5 Minute Inspiration Map

The idea that we are visited by the muse as something external to us, that fate or chance decides to bless us with an idea, a revelation, is plain silly. Maybe the part that rankles is the idea that inspiration – the source of life’s great ideas – is somehow divorced or separate from hard, plodding, meticulous work. These are likely personal phobias and biases coming to the surface and I am determined, in the harsh light of self reflection, to interrogate them to the fullest. What then is inspiration? What are we talking about when we invoke or cite it? And, if it does indeed exist, can we harness it? My five-minute map of inspiration follows:

In Western civilization at least, inspiration has a long history. This history is almost entirely theological and mythical in nature. For most of our history, humans have seen fit to locate the source of inspiration in the Gods – for the Greeks it was The Muses and Dionysus, for the Scandinavians it was Odin, for Christians it is the Holy Spirit and in Judaism it is simply God – as far from the mundane and corporeal as possible. The irony of this distancing of what is perhaps one of the purest of human moments – residing somewhere in the interstitial areas between instinct, observation, devotion and focus – is not lost on me, but the idea has traction nonetheless.

The appeal of inspiration, the enduring and seeming universality of it, its “thingness” as a famous anthropologist once said, as something which descends upon us seemingly out of the blue, is simply the feeling that it is true. We have all ‘been inspired’ at various times in our lives, and had the feeling that inspiration comes from outside of us.

Like a resource that is harnessed and exploited, we as a culture have not been content to let inspiration visit us on its own schedule. It says something – something not so positive – about the desire for inspiration that we have begun to train a scientific lens on it in order to understand it. Funnily enough, the desire to capture the source and pathways of inspiration has made a cultural U-turn in the blossoming field of inspiration studies. From the mysterious, artistic or intellectual ‘ahas’, inspiration has been turned inward, and radically so. By using MRI’s, and measuring things like brain waves and blood pressure, neuroscientists have made their own case for inspiration as something that is locked into the physiological circuitry of our bodies and brains.

The science of inspiration focuses on the brain of course. Many people believe that inspiration can be located in two separate yet simultaneous processes that are key to brain function: automaticity and plasticity. For a change these two scientific terms actually mean something very close to what you would assume they mean. Automaticity refers to the ways in which skills and tasks are onboarded by the brain. After a period of time performing a task the brain needs to devote fewer resources and brain function to the point where it is rendered somewhat automatic. Brain plasticity – a term that seems to be on everybody’s radar these days – refers to the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways where none existed before.

At first glance automaticity seems to get the short end of the stick in the discussion around inspiration. Plasticity would seem to be the place of the new, the biological equivalent of the muse, if there ever was one. But, like most things, it’s not so simple. In terms of the physiology of inspiration plasticity and automaticity are as entwined as DNA. Automaticity seems to play a bigger role in the equation than we might think. Thinking about it in artistic terms helped me to understand it better. Automaticity is what helps a piano player to play a difficult piece without having to think about each keystroke, something that would be impossible. Similarly, automaticity is what allows a writer to string words together into cogent sentences. The point is that, while both of these processes are ongoing all the time in different scales and degrees of intensity, without the base of automaticity, plasticity would not be able to function as it does.

As tidy as this scientific narrative is, it leaves something to be desired. Is inspiration simply a function of two different kids of neurons firing in specific sequence? Moreover, is inspiration simply something that happens inside us? Were the ancient Greeks so wrong to see inspiration as something that descends, enters or inhabits us from somewhere, someplace else?

A clue: In searching for the scientific bases of inspiration I stumbled across an online dictionary of biology. In it, inspiration is defined in a way that stops me in my tracks. It reads: the act of drawing air into the lungs; to breathe. What, you might ask, does breathing have to do with inspiration? Fair question. The answer is both simple and complex. The problem with the classical and scientific understandings of inspiration are that they operate in isolation of one another. One posits inspiration as something that happens outside of us that we mysteriously access and the other places its focus on the other end of the spectrum: the internal working of the physical body.

Breathing is both an act and a metaphor that unites the external and the internal. It elegantly points to something fundamental about inspiration – that the magic of inspiration is at once a matter of being in the world, soaking it up, observing and experiencing its richness and contradiction and mixing and stirring all of that perception in the cocktail shakers of our brain. While inspiration appears or feels like a shot out of the blue, I suspect inspirations are a part of a more elongated process drawn from the complex feedback loop that connects and reconnects our bodies to the world around us.

This article appears in MISC Fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue 

the author

Dr. Marc Lafleur

Dr. Marc Lafleur is VP, medical anthropology at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.