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From Where Comes Inspiration?

n one of my college math courses, the professor demanded that students explicitly write down all the steps taken to solve a problem. Sometimes that proved to be difficult for a few of us. Unfortunately the professor was not exactly sympathetic to our plight; if a student simply wrote an unadorned answer on a quiz, the professor would acidly query, “Where did this come from? Divine inspiration?”

Well, maybe it was — who knows where inspiration comes from? And students aren’t the only individuals who occasionally are — or at least appear to be — divinely inspired. In times of need or at some critical moment, sudden knowledge and inspiration have often seemingly come from above. On many occasions it reportedly happens in the form of a dream, as in Jacob’s ladder of Biblical times. Or perhaps it arrives less dramatically, as a feeling or inner voice.

Of course divinity isn’t the only putative source of inspiration, and some people — call them “creative” — seem to have the ability to tap a particularly rich vein, wherever it happens to come from. This includes creative people like scientists. For instance, Loewi performed a crucial physiology experiment after a vivid dream, and Kekule discovered in a dream the correct chemical structure of benzene. And how about writers and their muses? The noted science fiction writer Damon Knight even has a name for his creative energy — he calls it “Fred.”

It’s interesting that inspiration is often attributed to God, or nature, or a spirit. Everything except ourselves. The ancient Greeks certainly felt this way. “Inspiration” was the breath of the gods, and Plato wrote about the “holiness” of poets. Legend has it that Pythagoras, upon discovering his famous theorem, sacrificed a large number of oxen to the gods in gratitude for the revelation.

Maybe it’s modesty that forbids some people from taking credit for brilliant thoughts. Or perhaps it’s something else. Perhaps it just feels like the answer and the creative juices and that sudden terrific idea must have come from somewhere besides our own mind, if only because we can’t explicitly write down all the steps we took to find it. I think most of us have experienced something like that; after trying but failing to solve a problem over a period of time, suddenly the solution hits us. And we have no idea how. My favorite personal example occurred when I was an undergraduate student struggling with a physics problem. Not being good in physics, but needing a good grade, I wrestled with a tough assignment for an entire night, unable to discover the solution. Bleary-eyed, I sat down to breakfast; as I stared at my unappetizing cereal, the answer mysteriously popped into my head. All of physics was revealed to me. Well, not all, of course — but I got an ‘A’ for that assignment! (Unlike Pythagoras, however, I merely offered up a silent “thank you.”)

Does inspiration have to be so mysterious? Perhaps; but for the rest of this article I’ll try to explain why the source of inspiration needn’t be quite so enigmatic. Neuroscience and psychology experiments, along with many observations made outside of the lab, have revealed a fascinating fact: people are totally unaware of a surprisingly large number of things going on inside their head. It isn’t that science can explain all of these things, and particularly, it cannot as yet explain inspiration; no one knows exactly how it strikes, or how it works. But as for the source: surprisingly enough, we probably don’t need to look any further than our own minds.


Sigmund Freud may not have invented the concept of subconsciousness, but he certainly popularized it. (By “subconscious” I’m simply referring to things that have possibly influenced or affected a person, but which are outside the person’s awareness. Some scientists call it “unconscious” or “nonconscious.”) Unfortunately Freud’s ideas, known generally as psychoanalysis, have been criticized as being to cabalistic and subjective — they’ve certainly been the subject of quite a few satires — consequently souring the concept of subconsciousness for a lot of people.

However, subconsciousness shouldn’t be solely wedded to abstract psychological theories. Scientists and philosophers have long recognized that certain elements of thought escape consciousness. The noted 19th century physiologist Hermann Helmholtz wrote about unconscious inference and studied creative problem-solving, which he described as a three stage process: saturation, incubation, illumination. The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce also discussed the role of the subconscious in solving problems, a process he called “abduction.” (A term which evidently never really caught on.)

It turns out that there’s a bunch of stuff going on in your brain that you don’t know about. Later I’ll describe some illustrative lab experiments. But lab work isn’t the only way to show the sub in your consciousness.

One fascinating example is the sensation of hearing. It’s a frighteningly elaborate process. Sound waves are converted to electrical potentials in the inner ear, and the information is sent to various regions in the brainstem, then to other parts of the brain (such as the inferior colliculus, thalamus, cerebral cortex). We’re aware of none of this; we just hear sounds. In fact, even if part of the process is bypassed, as it is in a cochlear prosthesis (which is a device enabling some “profoundly deaf” persons to recover a bit of auditory function), the result is the same: a sound, a noise, is heard.

