The secrets behind the most creative minds of all time

New research shows people like Steve Jobs, Beethoven and Van Gogh have a lot in common when it comes to their creative minds. According to psychologist and co-author of “Wired to Create,” Scott Barry Kaufman, creative people are good at activating and deactivating different brain networks.

Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing health editor of, sat down with Kaufman to discuss how the mental habits of great artists and innovators can teach you how to be more creative.

“We did some research looking at inside the brains of creative people as they’re trying to come up with really imaginative things, and what you find is, they’re really good at switching back and forth between two major brain networks,” Kaufman told “One is this more internally driven, daydreaming network-- [the] imagination network, and [the other] a more outward network, where they’re more mindful and focusing on outside world.”

Many major creative achievements have been born out of traumatic events or hardships. The idea of a "tortured artist" even stems back to some of Beethoven’s darkest masterpieces like Moonlight Sonata. But suffering is not imperative for creativity, Kaufman said.

“I think it’s the person that’s creating the magic, and they happen to have hardship and the ability to use that hardship for creative growth,” Kaufman said. “People who are able to take this trauma and turn it into some kind of advantage, especially a creative advantage, are those that take it and put it into their work, they put it into their art.”

The idea of growth after adversity has been studied for years and is scientifically known as posttraumatic growth. Research published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that 70 percent of trauma survivors report some positive psychological growth. Links have also been made by studying the “orphanhood effect,” which shows that highly accomplished people experience high rates of parental loss compared to the general public.

Children are also seen as natural-born creators, but it’s their ability to engage in imaginative play that really keeps their creative juices flowing, Kaufman said.

“Many eminent creators in the arts and sciences engaged in imaginative play as children and maintain that youthful sense of play in their works as adults.”

Take Shigeru Miyamoto, an iconic video game creator. His childhood memories of exploring forests and hidden caves outside his village in Kyoto, Japan is what many say inspired the Super Mario Bros. game.

“For many artists—particularly writers—this crucial ‘tissue of experience’ comes from youth, and the ability to access a deep well of early memories and emotions can facilitate their creative work,” Kaufman explained in the book.

Throughout his book, Kaufman shares a few things highly creative people do differently.

“What the emerging research is showing is that we really need to give people time to get in touch with their inner stream of consciousness, as William James [renowned American philosopher and psychologist] would say. Get in touch with our future strivings, our future images of our self, our unresolved issues-- if we don’t get in touch with that deepest sense of our self, we’re not going to make great meaning out of our experiences and it will hinder our creative imaginative development.”

Scientists have showed that daydreaming—or mind wandering, can offer creative incubation, self-awareness, future-planning, reflection and even compassion. The next time you’re working on a creative project or assignment, Kaufman suggests taking a five-minute daydreaming break every hour or so to see how it affects your ideas and thinking. During the break, do something that will let your mind wander like walking, doodling or cleaning.

“The flow state is so important for creative achievement. Getting totally absorbed in something and solitude is a great way for us to get into that flow state without disruptions.”

But solitude is not just about avoiding distractions, Kaufman said. It’s about giving the mind the time and space it needs to reflect and develop new ideas. Research published in Harvard Business Review found creative people regularly require solitude to generate interesting ideas and then turn to collaboration to turn those ideas into a concept or product.

“It’s not so much about the attention on breathing or mantras, but observations. You can be mindful in your everyday life and allow your mind to wander in a non-judgmental way. Great writers observe everything, what things look like, what things taste like, smell like, etc.”

Aside from living in the moment, optimal creativity likely results from both mindful and mind-wandering states of mind -- and in the ability to change from one mode to the other as needed, Kaufman said.

For more information on Kaufman’s book visit