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Creativity and the Human Brain

Light bulb inside brain, idea concept. 3D renderingCreativity. It’s harder to define and measure than intelligence but is equally (or perhaps more) important. Why? Creativity occurs in many places and has many forms: imaginative solutions to everyday problems; life-changing breakthroughs in science, technology, and mathematics; masterpieces in literature and art.

What else? The act of creation is involved at every step of human-induced disruptive change. It is through such acts that most new and great things start. Bottom line, creativity is the foundation for much of the progress of humanity and society.

But what is creativity? To keep things simple, consider the dictionary.com definition: “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.”

Next, how do you measure it? Not so easy and more subjective than measuring intelligence. Although there are others, the most commonly used series of tests are the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). (1) Not perfect, but not influenced by race or socioeconomic status and good enough to allow meaningful research into creativity and the brain.

So, creativity and the brain. What is happening in the brain during that “aha” moment? What allows one to have a flash of insight, to originate truly innovative new ideas? Whatever it is that generates that spark, can we create it and/or control it? These are some of the questions that brain research is investigating.

First, some “history.” Until recently, the common tools for studying the brain during that moment of creativity were positron emission tomography (PET) scans and electroencephalograms (EEG). A key study using these techniques in 2001 showed brain activity and changing interconnections taking place in both frontal lobes during the “creative” moment: “Reorganization in both frontal lobes (BA 8–11,44–47) is of major significance as is the functional integration of brain structures of both brain structures of both hemispheres.” (2) In other words, things are not as simple as “right-brain” being the creative side. Both sides of the brain are involved. This was a first step in connecting creativity and brain function.

Now fast forward to the era of advanced neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). A 2013 study at Dartmouth using fMRI identified multiple regions of the brain interconnected by widespread and changing networks of neurons among these regions as important for creativity. (3) In their own words: “We do not know how the human brain mediates complex and creative behaviors such as artistic, scientific, and mathematical thought. Scholars theorize that these abilities require conscious experience as realized in a widespread neural network, or ‘mental workspace,’ that represents and manipulates images, symbols, and other mental constructs across a variety of domains…The present work takes advantage of emerging techniques in network and information analysis to provide empirical support for such a widespread and interconnected information processing network in the brain that supports the manipulation of visual imagery.”

A good summary of this study and a number of other neuroimaging findings at this point in time can be found in a chapter of the book The Neuroscience of Creativity. (4) In the words of the authors relating to creativity: “Contrary to popular belief, specific brain regions are not committed to specific functions” (i.e., it’s not as simple as left-brain right-brain). And they go on to highlight studies that show creativity and intelligence are not the same, each having a different brain network.

The present. At the beginning of this year, a new fMRI study by Roger Beaty et al made headlines, partly because the study showed the ability to predict creativity. (5) As they state, “We identified a brain network associated with creative ability comprised of regions within default, salience, and executive systems—neural circuits that often work in opposition. Across four independent datasets, we show that a person’s capacity to generate original ideas can be reliably predicted from the strength of functional connectivity within this network, indicating that creative thinking ability is characterized by a distinct brain connectivity profile.” They go on to summarize their findings: “People who are more creative can simultaneously engage brain networks that don’t typically work together.” In their words: “What this shows is that the creative brain is wired differently.”

We end with that thought and the finding that intelligence and creativity are not the same. But what about genius? A topic for another day.


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