HYPOTHESIS AND THEORY ARTICLE
published: 25 June 2014
The scientiﬁc study of inspiration in the creative process:
challenges and opportunities
Victoria C. Oleynick ,Todd M. Thrash*, Michael C. LeFew ,Emil G. Moldovan and Paul D. Kieffaber
Department of Psychology, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA
Matthijs Baas, University of
Matthijs Baas, University of
Marieke Roskes, Ben Gurion
University of the Negev, Israel
Todd M. Thrash, Department of
Psychology, College of William and
Mary, P.O. Box 8795, Williamsburg,
VA 23187-8795, USA
Inspiration is a motivational state that compels individuals to bring ideas into fruition.
Creators have long argued that inspiration is important to the creative process, but until
recently, scientists have not investigated this claim. In this article, we review challenges
to the study of creative inspiration, as well as solutions to these challenges afforded
by theoretical and empirical work on inspiration over the past decade. First, we discuss
the problem of deﬁnitional ambiguity, which has been addressed through an integrative
process of construct conceptualization. Second, we discuss the challenge of how to
operationalize inspiration. This challenge has been overcome by the development and
validation of the Inspiration Scale (IS), which may be used to assess trait or state
inspiration. Third, we address ambiguity regarding how inspiration differs from related
concepts (creativity, insight, positive affect) by discussing discriminant validity. Next, we
discuss the preconception that inspiration is less important than “perspiration” (effort),
and we review empirical evidence that inspiration and effort both play important—
but different—roles in the creative process. Finally, with many challenges overcome,
we argue that the foundation is now set for a new generation of research focused
on neural underpinnings. We discuss potential challenges to and opportunities for the
neuroscientiﬁc study of inspiration. A better understanding of the biological basis of
inspiration will illuminate the process through which creative ideas “ﬁre the soul,” such that
individuals are compelled to transform ideas into products and solutions that may beneﬁt
Keywords: inspiration, creativity, insight, effort, approach motivation
Describing his creative process, Mozart observed, “Those ideas
that please me I retain in memory, and am accustomed, as I have
been told, to hum them to myself. If I continue in this way,”
he writes, “it soon occurs to me how I may turn this or that
morsel to account so as to make a good dish of it. . . All this
ﬁres my soul” (Harding, 1948). Mozart’s depiction of inspira-
tion possesses all of the core elements of the modern scientiﬁc
inspiration construct—appreciation of new or better possibili-
ties (“ideas that please me”), passive evocation (“it. . .occurs to
me”), and motivation to bring the new possibilities into fruition
(turning a morsel into a dish; “ﬁres my soul”). Like Mozart,
writers, artists, and other creators commonly emphasize the
importance of inspiration in the creative process (Harding, 1948).
Despite this, until recently, scientists have given little attention to
Perhaps it is not surprising that inspiration has received little
attention within the scientiﬁc community, given the numerous
challenges that the inspiration concept has presented. Among
these challenges have been (a) a lack of clarity about the meaning
of inspiration; (b) difﬁculty of operationalization; (c) ambiguity
about whether inspiration is distinct from related constructs;
(d) preconceptions that inspiration is unimportant relative to
“perspiration,” and (e) a variety of barriers to neuroscientiﬁc
investigation. The overarching goal of this article is to address
each of these challenges and to point to opportunities for expand-
ing upon the emerging scientiﬁc literature on inspiration. We
address the ﬁrst challenge, ambiguity of deﬁnition, in the next
The term “inspiration” has been used in a variety disciplines (e.g.,
literary criticism, theology, psychology) and literatures within
psychology (e.g., social comparison, humanism, creative process;
for a review, see Thrash and Elliot, 2003). Often the term is
not deﬁned, is used interchangeably with other constructs, or
is referenced only to be critiqued as mythical, unimportant, or
unscientiﬁc. Further complicating matters, inspiration histori-
cally has been studied in a domain-speciﬁc manner, with little
communication between researchers across domains. Recogniz-
ing the need for a uniﬁed, integrated deﬁnition of the inspiration
construct, Thrash and Elliot (2003, 2004) undertook the task of
developing a domain-general conceptualization that drew upon
the core commonalities across diverse literatures. These efforts
have yielded three complementary frameworks for conceptual-
izing inspiration that focus on different aspects of construct
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Oleynick et al. Inspiration and creativity
deﬁnition: core characteristics, component processes, and the
transmission model. In this section, we review these domain-
general conceptualizations and then show how they may be
applied speciﬁcally to the case of inspiration to create.
