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The Neuroscience of... Creativity

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Every work of art. All scientific literature. Every technological advance. Even, some may argue, this article. Without the power of creativity, none of these endeavors could have been attempted and human society would be far less interesting.

Given the scale of human creativity, it has been no mean feat for science to define and study this phenomenon. In this article, the latest in our “The Neuroscience of…” series, we investigate the research that has attempted to understand where creativity emerges in the brain and why it exists in the first place.

Defining creativity

“The standard definition of creativity, coined by Morris Stein in the 1950s, is that creativity is the production of something novel and useful,” says Rex Jung, an assistant professor in the department of neurosurgery and director of neuropsychological services at the University of New Mexico in an interview with Technology Networks. Jung has studied creativity for over a decade and believes that this rather rigid definition is needed to bring focus to the study of something so varied. “Too much novelty, on one hand, and you get the neologisms of schizophrenia and too much utility, and you are not going to produce anything that is particularly new,” he explains. A third metric, added by University of California professor Dean Keith Simonton, is that a truly genius creative can also contribute ideas that are so novel, that they are surprising – Darwin’s ideas on evolution were so out-there in the 1870s that they produced widespread debate, anger and mockery.

Even with a grasp on what creativity is, it’s not easy to work out where our creative impulses come from. “There are two main kinds of creativity research,” says Jung. “One is looking at normal creativity, because in my conceptualization, I believe that creativity is something that we all have to varying degrees.”

Jung is clear on one limitation of this type of research: as in most psychological studies, participants in examinations of creativity are usually college students, who may have limited experience of being creative. To provoke novel, useful and surprising reactions in participants, Jung and his colleagues might ask them to undertake a cognitive task called divergent thinking. “The most classic example of this is, “Tell me as many uses you can think of for a brick.”

After volunteers have suggested their ideas – be it doorstop, paperweight, lumbar support, tombstone, nutcracker, fish tank furniture, etc. – Jung then examines their brain using imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or electrical activity monitoring methods like electroencephalography (EEG) that can show how neurons and circuits in the brain are firing. In addition, a technique called fractional anisotropy (FA) can be used to measure the structure of white matter in the brain. White matter is mainly made up of myelinated axons – long connections between neurons that carry brain signals. The combination of these techniques enables  researchers to get an approximation of the makeup and activity of neurons during the creative process.

Are creative brains built differently?

The other common type of creativity research compares the brains of individuals with creative backgrounds against less adept volunteers. One study that Jung points to was conducted by University of California San Francisco neurosurgeon Charles Limb, who managed to cram a 35-key custom-built piano keyboard inside an MRI scanner. A group of six full-time professional jazz pianists took turns improvising on the keyboard while lying down in the scanner. The results, as Jung explains, were novel, useful and surprising. “What he found was that the frontal regions of the brain were becoming less active during these creative riffs and improvisational journeys.” The pianists’ lateral prefrontal cortices, located just above the temples at the front of the head, showed substantial deactivation, while more centrally located areas showed an activation increase.

 “If you think of your frontal lobes generally as inhibiting or controlling your behavior, to create that new idea, you may desire to downregulate your frontal lobe control mechanisms in order to produce something that is truly novel, and perhaps useful,”  ~Dr. Rex Jung

Limb and colleagues stated in their paper that they believed that this downregulation was a sign of “suspension of self-monitoring and related processes that typically regulate conscious control of goal-directed, predictable, or planned actions.” For a process that often consumes a lot of energy and can feel exhausting, creativity may require the brain to relax.

For Jung, this wasn’t surprising – it was something predicted by his own structural analysis, where higher creativity is associated with reduced size and volume of frontal brain regions and reduced white matter integrity. “If you think of your frontal lobes generally as inhibiting or controlling your behavior, to create that new idea, you may desire to downregulate your frontal lobe control mechanisms in order to produce something that is truly novel, and perhaps useful,” he explains.

But do these results suggest that creative geniuses are just “wired up differently”? It’s not so simple, says Dr. Evangelia G. Chrysikou, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Drexel University and president-elect of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity, which champions research in the field with workshops and event programs. While these structural and functional differences are fairly robust across studies, whether they play a causal role in heightened creativity is not yet clear. “We cannot know from this evidence whether the brain differences precede the creative endeavors/achievements or whether the brain has changed because of the person systematically engaging in creative endeavors – or both,” says Chrysikou in an email to Technology Networks.

Much of this work, understandably, has been geared towards identifying the neural root of general creative thought. But in practice, the output of the creative process is where the full spectrum of human ingenuity becomes clear. How do the brains of musical prodigies stack up against master painters and eminent scientists?

Studies with colleagues in the University of New Mexico’s music department have helped Jung arrive at an approximate theory of how the brain prepares for different creative pursuits. “What we learned,” says Jung, “Is that there's probably this central mechanism in the brain that induces creativity – the downregulation of the frontal lobe, let's say – but then you pull in, depending on your individual expression, different modules of your brain. With musicians, it's a lot of motor and sensory cortex – a lot of auditory cortex, for example, in musical creativity gets pulled in to constrain the creative potential.”

The big question of the creativity burger

To use a more creative description, it could be that creative activity in the brain is structured like a burger. While the great majority of burger recipes require a patty and bun as a backbone, it’s the extra flavors and toppings that make things interesting. In the same way, once the brain has achieved downregulation of the frontal cortex to get things going, it’s in the incorporation of other brain areas that creativity becomes specialized and unique.

These general theories about the neural basis of creativity will become more precise with advances in imaging techniques. But such an achievement would still leave a rather sizeable question at the heart of the field. “Why creativity exists at all is an important question,” says Jung. The question mirrors his other work, on the basis of intelligence, where he has proposed that some level of intelligence exists from the lowest organisms up to humans because of the evolutionary benefits it bestows. “I've hypothesized that while intelligence is necessary for adaptive problem solving, it's usually for problems that are well constrained. Creativity may emerge in our species and other species as an adaptive reasoning process for relatively unconstrained problems. I think answering that question will be particularly important to not only understanding how our species and other species are evolving in a manner that is adaptive and productive, but perhaps to increase or enhance our ability to maximize our individual capacity, whether it be intellectual or creative.”

Both Jung and Chrysikou agree that to answer these bigger questions, better measures of creativity will be needed. Initiatives like the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity hope to create more consensus-based, effective techniques.

Will we ever solve creativity?

Let’s take a step back. If science could bottle, label and store the origin of creativity and the reasons it exists, would that subtract something from the wonder of human creation? If the unearthly, gorgeous whorls of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night were simply due to the Dutch prodigy’s abnormally weak lateral prefrontal cortex, would that rob the painting of some of its magic?

Jung agrees if we ever reached that point, something might be lost. “But that's not how science works. Science works in in approximations and fits and starts and moving towards solutions. And then finding out that everything you thought was true was an illusion. So, I don't suspect that we'll get there with creativity.”

“But part of the wondrous and exciting and humbling part of doing science,” he concludes, “Is that you might not ever get to the final, final answer. That's true of our lives in general, that we will never be able to answer some of the questions that we would be interested in answering before we die. But that's part of the adventure of life now, isn't it?”