Tracy Staedter

Aug 10th 2020

Where Is Creativity in the Brain?


Scientists have long asked a simple question for which there is no simple answer: Where is creativity in the brain? The question arises, in part, from a long-standing assumption that because specific regions of the brain control functions, such as vision, language, moving arms or legs and more, they also control personality traits — namely that left-brain thinking is logical and analytical while right-brain thinking is creative and innovative.

But thanks to advances in brain imaging technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalographic (EEG) technology, scientists are seeing a more complex picture emerging. By mapping brain activity in people performing a range of different creative or artistic tasks, such as writing, drawing and playing a musical instrument, researchers have found that creativity isn’t centered in one area of the brain. Rather, it appears to be the result of synchronicity between three brain networks that don’t typically work together. Scientists less and less are asking where is creativity in the brain and instead making more nuanced queries, such as how are these networks connected, and can they be enhanced?

What Is Creativity?

Understanding the creative mind first requires a basic primer on creativity itself. Anna Abraham, a neuroscientist and author of “The Neuroscience of Creativity” told Scientific American that most experts agree that two components are central to creativity. “First and foremost, it reflects our capacity to generate ideas that are original, unusual or novel in some way. The second element is that these ideas also need to be satisfying, appropriate or suited to the context in question,” she said.

One analysis, published recently in the Creativity Research Journal, adds a little more to the picture. The researcher said that a majority of definitions of creativity intersect at four, not two, components:

  • It’s a key ability of individual(s).
  • It presumes an intentional activity or process.
  • It occurs in a specific environment.
  • It entails the generation of a tangible or intangible product that is original and unconventional as well as valuable and useful.

According to Medical News Today, most scientists who study creativity think that the creative process has two stages. The first is a free flow of thoughts and experimentation that lead to a new concept. The second involves editing and assessing the concept to refine and perfect it.

Why Is Creativity Important?

Since Homo sapiens began carving out a life on this planet 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, their ability to solve problems has allowed them to survive in deserts, polar regions, rainforests and mountains. Even in modern times, creativity has given way to amazing inventions, such as life-saving medicines, flight, the internet, electricity and more — all of which have advanced our species. It’s no wonder scientists are fascinated by how humans have come up with these notions.

Studying whether someone is creative usually involves analyzing what they create, while they’re creating it, whether it’s a poem, a story, an illustration or a piece of music. This aspect, in and of itself, makes studying creativity a challenge, said Abraham. “As many of us know through our own experience, we unfortunately cannot automatically elicit a cascade of creative thought with a mere prod. We may be trying to be creative when tasked to do so but this is not the same as being creative,” she said.

Nonetheless, scientists make attempts. Several studies may draw from something called the Alternative Uses Test. Participants are given a simple, everyday object — like a paperclip or a brick — and asked to imagine as many innovative uses for the object as they can, within a period of time. The more uses the person can imagine, the more divergent their imagination is and the more creative they’re considered. The average person can come up 10 to 20 unique and innovative uses. Those considered creative geniuses can imagine upwards of 200 uses.

Understanding the creative mind of divergent thinkers is a goal of many scientists, from psychologists to business leaders. In a landmark study conducted in the late 1960s, George Land, a systems scientist, and Beth Jarman, an educator and organizational leader, used the Alternative Uses Test to discover who some of these creative geniuses were. The participants were 1,500 children, who were questioned over a period of about 10 years. They were first asked at around age five and then every five years afterward, until they were age 15. Land and Jarman found that 98% of children in kindergarten scored at the genius level. At age ten, only 32% scored that high. By age 15%, only 10% made the cut. Only 2% of adults, given the same test, were creative geniuses. Land and Jarman published these results in the 1992 book, “Breakpoint and Beyond,” and Land presented them in a TED Talk.