The tripartite conceptualization (Thrash and Elliot, 2003) speciﬁes
the three core characteristics of the state of inspiration: evocation,
transcendence, and approach motivation. Evocation refers to the
fact that inspiration is evoked rather than initiated volitionally
by the individual. In other words, one does not feel directly
responsible for becoming inspired; rather, a stimulus object, such
as a person, an idea, or a work of art, evokes and sustains the
inspiration episode. During an episode of inspiration, the indi-
vidual gains awareness of new possibilities that transcend ordinary
or mundane concerns. The new awareness is vivid and concrete,
and it surpasses the ordinary constraints of willfully generated
ideas. Once inspired, the individual experiences a compelling
approach motivation to transmit, actualize, or express the new
vision. This set of three characteristics is intended to be mini-
mally sufﬁcient to distinguish the state of inspiration from other
Inspiration may be conceptualized not only in terms of the
characteristics of the inspired state, but also in terms of the
temporally and functionally distinct processes that compose an
episode of inspiration. Thrash and Elliot (2004) argued that
inspiration involves two distinct processes—a relatively passive
process that they called being inspired by, and a relatively active
process that they called being inspired to. The process of being
inspired by involves appreciation of the perceived intrinsic value
of a stimulus object, whereas the process of being inspired to
involves motivation to actualize or extend the valued qualities to a
new object. For example, one might be inspired by a breathtaking
sunrise, or by the elegance of a new idea that arrives during an
insight or “aha” moment. Thereafter one might be inspired to
paint or undertake a new research project. The individual can, at
any time, look to (or recall) the evoking stimulus for motivational
sustenance. Thrash and Elliot (2004) further proposed that the
process of being inspired by gives rise to the core character-
istics of evocation and transcendence, whereas the process of
being inspired to gives rise to the core characteristic of approach
These component processes are posited to be present across
diverse manifestations of inspiration. Thrash and Elliot (2004)
asked participants to produce narratives recalling either a time
when they were inspired or a baseline experience (control condi-
tion). The inspiration narratives spanned topics such as becoming
animated by a scientiﬁc or artistic insight, discovering one’s
calling, being inﬂuenced by a role model to succeed or live
virtuously, and realizing that greatness is possible in response to
an unexpected success. Despite superﬁcial differences in narrative
content, the inspiration narratives shared the underlying themes
of having one’s eyes opened during an encounter with a person,
object, event, or idea (i.e., being inspired “by”), and wishing to
express or actualize one’s new vision (i.e., being inspired “to”).
From a less descriptive and more theoretical standpoint, inspira-
tion may be conceptualized in terms of its purpose or function
(Thrash and Elliot, 2004; Thrash et al., 2010b). Whereas simpler
forms of approach motivation serve the function of movement
toward and attainment of desired goal objects (e.g., food or
afﬁliation), inspiration is posited to serve a unique approach
function: it motivates the transmission or expression of the newly
appreciated qualities of the evoking object (Thrash and Elliot,
2004; Thrash et al., 2010b). Inspiration thus serves the role of a
mediator in a statistical sense. For instance, certain virtues that
one observes in another person may lead to inspiration, which,
in turn, leads the inspired individual to pursue these same virtues
in a future self. Similarly, a creative seminal idea may inspire the
individual, compelling him or her to bring the idea into fruition
in the form of a creative invention, poem, or other tangible
INSPIRATION TO CREATE
The general inspiration construct as conceptualized above may
be applied straightforwardly to the speciﬁc domain of creative
activity. From the perspective of the tripartite conceptualization,
the general characteristic of transcendence takes the form of
creativity—the new or better possibilities are appreciated speciﬁ-
cally for their creative potential. Regarding the component process
conceptualization, the process of being inspired by is prompted
by the emergence of creative ideas in consciousness, often during
a moment of insight. Under optimal conditions (e.g., if the
idea is actionable, and the person has the capacity for approach
motivation), the process of being inspired by gives way to the
process of being inspired to, which motivates action. Regarding
the transmission model, creative inspiration often takes a speciﬁc
form of transmission called actualization (Thrash et al., 2010b),
in which one is inspired to bring a creative idea into fruition (i.e.,
the desirable features of the elicitor are transmitted from a seminal
idea to a completed product).
We emphasize that, according to our conceptualization, inspi-
ration is not posited to be the source of creative ideas. Instead,
inspiration is a motivational response to creative ideas. Thus
inspiration explains the transmission, not the origin, of creativity.
