For outside the box ideas, get inside the car. Why driving makes you more creative

Person driving

Did you know your brain works differently while driving? Here’s why some people get their most creative ideas in the car, and the science behind how it works.

By Shilpa Ganatra

The best ‘Aha!’ moments in life often come at the most surprising times – we might be chopping vegetables when we figure out something for work, or taking a dip in the local pool when we make a breakthrough about a problem in a relationship. It’s no coincidence; when our mind is busy with straightforward tasks, it’s also at its most creative.

That’s why getting behind the wheel can be more than about getting you from A to B – it’s also helps drum up new ideas. In fact, we found that one in five people have used car journeys for thinking. And of those who have travelled less in the pandemic, one in four missed the thinking opportunity that the car offers 1.

“I drive 50 miles from work to my home in south Boston. It probably takes me about 20 minutes to get out of the city, and that’s the time I start calming myself,” says Dr Shelley Carson, researcher and lecturer at Harvard University, and author of Your Creative Brain. “As soon as I get on the open road, I’m relaxed, and that’s when ideas really start to percolate and make their way through the filters.”

Having studied the link between psychology, creativity and neuroscience for 20 years, Dr Carson particularly understands why. 

Here’s the science bit

The change in mindset is all to do with the interplay between the central executive function of the brain – the conscious bit that focuses us on what we’re doing and filters out irrelevant thoughts – and a part of the subconscious known as the default mode network. “That’s the part that’s associated with mind-wandering, and it’s sometimes called the imagination network,” she explains.

“When you’re driving down a clear road for a long period of time, you go to an automatic state that turns down the volume on the central executive network. That frees up a lot of your information processing space to just let your mind wander. Ideas that ordinarily would be filtered out collide together and reach what I call the cognitive workspace, or conscious awareness.”

Allegra Salvoni, a therapeutic coach and psychotherapeutic counsellor, adds that while we can consider it a ‘creative’ state of mind, it’s broader than creativity, and has more to do with forming new ideas. “It’s in that state that we’ll create connections to things for the first time, or we might problem-solve. We might put two and two together, do some lateral thinking about work things.”

A free ride, for your brain

It’s not easy to slip into this state with the distractions of everyday life taking up room in our brain, from first thing in the morning when we thumb our phones to last thing at night when we pull on our pyjamas. Yet it’s almost guaranteed in when we’re out on a road trip.

Dr Carson explains that the troubles of daily life – whether trivial or weighty – don’t seem as important once we step into a car¬. “By turning down the volume on the central executive network, you’re not consciously processing anything that is upsetting you currently. You’re just letting your mind wander so ideas float up and collide with each other in your mind, and you’re not forcing them,” she says.

If you’re a confident driver, it’s safe enough to let the mind wander like because we snap back in when we need to, as part of us is always aware of our surroundings. “However, an activity like looking at a phone is a problem because you’re not scanning the environment for danger. But no, you don’t need all of your central executive function to drive on easy or familiar roads,” says Salvoni.

Harness your creativity

When faced with a headscratcher, it could be the right time to hop in the car and run errands somewhere different.

“The changes of scenery provide new external stimuli in the cognitive workspace at the same time as your internal stimuli, which is beneficial to creativity… as long as the scenery doesn’t take your focus,” says Dr Carson.

So motorways and quiet roads without traffic lights are ideal for getting those creative juices flowing, even if it’s for just 10 minutes in a relaxed state.

What definitely helps is holding all the information you need in your brain before you reach for the keys. “You want to prime what I call your inner repository of your brain with all the information that you might need,” says Dr Carson. “Say you’re writing a book and you’re blocked. Go over as much about your problem as you can, then take a break from it for a while before you go on your ride.

Your brain will start automatically putting things together in what I call the research and development parts of your brain. Then you’re just waiting for the opportunity to bring that into consciousness, which is what the drive is going to provide for you.”

Another tip is to make sure you jot down your ideas there and then, because the central executive function is also where memories form, and with its volume turned down, it could be harder to remember.

“When these wonderful ideas come to you when you’re driving, you think, ‘wow, there’s no way I’m going to forget that’, but it goes out of your mind as quickly as it comes in,” says Dr Carson. “So you want to be able to record it, whether you stop on the side of the road and write it down, or just hit a button on a voice recorder and make a voice note.”

“The final thing you might consider is whether you like music in the background or not. I think having vocals interferes with this. Some people like a little light instrumental music. Personally, I like just the sound of the road,” she adds.

Pack these tips for your next trip, and you may stumble on inspiration where you least expect it – in this writer’s case, the M1.

Embrace the unexpected

Seatbelts on. Mirrors adjusted. We're celebrating the driving moments that move you – before your car even starts.