The brain also filters sensory information, some of which (actually, most of which) never reaches consciousness. There’s no direct channel from our senses to our consciousness. Our attention is limited and focused; we don’t notice many things happening around us, particularly things our brains regard as trivial and uninteresting — things like the steady hum of a refrigerator, or the presence of a wristwatch.

But don’t think that what’s being ignored is not being monitored — maybe it’s not being monitored in consciousness, but it might be somewhere in the brain. An example: there’s a phenomenon well-known to psychologists called the “cocktail party effect.” Have you ever been to a noisy party — surrounded by a number of boisterous conversations, only one of which you’re attending — when suddenly you hear the sound of your name coming from the background murmur? It happens; most people are finely-tuned to recognize their names, whether by sound or by seeing it in a list. But how do you recognize it if your brain wasn’t processing the sensory information? Your brain must have been working on it, although the processing doesn’t quite make it to consciousness. The background was just a murmur until your name made it interesting.

Subconscious processing affects us in many other ways. Have you ever met someone to which you took an instant dislike (or the opposite), and you were unsure why? Numerous experiments have shown that people can be influenced by things like “body language,” even something as subtle as pupil dilation. But when asked to explain their reactions, many people are unable to identify the cause.

And how about the tremendously sophisticated tasks that we perform almost effortlessly and automatically everyday? Driving a car, for example. It takes a lot of skill which has to be learned slowly (and sometimes painfully); I recall that as a beginning driver I was oblivious to everything except the road and the other cars, which captured all of my attention. But after a few years of experience it all seems so trivial. What had once required the exclusive devotion of consciousness now needs very little attention at all.

The same is true for well-trained people in any endeavor. An expert knows his or her subject so well that most of the knowledge comes without special effort. What’s more, in many fields the experts cannot explain how they do what they do so well; they cannot explain, as my mathematics professor demanded, the steps they took to find the solution to a problem. Not too long ago this fact came as a unwelcome surprise to computer scientists working on artificial intelligence devices called “expert systems.” Such systems were supposed to be based on the knowledge of experts, but the scientists were confronted with responses like, “I don’t know how I do it. I just do it.” It probably seemed as if the experts were simply being a bit stingy with their knowledge; however, subsequent research indicates that in at least some cases the experts are using short-cuts and associations that they don’t really — i.e., consciously — know they have. Such knowledge comes from experience; the brain gradually learns, and it’s the brain, it seems, that’s a bit stingy. It’s stingy about what gets into consciousness. Maybe the brain has discovered, over the course of evolution, that it’s a good idea to keep a few secrets.

Lab work

What’s true in the real world should also be true in the lab (or so scientists hope). In this section we’ll discuss two basic types of experiments, both of which conclusively demonstrate that the brain sometimes does it work in relative anonymity and without (conscious) fanfare.

One type of experiment often involves a piece of equipment known as a tachistoscope. As the name suggests — at least it does if you know Greek, since tachistos means “swiftest” — the tachistoscope is a tool for rapidly displaying visual stimuli. It can be made to work so fast that you don’t even have time to consciously perceive what’s been presented. But strangely enough that doesn’t mean you won’t be influenced by what you didn’t see.”

Careful experiments have shown that flashing a visual stimulus for only a few milliseconds can have statistically reliable effects. Although people wouldn’t be able to verbally identify the hippopotamus you just flashed them, they might exhibit, on average, subtle effects of it, such as a preference for selecting a hippopotamus in a subsequent array of stimuli.

Generally, such phenomena are called implicit perception, or sometimes “priming.” (There might be slight distinctions between these terms when used by professional psychologists, but we won’t worry about that here.) Priming can be shown in many ways, it doesn’t necessarily rely on tachistoscopes; it can work with any method that presents data in which the person cannot possibly consciously process. (A long list of numbers, for example, too long to remember them all.) People don’t remember the stimuli but they show the effects of having “seen” them, in measurements like a reduction in reaction time to previously presented stimuli. Of course, you can argue that the people in these experiments may have a “conscious awareness” of the stimulus even if they can’t verbally report it — and some scientists have debated this point. But that argument completely depends on your definition of consciousness; however you wish to consider it, the experiments do show that people can be influenced without really knowing why.

There’s also a related phenomenon I’d like to mention: it’s called subliminal perception. Although it’s a bit of a digression, I just can’t resist.