This distinction is critical for at least three reasons. First, claiming
that creativity comes from inspiration would not aid scientiﬁc
understanding, much as attributing creativity to a “muse” would
be an exercise in labeling a mysterious cause, not a scientiﬁc
explanation. Second, scientists have already developed a vari-
ety of scientiﬁc constructs and theories to explain the origins
of creative ideas, which include situational, dispositional, self-
regulatory, cognitive, historical, and neurological processes (e.g.,
Koestler, 1964; Rothenberg, 1979; Martindale, 1990; Finke et al.,
1992; Sternberg and Davidson, 1995; Amabile, 1996; Feist, 1998;
Bowden and Jung-Beeman, 2003; Simonton, 2003; Baas et al.,
2013). In contrast, scientists have given relatively little attention
to the processes through which creative ideas are transformed into
creative products. The inspiration construct helps ﬁll this gap in
the research literature. Finally, because this conceptualization of
creative inspiration is derived from a general conceptualization,
it is consistent with usage of the inspiration construct in other
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Oleynick et al. Inspiration and creativity
literatures. For instance, creative inspiration is a response to
(not the cause of) creative ideas, much as interpersonal inspi-
ration is a response to (not the cause of) virtuous qualities in
Given the personal nature and elusiveness of the experience of
inspiration, how can it possibly be measured in the laboratory?
One might be tempted to throw up one’s hands and turn instead
to something that is more amenable to direct experimental
THE VALUE OF SELF-REPORT
We maintain that self-report is a straightforward and appro-
priate method for operationalizing inspiration, because the
inspiration construct is inextricably intertwined with a dis-
tinctive phenomenological experience. Numerous creators have
claimed—through conscious self-reports—that they experience
inspiration and that this experience is critical to their creative
process (Harding, 1948). Operationalizing inspiration through
self-report allows researchers to put such claims to the test.
Thrash and Elliot (2003) developed a trait measure of inspira-
tion called the Inspiration Scale (IS). Although the term “trait”
has a variety of connotations, trait inspiration refers to noth-
ing other than individual differences in the tendency to experi-
ence the state of inspiration. Because inspiration is a construct
that is meaningful in individuals’ lives but underappreciated by
psychologists, the measure was designed to be straightforward
and face valid. Items include statements such as, “Something I
encounter or experience inspires me” and “I am inspired to do
something.” The IS has two internally consistent 4-item subscales:
inspiration frequency and intensity. Both subscales are internally
consistent, with Cronbach’s αs equal to or greater than 0.90. The
two subscales have been demonstrated to be highly correlated
(r= 0.60 to 0.80), and therefore scores may be summed to
form an internally consistent 8-item index of overall inspira-
tion. The IS demonstrates measurement invariance across time
(2 months) and across populations (patent holders, university
alumni), indicating that the underlying latent constructs have
comparable meaning at different points in time and in different
populations. Two-month test-retest reliabilities for both subscales
are high, r= 0.77. In short, the IS has excellent psychometric
properties. Notably, the intensity subscale has been adapted for
use as a state measure (e.g., Thrash and Elliot, 2004; Thrash et al.,
Some may worry that self-reported inspiration cannot be
trusted, that it is not objective, or that it does not provide a
full explanation. We respond to each of these potential limi-
tations. First, inspiration, as assessed with the IS, tends to be
unrelated or weakly related to social desirability, and its pre-
dictive validity is robust when social desirability is controlled1
(Thrash and Elliot, 2003; Thrash et al., 2010a). Second, although
the IS provides a subjective indicator of inspiration, scores on
this measure have been linked to a variety of external criteria
1In these instances, social desirability was assessed using either the Marlowe-
Crowne Social Desirability Scale (Crowne and Marlowe, 1960) or the Paulhus
Deception Scales (Paulhus, 1998).
and objective outcomes, as reviewed in the following section.