The implications were concerning and have continued to ripple through society into the 21st Century. Not only do these results suggest that educational systems may be wringing creativity from youth — a point that Sir Ken Robinson, a professor emeritus of arts education at the University of Warwick in the U.K., posits in Changing Education Paradigms — but they also call to question the creative problem-solving ability of many people. Studies, including ones from the U.S. Department of Education, World Economic Forum and Bloomberg say that future jobs will require employees with “creative problem solving skills.” A 2018 survey of teachers conducted by Adobe supports this. It found, among other things, that three-quarters of the educators queried think students with these skills will have better employment prospects because future jobs that require creative problem solving are less likely to be impacted by automation and will also pay more.

Where Is Creativity in the Brain?

Abraham told Scientific American that the rigid idea that creative people are right-brained “amounts to a lazy generalization and is incorrect.” One of the things that’s unique about creativity in the brain is that it draws from both sides. This is actually what makes creativity unique compared to other brain functions, like language or motion, that originate in a specific region.

A recent study adds to this growing understanding. In a 2018 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers explain how they combined the Alternative Uses Test with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain activity of creative people. The team asked about 160 volunteers to undergo an fMRI scan while thinking of creative uses for common objects, like a brick, a knife, a box and some rope. For people who scored the highest, the resulting images showed they had a distinct pattern of brain activity across three brain networks. The lead author on the research papers, Roger Beaty, a postdoctoral fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience at Harvard University, summarizes the networks in article for The Conversation. He writes,

“The default network is a set of brain regions that activate when people are engaged in spontaneous thinking, such as mind-wandering, daydreaming and imagining. This network may play a key role in idea generation or brainstorming – thinking of several possible solutions to a problem.

“The executive control network is a set of regions that activate when people need to focus or control their thought processes. This network may play a key role in idea evaluation or determining whether brainstormed ideas will actually work and modifying them to fit the creative goal.

“The salience network is a set of regions that acts as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks. This network may play a key role in alternating between idea generation and idea evaluation.”

Usually brain activity doesn’t occur much between these networks, but in highly creative brains, interactions were strong, reported Forbes. Beaty and his team took their findings one step further and created a computer model to predict creative thinking ability in people who had participated in other studies. The scientists found that they could predict a person’s creative ability based on how strongly these three networks were connected.

This finding is among the most recent that helps dispel the myth that creativity is influenced by the “left brain” or “right brain.” Instead, it draws from multiple brain networks that interact across both hemispheres.

Can Creativity Be Enhanced?

Because a handful of adults are creative geniuses, others want to push their creativity to a higher level. Adam Green, director of the Georgetown Laboratory for Relational Cognition and president-elect of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity, has been conducting research to see if it’s possible. In one study he found that using electromagnetic stimulation, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), on a targeted area of the brain, known as the frontopolar cortex, boosted participants ability to produce creative analogies from a bunch of words, reported the American Psychological Association. Green cautioned that “creativity-­enhancing machines” are far from the consumer market, but there are other ways to enhance the creative mind now. Green offered these five suggestions in Entrepreneur:

  1. Exercise your mind. This means dedicating more time to active thinking. Mindfulness mediation is one approach, according to the Harvard Business Review. Actively brainstorming or engaging in thought puzzles are others. These activities strengthen brain network connections involved in creative thinking.
  2. Change your work environment. This could mean rearranging your office, painting it or adding different items that engage a variety of sensing. It could also mean conducting work outside the office or having lunch with people or coworkers you don’t know well.
  3. Learn something new. “New ideas come from interconnections among old ideas,” Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, told Entrepreneur. Plenty of research shows that becoming more familiar with obscure topics helps stir up new ideas.
  4. Log new ideas. Ever have an idea for a new invention? Write it down. Even if you never pursue it, recording it and referring to it later can stir up creative ideas.
  5. Challenge yourself. Put yourself in situations that force you to think on your feet or push the edges of your comfort zone.

Where is creativity in the brain? Although scientists still have a lot to learn about what makes the humans creative, they have good evidence that shows it does not originate from one brain location. But many other questions remain. Beaty said, “As researchers, we just need to engage our own creative networks to figure out how to answer them.”