Science

The neuroscience of creativity: How the brains of innovators are wired differently

A new study suggests a person's creativity can be identified by examining how connected neural activity in the brain is
A new study suggests a person's creativity can be identified by examining how connected neural activity in the brain is
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A new study suggests a person's creativity can be identified by examining how connected neural activity in the brain is
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A new study suggests a person's creativity can be identified by examining how connected neural activity in the brain is

We've all heard the simplistic adage that left-brain thinking is logical and analytical while right-brain thinking is creative and innovative. It's an easy to understand binary that is also a complete myth. The brain is, unsurprisingly, much more complicated than a simple left/right binary, and new research is illustrating that creative thought can be determined by how effectively the brain can communicate between different regions that usually work separately.

Over the past couple of decades improvements in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology has allowed scientists a remarkable insight into brain activity. Numerous studies have mapped brain activity across a myriad of creative or artistic tasks from composing poetry to sketching an illustration. While no single "creative" part of the brain has been revealed, what is increasingly understood is that novel thinking generally engages a unique and broad configuration of brain regions that don't typically work together.

In newly published research an international team of scientists examined 163 subjects under fMRI while participating in a classic divergent thinking test. The test involved subjects being shown an everyday object and given 12 seconds to come up with the most creative use for that object they could think of. The responses were then ranked by originality and creativity.

"Creativity is typically defined as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas," explains Roger Beaty, first author on the study. So for example when a subject was shown a sock, a common and uncreative response was it can warm your feet, while a novel, highly ranked response was to use the sock as a water filtration system.

The results found that three distinct brain networks were key to the most creative thinking. These are known as the default network (related to brainstorming and daydreaming), the executive control network (which activates when a person needs to focus) and the salience network (known for detecting environmental stimuli and switching between executive and default brain networks).

"It's the synchrony between these systems that seems to be important for creativity," says Beaty. "People who think more flexibly and come up with more creative ideas are better able to engage these networks that don't typically work together and bring these systems online."

The study took things a fascinating step further and developed a model that set out to predict how creative a person's thinking could be, based on the strength of the connections between different brain networks. The results were successful and using a new sample of participants the team could effectively predict how creative an idea was simply by studying the fMRI results.

"...we found that based on how strong the connections are in this network, we could guess pretty accurately how creative you're going to be on a task," says Beaty.

Moving forward one of the next questions to be investigated by the researchers is finding out if these brain networks can be modified or improved. Can brain training or certain classes lead to greater brain network connectivity? And if connectivity between these networks can be "grown" would that boost a person's general creative thinking abilities?

"Creativity is complex, and we're only scratching the surface here, so there's much more work that's needed," says Beaty.

The new study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Harvard University via Eurekalert

5 comments
Bob
At work it was often joked that I was MacGyver to which I replied that I taught MacGyver everything he knows but sadly MacGyver was an idiot. Almost everything he did on TV wouldn't actually work as shown and certainly not on the first try. After years of developing new production and testing methods while solving problems I found that much of creativity is quite simple and much more analytical than most people realize. You look at a problem or process and consider if there is another way to do it. What are you trying to do and what resources do you have? It is just a puzzle and some are better than others at putting the pieces together. Can this be taught? I think so. When I was young, I absolutely hated math word problems until I finally understood that what made them hard was the fact that they often gave you more information than you needed to solve the problem. Once you develop the ability to identify what you need to solve a problem and discard what isn't needed, it becomes much easier. True geniuses of the past were often experts in many fields and simply brought them together.
ljaques
LOL, right you are, Bob. I tried to watch MacGuyver again last year and was flummoxed as to how stupid it really was. Of course, they couldn't release actual data for creating explosives, but almost everything he did was either exaggerated 1000x or just flat didn't make sense. // I've always (since about age 3 or 4) tried to find out how things work so I could fix them when they broke, and I love to solve problems other people can't. Everything fascinates me and I could never settle into a normal job. I've studied mechanicals at automotive tech school, and electronics at another tech school when my back was hurt. Add programming/web design, woodworking, metalworking, welding, and soldering which led to my building a CNC router (90% done) My parents nurtured my curiosity, which led to learning, which expanded curiosity, which let to more learning. Curiosity breeds progress, so I urge parents to nurture any curiosity and allow your kids to explore. If you don't know the answer to your child's question, refer them to the library (and Internet, now) or learn with them. Teach them to find their own answers, and not have to rely on others (who often can be either misinformed, incompletely informed, or devious) when they ask questions. Yes, Bob, I agree about old geniuses being experts in many fields who could bring them all together. I'd love to see if this can be tested globally in order to promote/encourage potential new geniuses, since many parents still crush curiosity and knowledge-seeking in their children when the child exceeds their own learning.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
I was the anti-Mc Guyver. I spent $1800 on my Generac home standby generator, was pretty sure each part would fix it, then unstuck the choke and it started! I was able to start it by pulling off the gas hose and spraying engine starter into the engine. When I put the hose near the engine intake, it would stop! I had been calling the governor the choke. The choke was a small solenoid valve on the air wall! It was fixed by a spritz of Tri-flow!
Nik
The essence of invention, is 'KISS', (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) Its not as easy as one might think, and frequently when presented with a simple design, others want to complicate it, as frequently each part of a design may have multiple functions, that others may not understand. So they try to add components that are actually already catered for. In some cases when the design is reworked, and made more complicated, these multi-function components are dismissed, and the finished complication doesn't work as it should. The term, 'lateral thinking' was coined for people who, these days are described as 'thinking out of the box' either way, its usually making connections that others dont. Some have it, most dont.
Bruce H. Anderson
One thing that I have found is that taking a different view helps in the creative/innovative process. It is more than a little to the right or left. It sometimes means upside down or inside out or backwards.