Moreover, consciousness plays a critical role in the simulation
of future action in humans (Baumeister and Masicampo, 2010)
and may be necessary for inspired action. Accordingly, conscious
self-report is intrinsically appropriate to the construct. Finally, we
recognize that self-report measures may leave some researchers
with a hunger for lower-level explanations, such as those involv-
ing physiological or neurological processes, but we see this as
an opportunity rather than a problem—the inspiration con-
struct may see an exciting second generation of research regard-
ing neural underpinnings. In this case, self-reported inspiration
provides a “bootstrap” that may guide researchers to underly-
ing process. Although it is true that the self-report method is
limited in some ways, it offers a well-validated starting point
for neuroscientiﬁc investigations. Moreover, not investigating
inspiration on the grounds that it is measured by self-report
would lead researchers to overlook a critical predictor of creative
output, the biological underpinnings of which would remain
THE PLACE OF INSPIRATION IN CREATIVITY RESEARCH PARADIGMS
The ﬁeld of creativity assessment is active and dynamic, and
thus a review of the literature is well beyond the scope of
this article (for a review, see Plucker and Makel, 2010). We
note, however, that the dominant research paradigms used in
the study of creativity have unwittingly precluded attention to
inspiration. Creativity is most often assessed using tests of creative
ideation (e.g., Alternate Uses) or creative insight (e.g., Remote
Associates Test). While such tests are very practical in labora-
tory contexts and allow researchers to focus on the processes
underlying the emergence of creative ideas, they do not allow
participants to transform creative ideas into creative products.
Failure to accommodate the idea actualization process—that is,
creation per se—renders inspiration speciously immaterial to the
creative process. If the function of inspiration within the context
of creativity is the actualization of creative ideas into creative
products, useful paradigms must allow for idea actualization.
Product-based assessments, such as the Consensual Assessment
Technique (CAT; Amabile, 1982) and analysis of patent data,
are the gold standard if one wishes to investigate the unique
contribution of inspiration to the creative process.2In fact, rel-
evance to inspiration aside, assessment of creative products is
considered by some to be the most appropriate and valid oper-
ationalization of creativity (Baer et al., 2004; Baer and McKool,
Ambiguity about whether inspiration is distinct from other con-
structs has been another impediment to research activity. If one
presumes that inspiration is the same thing as, for example,
creativity or insight, then one has no reason to study it. In this
section, we clarify the distinctions between inspiration and several
other constructs (creativity, insight, and positive affect).
2We note that the Consensual Assessment Technique has also been used to
assess the creativity of ideas (e.g., Faure, 2004). Here, we refer speciﬁcally to
the use of this technique in assessing the creativity of products.
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Oleynick et al. Inspiration and creativity
INSPIRATION AND CREATIVITY
While there is considerable variability in the deﬁnition and usage
of the term creativity within psychology (Silvia and Kaufman,
2010), there is some degree of consensus that creativity implies
two qualities: novelty and usefulness (e.g., Feist, 1998; Plucker
et al., 2004). We ﬁnd it useful to explicitly conceptualize creativity
as an appraisal of novelty and usefulness that may be applied
to any of a variety of objects, particularly ideas and resulting
products. Depending on the aims of the research, this appraisal
may be made by the creator herself, by gatekeepers within a ﬁeld,
by an audience, or through various other operationalizations
available to the researcher. We note that researchers often appear
to have either ideas or products in mind as the ultimate objects of
creativity appraisals, even when the term “creative” precedes other
nouns (e.g., creative activity (Simonton, 2000), creative insights
(Csikszentmihalyi and Sawyer, 1995), creative personalities (Feist,
2010), creative states (Jamison, 1989), or creative processes (Kris,
Although the terms inspiration and creativity have occasion-
ally been used synonymously (e.g., Schuler, 1994; Chamorro-
Premuzic, 2006), our conceptualizations of inspiration and cre-
ativity involve a clear delineation. Creativity is an appraisal of
novelty and usefulness that may apply (to various degrees) to
content at any point in the creative process, from a seminal idea to
the completed product. Inspiration, in contrast, is a motivational
state. We posit that inspiration is often elicited when a creator
appraises his or her idea as creative, and it is posited to motivate
actualization of the idea in the form of a product that is likewise
appraised (by its creator and perhaps others) as creative. We
discuss empirical support for these proposals below.
INSPIRATION AND INSIGHT
Conﬂation of inspiration with insight is common in every-
day language.3An individual might exclaim, “I had an inspi-
ration,” where “inspiration” refers to the idea itself, not to
the motivational response. In the scientiﬁc context, the term
insight has been used to describe the process by which a
problem solver suddenly moves from a state of not knowing
how to solve a problem to a state of knowing how to solve
it (Mayer, 1992). Within the creativity context, insight has
also been conceptualized as the cognitive content that enters
consciousness suddenly; the “aha!” moment (Csikszentmihalyi
and Sawyer, 1995). Regardless of its exact usage, insight can
be differentiated from inspiration in terms of its theoretical
function. Whereas insight research is an attempt to explain
the cognitive mechanisms, such as restructuring (Ohlsson,
1984), by which ideas enter awareness, inspiration research is
an attempt to explain the motivational response that often
(but not always) follows creative insight (see Thrash et al.,
If inspiration always followed from insight, then perhaps the
inspiration construct would be superﬂuous. However, inspira-
tion does not always follow. Thrash et al. (2010b) found that
3The language of the items and response options of the Inspiration Scale (IS)
eliminate this problem by clearly using the term “inspiration” to mean a state,
not a cognition or idea.