Back in the 1950s several companies made a startling announcement. They claimed the ability to construct advertising which would subconsciously influence consumers. Consumers didn’t exactly welcome the news, and there was a public outcry against such manipulation. Although I’m a bit too young to remember that episode, I do recall various claims that Satan-worshipping messages were subliminally embedded in rock music lyrics — particularly if they were played backward. (A few psychologists tested this claim; as it turned out, whether the subjects heard offensive messages in the backwards music depended on whether or not they were told the messages were there. Personally, I didn’t worry about it; I never played my music backwards.) And I’m sure many people have heard stories about subliminal images of popular soft drinks or popcorn stealthily being inserted into movies, in the hopes of inducing a little extra profit at the snack bar.

Needless to say, people may welcome inspiration from the gods but not from corporations. Should we worry about it? Does such manipulation work? If you’ve followed the essay up to now, you might think there’s a chance it could. Indeed, some experiments do suggest that these methods can have some small effect. However, other experiments suggest otherwise. Let me add my own opinion here: any effect of subliminal stimuli is overwhelmingly likely to be subtle. It won’t induce thirst when none is present, it won’t change a person’s beliefs or lifestyle, and it’s not going turn an unwilling young person into a feverish Satanite.

On to the second type of experiment I wish to discuss. These more recent experiments involve the latest, and some would say greatest, instrumentation breakthrough in neuroscience: neuroimaging, the ability to watch the human brain in action. Most of these imaging techniques were initially developed for more mundane tasks of locating tumors and similar medical jobs; but with further refinement they are now commonly used for basic research.

Neuroimaging doesn’t actually measure the electrical activity of the brain (which is pretty much universally believed to be what generates thoughts and cognition). Instead it monitors various metabolic processes — oxygenation of the blood or glucose flow — but these processes are correlated with the electrical activity of the brain. The output of neuroimaging devices is basically a map of the brain regions that have been more hungry than others, which is a sign that they’ve been more active.

It turns out that a lot of regions are active, even when a person is doing something as simple as reading. Which areas are active depends on what the person is doing, and more interestingly, what they were thinking about. The “pseudocolored” images clearly indicate that the brain is a busy place. But the subjects of these experiments remain unaware of all this; they couldn’t possibly draw a map of the activity (without peeking at the neuroimage itself). Somehow a portion of this activity makes it into conscious awareness, and is subjectively experienced as “thought”; the rest of it remains simmering beneath the surface.

Scientists have studied plenty of other phenomena that indicate a disconnection between awareness and information processing in the brain. I’ll mention some of them briefly to finish up this section. One phenomenon is sort of the opposite of implicit perception: the false memory syndrome, where people recall things that simply never happened. (Often a person can be subtly led to “remember” certain things by various means, such as suggestively phrasing the questions.) There are also a number of interesting, and unfortunate, clinical cases, where brain damage creates a highly unnatural situation. “Blindsight” is one such; patients with extensive damage to a particular area in the cerebral cortex are (consciously) blind, yet can exhibit obvious reactions to some visual stimuli. Perhaps better known are the effects of the so-called split-brain operation, done on epileptic patients to relieve otherwise intractable seizures; when the main connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain is severed, it’s been reported that occasionally a person can be of “two minds.” Literally.

But what is inspiration?

This article certainly describes a lot of evidence that the brain can work in mysterious — and subconscious — ways. Unfortunately that doesn’t prove it’s the source of the strange phenomenon of sudden and seemingly miraculous inspiration; but then again, it’s hard, at least for me, to deny that the brain is by far the best candidate.

Of course none of this explains the process. How is it possible that a person can have these sudden insights when he or she can’t even describe the events leading up to it? And how is it that a mere mortal can ever come up with anything really novel, when so much of what we humans do is squarely based on past experience?

Alas, no one knows. Scientists are working on it. Which is a bit refreshing, since psychologists in an earlier era — here I’m thinking of the old behaviorist school of thought — avoided the entire subject. In fact many behaviorists regarded the whole process with suspicion; perhaps, they hypothesized, nothing was really new, and anything that looked new was merely a rearrangement of what was already old and known. Sentences, for instance; they may be original but aren’t they simply arrangements of familiar words? By avoiding tough subjects like inspiration and creativity behaviorists were able to concentrate on more basic observations and theories; but somehow this sort of strict empiricism was not entirely satisfying to many of their students.

Is there any chance inspiration can be explained soon? Here’s my opinion: No. I’m usually not such a pessimist. But I have a feeling. I think that creativity and inspiration may well be like the infamous wave function in quantum physics: when you try to analyze it the whole thing collapses. Something similar, by the way, seems to be true of humor — another concoction of the human brain.

[Kyle Kirkland earned his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, and currently divides his time between research and writing. Forthcoming publications include articles in the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic Magazine.]