Posts Tagged ‘brain’

Creativity and the Human Brain

August 31, 2018 Leave a comment

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 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.

Intelligence and the Human Brain

August 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Human brain and IQ word on black background. 3D illustrationWhat is human intelligence? How do you quantify it? These questions need to be addressed before discussing the connection between intelligence and the human brain.

So, first the definition. We all have our own ideas about what intelligence is. To keep things simple, we use the Encyclopaedia Britannica definition: “human intelligence is the mental quality that consists of the abilities to learn from experience, adapt to new situations, understand and handle abstract concepts, and use knowledge to manipulate one’s environment.”

Next, how do you quantify intelligence? Commonly, a combination of standardized tests is used to measure the abilities listed above and more. The results yield a number—the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). This number is what many people are familiar with as a measure of intelligence. However, IQ test results are somewhat influenced by social and cultural factors. Therefore, many researchers also use a measurement called the g-factor (general factor of intelligence). Measurements of additional abilities go into calculating the g-factor such as reasoning, memory, vocabulary, spatial ability, processing speed, and more. Studies have shown that the g-factor is strongly influenced by heredity (biological and genetic factors), but less affected by the environmental factors that influence IQ. Nevertheless, it has been shown that the IQ is a fair approximation of the g-factor, so brain research often involves either or both.

Now, how are intelligence and the human brain related? Using modern brain imaging techniques such as fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans to study brain activity, coupled with IQ and g-factor measurements, researchers are discovering brain characteristics that correlate with intelligence. These characteristics include the amount and distribution of grey matter and differences in neural networking. (1) As one study shows, in individuals with higher intelligence “the areas of the brain which are associated with learning and development show high levels of variability, meaning that they change their neural connections with other parts of the brain more frequently, over a matter of minutes or seconds.” The study goes on to say, “the more variable a brain is, and the more its different parts frequently connect with each other, the higher a person’s IQ and creativity are.” (2)

There are other interesting findings. For example, if one compares groups with different g-factors that solve the same problem, there is much higher brain activity in the people with the lower g-factors than those with higher g-factors. The interpretation is that the less intelligent people require much more brain activity to arrive at the solution. It also was found that when comparing a group of men with a group of women having the same IQ and g-factors, men showed completely different areas of brain activity than women when solving the same problem. This finding provides a clue on how to restore brain functions to people with brain injuries (i.e., by somehow redirecting brain activity through uninjured parts of the brain). (3)

Although the above examples of studies using brain scans are promising, many more years of brain research are expected to be required, first to obtain a much fuller understanding of how the different parts of the brain work together, and then to be able to use that information. If you are interested, Reference 3 provides a good, easy-to-read overview of advances in this field. And for more technical articles on brain networking and intelligence see References 4-7.

Why is all this important? Ultimately, a complete revolution in our way of life could be unleashed by the ability to manipulate brain functions—to repair brain injuries, cure/prevent mental illnesses, and even to make humans more intelligent. One more door, waiting to be opened, with an unknown future on the other side.


  1. Roberto Colom, Rex Jung, and Richard Haier, “Distributed brain sites for the g-factor of intelligence,” NeuroImage, 31 (2006) 1359-1365,
  2. University of Warwick, “Human intelligence measured in the brain,” com, July 18, 2016,
  3. Richard Haier and Rex Jung, “Brain Imaging Studies of Intelligence and Creativity: What is the Picture for Education?” Roeper Review, 30 (2008) 171-180,
  4. Michael Ferguson, Jeffrey Anderson, and R. Nathan Spreng, “Fluid and flexible minds: Intelligence reflects synchrony in the brain’s intrinsic network architecture,” Network Neuroscience, 1 (June 2017), no. 2,192-207,
  5. Kirsten Hilger, Matthias Ekman, Christian Fiebach, and Ulrike Basten, “Intelligence is associated with the modular structure of intrinsic brain networks,” Scientific Reports, 7 (November 2017), Article no. 16088,
  6. Youngwoo Yoon et al, “Brain Structural Networks Associated with Intelligence and Visuomotor Ability,” Scientific Reports, 7 (2017), Article no. 2177,
  7. Aron Barbey, “Network Neuroscience Theory of Human Intelligence,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22 (January 2018), no. 1, 8-20,