creative ideation tends to lead to inspiration but that this effect is
moderated by individuals’ approach temperament (i.e., sensitivity
to reward; Elliot and Thrash, 2010). Individuals with a strong
approach temperament tend to get inspired to create in response
to creative insight, whereas individuals with a weak approach
temperament report feeling a lack of inspiration in spite of
their insight. Inspiration thus has important implications for
the behavioral transmission of a creative insight into a creative
Recent work on the phenomenology of insight offers hints
about how insight may lead to inspiration. Abrupt changes in
processing ﬂuency during insight have been found to endow
an individual with elevated levels of positive affect (PA) and
perceived truth regarding his or her solution (Topolinski and
Reber, 2010). Given that PA is involved in both the insight “aha”
experience and inspiration, it may facilitate a ﬂuid transition from
insight to inspiration. Moreover, perceiving one’s solution as true,
a consequence of insight, may bolster inspired motivation. As
we have noted, however, insight can occur without inspiration.
Dispositional factors of the individual (e.g., low approach temper-
ament) and situational factors (e.g., contexts in which opportuni-
ties for transmission are not available) can impede inspiration.
Likewise, inspiration can occur outside of the problem-solving
context and without a discrete and sudden insight.
INSPIRATION AND POSITIVE AFFECT
Activated PA, a high-arousal form of pleasant affect, is the
strongest known correlate of inspiration (Thrash and Elliot,
2003). Indeed, the term “inspired” appears on the PANAS mea-
sure of activated PA (Watson et al., 1988). Because activated PA
is often present during states of approach motivation (Watson
et al., 1999), it particularly resembles the inspired to component
Although inspiration and activated PA overlap to some degree
empirically and conceptually, considerable evidence supports
their discriminant validity. First, inspiration and activated PA
are factorially distinct (Thrash and Elliot, 2003). Second, consis-
tent with the tripartite conceptualization of inspiration, experi-
ences of inspiration involve greater levels of transcendence and
lower levels of volitional control and ascriptions of personal
responsibility (indicative of “evocation”) compared to experiences
of activated PA (Thrash and Elliot, 2004). Third, inspiration
and activated PA have different proximal and distal antecedents
(Thrash and Elliot, 2004). Activated PA is triggered proximally
by reward salience (environmental cues and perceptions that
something desired is attainable) and distally by approach tem-
perament. In contrast, inspiration is triggered proximally by
experiences of insight and distally by openness to experience.
Finally, inspiration and activated PA have different distributions
across days of the week; on Fridays, for instance, activated
PA is at its peak while inspiration is at its trough (Thrash,
INSPIRATION, PERSPIRATION, AND CREATIVITY
Perhaps the most pernicious obstacle to research on inspiration
has been the longstanding belief that it is perspiration, and not
inspiration, that is critical for creative output. Thomas Edison,
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Oleynick et al. Inspiration and creativity
regarding his work, once remarked that, “what it boils down to is
one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration”
(Edison, 1903). This comment has sometimes been offered in
support of the idea that effort is important to creativity and
that inspiration, by comparison, is unimportant (e.g., Martindale,
1989, 2001; Sawyer, 2006). Furthering this line of reasoning,
Fehrman and Petherick (1980) offered an account of why inspi-
ration nonetheless endures as a folk explanation of creativity:
when individuals are exposed to creative works, they misattribute
creators’ effort to inspiration, unaware how much effort was
required to produce the work. It appears that reasoning such as
this has precluded attention to a legitimate role of inspiration in
the creative process.
Empirical data related to inspiration, perspiration, and cre-
ativity are now available for consideration. A number of studies
indicates that inspiration is a robust predictor of creativity. At
the between-person (i.e., trait) level, inspiration and creative self-
concept are positively correlated, and inspiration predicts longitu-
dinal increases in creative self-concept (Thrash and Elliot, 2003).
