Dopamine & Distraction: Where on earth does creativity come from?

Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí with his pet ocelot, Babou. Roger Higgins, World Telegram Library of Congress

This article was published in the July 2015 issue of Nashville Arts Magazine

by Rachael McCampbell

Have you ever driven only an hour from home and taken a mini-vacation for the day? The weather, architecture, flora, and fauna are almost identical to your hometown, yet because you’ve been transported from your ordinary life to somewhere new, you see these surroundings with different eyes. You take pictures at every corner; the people intrigue you; even the coffee tastes better! You feel happier and more creative. Suddenly you want to paint and write a novel. Is it the town? Before you sell your home and relocate, consider that you may simply have created the ideal situation to boost your creativity.

The science behind creativity is big business. As corporations understand the importance of a good imagination in the workplace, fostering creative environments is on the rise—think Google and their fun-centric workplace. Businesses now encourage employees to take walks during the day and mini-naps. Alice Flaherty, a renowned neuroscientist, says that two things are crucial to creative flow: dopamine and distraction. Relaxing events increase dopamine flow, but our brains also need to be distracted. An incubation period for our brain allows our subconscious mind to surface and give us the creative solutions to problems we were trying so hard to solve on our own. Traveling to that new spot near home was the magic bullet because you were happily relaxed (dopamine) and distracted from conscious thoughts and routines, which allowed your subconscious, creative mind to come out and play.

Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí with his pet ocelot, Babou. Roger Higgins, World Telegram Library of Congress

This explains why we have so many of our best ideas when we are in the shower, about to sleep, washing dishes, walking, or driving. Salvador Dalí understood this and used it to help his work. He would hold a heavy key in his hand above a ceramic plate so that when he started to nap and was in that zone on the edge of conscious thought, hypnagogia, he would drop the key and wake to find himself invigorated and full of new ideas.

Being creative can be more of a conscious, daily endeavor as well—a lifestyle, if you will. You don’t have to leave on a mini-vacation to achieve this. Being curious helps. Look closely at things in your life that you normally take for granted. The dishes piled in the sink could be a great composition for a painting. A cracked wall, or the striped-shadow pattern on the ground of a picket fence, is creative fodder. What about your friend’s off-the-wall comment that would make a fabulous title for a poem or a song? Keep a notebook and camera/video recorder ready to capture anything that piques your interest. There’s even a product called AquaNotes to write down your brilliant ideas when you are in the shower. Remember the plastic bag floating around in the film American Beauty? It’s often the most ordinary that becomes the most extraordinary when we really look.


Rachael McCampbell


  1. Taco Bell on July 26, 2015 at 7:58 PM

    fantastic piece Rach. I could be walking on the hilly trails in Santiago Chile or back streets of China and I always find something new to see and experience. Life is not meant to be spent with your nose in a phone looking at Facebook.
    Semper Fi

  2. Stephen on July 28, 2015 at 10:33 PM

    What an insightful piece, Rachael. Anyone with imagination has wrestled with “How do I make it produce?” Too often, great creativity is packaged simply as “serendipity”, which, of course, it is not. Thank you for diving into this fundamental dynamic of what makes the richness of life.

  3. Peter Frank on July 29, 2015 at 1:39 AM

    Hey Rachael,
    Been liking your columns, more and more, but this was an especially good one — straightforward, well-written, and full of nifty and useful info. And topping it off, Boubou!