudden ideas pop up all the time, usually while doing mundane tasks like driving, washing dishes, or walking your dog. During these times of blurred concentration, loose associations are made between widely different pieces of information. Or, in other words, blends are made with ingredients that might not always go together, like pineapple on pizza. This is the hallmark difference between deliberate and spontaneous creativity.

During these times of blurred concentration, loose associations are made between widely different pieces of information.

Working memory forms the basis of idea generation in spontaneous mode as well. But, in contrast to deliberate creativity, the topics that get represented on the pages of Tom Riddle’s diary are not carefully selected by the prefrontal cortex. This can be visualized as a small hole in a very intricate sieve, leaking bits of unfiltered information onto the opened page. So, the content from unconsciousness gets written and wiped off continuously in a disorderly way. We become aware of a thought only for it to be immediately replaced by the next. In addition, since sustained attention is not applied, even logically unmatched elements can come together to form bizarre blends. However, in this mayhem, loosely connected combinations can be formed which are useful, appropriate and applicable to real world. These get selected by DLPFC and, hence, creative ideas are born (Marron et al., 2018).

So, by now you might be wondering what served as the inspiration for this article. Although the inspiration to find out where ideas come from was born out of the author’s spontaneous mode, each word written and the parallels drawn are the result of forming connections and associations from the preexisting and ever-growing knowledge bank, using the deliberate mode of creativity. Each one of us has the potential to be truly creative: to continually learn, enhance our database, and reflect it in the finest possible output.



Written by Idha Sood
Illustrated by Kayla Lim
Edited by Chris Gabriel and Lauren Wagner


Become a Patron!


Boccia, M., Piccardi, L., Palermo, L., Nori, R., & Palmiero, M. (2015). Where do bright ideas occur in our brain? Meta-analytic evidence from neuroimaging studies of domain-specific creativity. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1195.

Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. The Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 24(1), 87-114.

de Souza Leonardo C., Guimarães Henrique C., Teixeira Antônio L., Caramelli P., Levy R., Dubois B., Volle E. (2014). Frontal lobe neurology and the creative mind. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1664-1078.

Dietrich, A. (2004). The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11(6), 1011–1026.

Lerner, T. N., Ye, L., & Deisseroth, K. (2016). Communication in Neural Circuits: Tools, Opportunities, and Challenges. Cell, 164(6), 1136–1150.

Marron, T. R., Lerner, Y., Berant, E., Kinreich, S., Shapira-Lichter, I., Hendler, T., & Faust, M. (2018). Chain free association, creativity, and the default mode network. Neuropsychologia, 118(Pt A), 40–58.

Nyberg, L., Persson, J., Cabeza, R., Forkstam, C., Petersson, K. M., & Ingvar, M. (2003). Common prefrontal activations during working memory, episodic memory, and semantic memory. Neuropsychologia 41 (2003) 371—377.

Ward, T. B. (2007). Creative cognition as a window on creativity. Methods (San Diego, Calif.), 42(1), 28–37.

Xie, H., Beaty, R. E., Jahanikia, S., Geniesse, C., Sonalkar, N. S., & Saggar, M. (2021). Spontaneous and deliberate modes of creativity: Multitask eigen-connectivity analysis captures latent cognitive modes during creative thinking. NeuroImage, 243, 118531.