Trait inspiration also predicts objective indicators of creative
output. In a sample of U.S. patent holders, inspiration frequency
was found to predict the number of patents held (Thrash and
Elliot, 2003). Inspiration also predicts creativity at the within-
person level, such that inspiration and self-reported creativity
ﬂuctuate together across days (Thrash and Elliot, 2003).
In three studies of different types of writing (poetry, science,
and ﬁction), self-reported state inspiration during the writing
process uniquely predicted creativity of the ﬁnal product, as
assessed by expert judges using the CAT (Thrash et al., 2010b).
These ﬁndings held when a variety of covariates (e.g., openness
to experience, effort, activated PA, awe) were controlled. Finally,
inspiration has been shown to mediate between the creativity of
seminal ideas and the creativity of ﬁnal products in a manner
consistent with the posited transmission function4of inspiration
(Thrash et al., 2010b). Covariates of inspiration (effort, activated
PA, awe) failed to mediate transmission, indicating that the trans-
mission function is unique to inspiration.
Having established a relation between inspiration and creativ-
ity, we now consider the role of “perspiration” in the creative
process. Notably, Thrash et al. (2010b) documented a positive
relation, rather than a negative relation, between inspiration and
effort, indicating that these constructs are not mutually exclusive
as the Edison quote may imply. The assumption that the presence
of effort indicates low levels of inspiration is further challenged
by a positive relation between inspiration and the work-mastery
component of need for achievement (Thrash and Elliot, 2003).
Both of these ﬁndings were documented at two statistically inde-
pendent levels of analysis (between-persons, within-persons).
4The authors empirically tested the transmission model, which speciﬁes that
inspiration mediates the relation between the creativity of the seminal idea
and the creativity of the product. Two alternate theoretical models, the epiphe-
nomenon model and the self-perception model, which suggest that creativity
of the idea inﬂuences both inspiration and creativity of the product, or
that creativity of the idea inﬂuences creativity of the product which in turn
inﬂuences reports of inspiration, respectively, were also tested using structural
equation modeling. The authors found support for the transmission model of
inspiration over the epiphenomenon and self-perception models.
Certainly effort is important to the creative process, but its role
is different than that of inspiration. Whereas writers’ inspiration
predicts the creativity of the product, writers’ effort predicts
the technical merit of the product (Thrash et al., 2010b). Thus
inspiration and effort are unique predictors of different aspects
of product quality. Moreover, screen capture data indicate that
inspiration is involved in the automatic/generative aspects of the
writing process (e.g., inspired writers produce more words and
retain more of their original typing), whereas effort is related
to controlled self-regulation (e.g., writers who exert effort delete
more words and pause more to think; Thrash et al., 2010b). In
short, inspiration and “perspiration” are not mutually exclusive,
and they contribute in qualitatively different ways to the creative
process and product.
The question of whether the audience correctly infers the
presence of inspiration remains. The misattribution hypothesis
states that it is the creator’s effort that predicts the creativity of the
product but that the audience incorrectly attributes this creativity
to inspiration in the creator. An alternative to this model is the
possibility that the audience correctly infers inspiration (Bowra,
1977). Thrash et al. (2010b) tested these competing hypotheses.
Readers were found to correctly attribute creativity to writers’
inspiration; likewise, they correctly attributed technical merit to
writers’ effort. These results, in addition to providing the ﬁrst
empirical evidence that readers can make veridical inferences
about writers’ motivational states, indicate that folk notions of the
importance of inspiration are borne out by empirical data.
The psychological science of inspiration, as well as its relation
to creativity, is now well-established. Inspiration has been con-
ceptualized through integration of usages in diverse literatures,
operationalized using a well-validated measure, discriminated
from related constructs, and linked to creativity in multiple pop-
ulations, contexts, and levels of analysis. Prior work provides a
solid foundation on which investigations into the neuroscience of
inspiration can rest.
INSPIRATION IN THE NEUROSCIENCE LABORATORY
In most respects, the challenges associated with studying creative
inspiration are similar regardless of whether one approaches
the topic as a neuroscientist, a psychologist, etc. Therefore,
the preceding general challenges and solutions are also relevant
speciﬁcally in the neuroscience context. However, we reiterate
the importance of attending carefully to construct deﬁnition,
because the term “inspiration” has occasionally been used in
the neuroscience literature to refer to constructs that are quite
different than the inspiration construct that we have discussed.
In their classic EEG studies of the creative process, for instance,
Martindale and Hasenfus (1978) used the terms inspiration and
elaboration to refer to the stages that precede and follow, respec-
tively, creative insight (see Kris, 1952, for a precedent for such
usage in psychoanalysis). Inspiration as we have deﬁned it—i.e.,
as a conscious motivational state rather than as a stage—is more
likely to occur during Martindale and Hasenfus’s elaboration
stage than during the inspiration stage. We now turn to challenges
that are particularly relevant within a neuroscience context.
One obstacle in studying inspiration in the laboratory is
the impossibility of direct manipulation through exposure to
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Oleynick et al. Inspiration and creativity
exogenous elicitors. If one seeks to elicit inspiration through
use of some kind of “inspiring” stimulus, then the manipulated
elicitor is the independent variable and inspiration is a depen-
dent variable. Thus caution is needed regarding causal inference,
despite use of the experimental method (Thrash et al., 2010a).
Although inspiration cannot be directly manipulated through
exposure to exogenous stimuli, a researcher may build a case
for causality using manipulation of elicitors in combination with
statistical controls and cross-lagged analyses, as demonstrated by
Thrash et al. (2010a). We note that these problems are not unique
to the study of inspiration. Emotions, insight, and many other
constructs elude strict experimental control; at best, they may be
“elicited” rather than “manipulated”.
A related challenge is that it may be difﬁcult to capture
authentic or intense experiences of inspiration in a laboratory
setting, given that inspiration is elusive for certain individuals or
under certain circumstances. One solution may be to, in effect,
lower the threshold for what constitutes an episode of inspiration.
Thrash and Elliot (2004), for instance, studied “daily inspiration”
using experience sampling methods, and we suggest that such
tolerance for less intense manifestations of inspiration can be
extended to a laboratory study. Much as creativity is not the same
thing as genius (Bruner, 1962), inspiration is a matter of degree,
and moderate levels might be achievable even in some invasive
A third challenge is the need for repeatable trials and time-
locking. Brain imaging techniques (e.g., fMRI, EEG, MEG)
require designs in which the mental event under consideration
may be (a) temporally isolated so that the recorded data and
the mental event can be time-locked to an eliciting stimulus and
(b) elicited repeatedly during a recording session in order to
improve the signal-to-noise ratio (Dickter and Kieffaber, 2013).
One possible method to address these requirements is to use
participant self-report (indicating the onset of inspiration) as
the time-locking event. Suppose, for example, participants invent
captions for each of a series of photographs (a highly-repeatable
activity) and report on levels of inspiration at the moment of
getting an idea for each caption. Bowden and Jung-Beeman
(2007) used a method similar to this in order to identify processes
that distinguish solutions involving the experience of insight from
those that do not. We caution, however, that inspiration generally
is more prolonged in time than is insight (particularly when
considerable activity is needed to actualize an idea), and therefore
methods that capture subsequent variability in inspiration across
time—not just the level of inspiration at the moment of insight—
will be particularly valuable.
One such method for capturing variability in inspiration
across time, while simultaneously reducing the burden of elic-
iting inspiration repeatedly, is to record electrical brain activity
using a non-invasive technique (such as EEG) during the creative
process. For instance, if researchers record screen capture data
during the writing process as in Thrash et al. (2010b), they can
subsequently play back the recording to participants and collect
continuous measures of recalled inspiration during the creative
process (e.g., using a dial or slider input device). These ebbs and
ﬂows of inspiration can then be linked to variability in neural
The difﬁculties associated with eliciting inspiration in order
to study it at the within-person level may also be addressed by
simply focusing on the individuals who are likely to be inspired
(i.e., those who are high in trait inspiration). Elicitation may
be circumvented altogether by examining structural brain dif-
ferences between groups known to be high versus low in trait
inspiration. One may separate groups into “more inspired” and
“less inspired” using the IS. Additionally, as individuals higher
in trait inspiration tend to exhibit greater levels of openness
and extraversion, one might expect, for example, reduced latent
inhibition and increased activity in the ventral tegmental area
dopamine projections (Ashby et al., 1999; Depue and Collins,
1999; Peterson et al., 2002) for these individuals. Thus, inspira-
tion’s nomological network can serve as an informative starting
point for between-person neurological analyses.
Next, we consider the question of where to look in the nervous
system. While at present there is no neuroscience of the inspira-
tion construct per se, literatures on related constructs can offer us
Insight relates to inspiration within the tripartite conceptual-
ization in terms of both evocation and transcendence, and within
the component processes model as the initial event that often
leads one to become inspired by. During “Aha!” moments, one
transcends a mental set and experiences a conceptual expansion
(Abraham et al., 2012), and the experience feels automatic and
unexpected; it feels evoked (Bowden et al., 2005). Therefore,
certain neural components involved in insight experiences may
be present at the onset of an inspiration episode. However, given
that the literature on the neural correlates of insight is complex
and that neural processes are under debate (Dietrich and Kanso,
2010), we caution against relying too heavily upon any one ﬁnding
in guiding work on inspiration.
As inspiration involves not only transcendence and evocation,
but also approach motivation, we may also look to the neuro-
science literature on states of approach motivation (Elliot, 2008).
There exists a burgeoning literature on approach motivation and
appetitive affect, with attention to underlying neuronal circuitry
(e.g., Bradley et al., 2001; Aron et al., 2005; Junghöfer et al., 2010),
subcortical reward systems (e.g., Rosenkranz and Grace, 2002;
Wise, 2004; Alcaro et al., 2007), neurotransmitters (e.g., Bassareo
et al., 2002; Hoebel et al., 2008), and neurohormones (e.g., Frye
and Lacey, 2001; Frye and Seliga, 2003; Frye, 2007). Findings in
this area may offer suggestions for the neural underpinnings of
the inspired to process.
Although the neurological ﬁndings regarding certain aspects of
the inspiration construct can offer clues, the neural components
of these pieces alone are unlikely to tell the full story. After all, we
have already argued above that inspiration is not the same thing
as insight or activated PA, nor is it the sum of these parts. For
instance, an individual could be in an appetitive motivational state
at the same time that he or she gets a creative insight, but he or she
would not be inspired if the appetitive state reﬂects anticipation of
eating, rather than of bringing the idea into fruition. The evoking
object, in this case, the insight, does not meaningfully relate to
the motivational object. The critical question for neuroscience
is how processes related to generation of creative ideas recruit
appetitive motivational processes, such that individuals respond
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience www.frontiersin.org June 2014 | Volume 8 | Article 436 |6
Oleynick et al. Inspiration and creativity
to creative ideas not with indifference, but rather with a feeling of
being compelled to act. How exactly does the prospect of turning
a morsel into a dish ﬁre the soul, as Mozart put it (in the opening
In the initial stages of research on the neurological basis of
inspiration, it may be useful to begin with a focus on overall
inspiration instead of particular aspects or component processes.
Inspiration as a uniﬁed concept can be measured quite efﬁciently
using the 4-item intensity subscale of the IS (Thrash and Elliot,
2004). If necessary, inspiration could be assessed with a single
item from the IS. Such items are surprisingly effective at capturing
the full inspiration construct as we have deﬁned it (Thrash et al.,
Writers, artists, and other creators have long argued that inspi-
ration is a key motivator of creativity. Over the past decade,
scientists have tested and found strong support for these
claims. Scientiﬁc progress has required overcoming a number of
challenges, including deﬁnitional ambiguity, difﬁculties of opera-
tionalization, ambiguities about discriminant validity, and skepti-
cism about the importance of inspiration relative to perspiration.
By developing an integrative conceptualization, operationalizing
inspiration with the IS, establishing discriminant validity, and
addressing skepticism with empirical evidence, these challenges
have been largely overcome. Although additional challenges face
the neuroscientist who wishes to study inspiration, similar chal-
lenges have already been overcome in relation to insight and other
constructs. We believe that the stage has been set for a rigorous
neuroscience of inspiration.
Brain-level explanations of an inspiration episode can then
be integrated with explanations at other levels of analysis to
produce a richer and more holistic understanding of inspiration.
This deeper understanding will aid in determining how and why
individuals sometimes feel (or do not feel) compelled to act on
their creative ideas. Inspiration has the power to effect change
not just for individuals, but also for societies. Technological
advancements, cures for diseases, and solutions to environmental
problems ﬁrst emerge as promising ideas. It is difﬁcult to overstate
the importance of ﬁguring out why, how, and for whom creative
ideas to societal problems ﬁre the soul and inspire the idea
This material is based on work supported by the National
Science Foundation under Grant Number SBE-0830366, Science
of Science and Innovation Policy.
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Conﬂict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was con-
ducted in the absence of any commercial or ﬁnancial relationships that could be
construed as a potential conﬂict of interest.
Received: 08 April 2014; accepted: 30 May 2014; published online: 25 June 2014.
Citation: Oleynick VC, Thrash TM, LeFew MC, Moldovan EG and Kieffaber PD
(2014) The scientiﬁc study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and
opportunities. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:436. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00436
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