Personal Growth

The Neuroscience of Creativity – A Short Guide

The Neuroscience of Creativity - A Short Guide

“There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of – vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps, we know nothing of, within us”. – D.H. Lawrence

Creativity is very complex, and we’re only scratching the surface here, so there’s much more work that’s needed.

This draws us to the neuroscience of creativity

The brain does have different lobes or regions that can handle different tasks. While you can blame that dumb decision you made as a teenager on your frontal lobe of the brain, creative thought does not have any dedicated area of the brain from where those innovative ideas come from!

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An individual’s creativity is more likely a mix of genetics and experience but more of the latter.

Predict how creative an individual is. If you can predict someone’s level of creative thought even while not engaging in a creative task, then the very idea that some people are more creative than others probably is more than just an idea.

Creativity has been a result of genetics and experience; the latter suggests that everyone has the potential to become more creative and one does not trump the other.

The science of creativity suggests some choices can dampen creative thinking. While several things can help boost creative expression. Other factors in our everyday life can pull creativity levels down as well.

While creativity is a fairly new research topic, scientists have well understood for some time that stress and time constraints do dampen innovation. Other creativity downers are recognized simply from experience; many creative people find working in the same place every day lowers their creativity; others even cite a lack of sleep, perfectionism, and a fear of failing.

Creativity is innovation without constraints but the restrictions of scientific research helps us understand, where, exactly, creativity comes from. So researchers are beginning to peel back the several layers of creative expression.

However, understanding the science of creativity, along with the factors that encourage and discourage such new ideas, can help creative people better understand their own process of dealing with things.

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“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things”. – Steve Jobs

Creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain  

The real neuroscience of creativity suggests that the right brain/left brain distinction does not offer us the full picture of how creativity is implemented in the brain. Creativity does not involve a single brain region or a single side of the brain.

Instead, the entire creative process from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and even emotions. Depending on the very stage of the creative process, and what you are actually attempting to create, different brain regions are enrolled to handle the task. Creative thought can be determined by how effectively the brain can communicate between the different regions that usually work separately.

Three distinct brain networks are the key to most creative thinking

These are known as the executive control network (which activates and operates when a person needs to focus), the default network (which is related to brainstorming and daydreaming), and the salience network (which is for detecting environmental stimuli and switching between the executive and default brain networks).

These three large-scale networks that span both hemispheres and aid in creative thinking detail as:

Network 1: The Executive Attention Network:  The Executive Attention Network is recruited when a particular task requires that the spotlight of attention is focused like a laser beam. This network is active when you are concentrating on a challenging lecture or even engaging in complex problem solving and reasoning that puts substantial demands on working memory.

Network 2: The Default Network:  The Default Network (also referred to as the Imagination Network) is majorly involved in constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering/recollecting, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present. The Default Network is also involved and engaged in social cognition. For instance, when we are imagining what someone else is thinking, this brain network is active.

Network 3: The Salience Network has a robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity.

Daydreaming is good for you! An excellent way to access your creativity

Neuroscience is exploring what characterizes creative minds. Highly original thinkers show very strong connectivity between three networks of the brain. These are mind wandering, focused thinking and selective attention, and all three can be strengthened with practice.

Mind-wandering which accounts for structured daydreaming is really good for your creativity. As our minds tend to wander, different parts of our brains get activated, accessing information that may have previously been dormant or out of reach is pretty prevalent. This accounts for creativity, insights, and often solutions to problems that you had not considered.

Creativity is fostered by tasks that allow the mind to wander

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Creativity appears when we allow for unconscious, unfiltered, or random sensations to arise in the flow state:  By hindering the part of the brain that allows self-criticism, say for example the musicians were able to stay in their creative flow, known as “in the zone.” In other words, the inner critic must be shut down, and the inner Picasso turned up!

Visualization has a powerful effect on creating neural pathways

Olympic athletes use it all the time for tapping into your mind’s eye in order to mentally prepare for the competition. The language of self-belief is rich with metaphors. We all have the innate ability to create a mental image of doing something amazing; and by really getting in touch with our senses, that thought can surface and become more real to us and our brains.

The same part of the brains’ neural pathways in the cortex is stimulated and activated if you imagine walking as if you had actually walked!  The brain registers this at a deep level and is most likely to make a positive connection with a real-life event.

Simply imagining something does have the power to deliver physical benefits as well as mental benefits. This can be useful when working with individuals and groups to explore better outcomes. It is a great way to turn away from logical dominance and access a more abstract and flexible way of thinking.

It needs to start with harnessing the brain-body connection. What does the ultimate visual look like, smell like, and taste like, and what was the experience that is felt? This helps to raise the unconscious to the very conscious level.

Divergent thinking is the mental muscle behind consistent creative output

“Divergent thinking” was a term coined by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967. It is the ability to generate many ideas or solutions from a single idea or even a piece of information. Divergent thinking is not the same as creative thinking. However, it is definitely a good indicator of creative potential!

Divergent thinking tends to be more spontaneous and free-flow. Individuals try to keep their minds open to any possibilities that present themselves. The more possibilities they come up with, the better their divergent thinking. We are able to consciously influence ourselves to imbed greater creativity. Not just by practicing and doing exercises that require creativity or by being creative, but also by using our executive network to invoke our salience network by scanning actively for more divergent thoughts, and by disinheriting our suppression of such divergent thoughts.

These brain networks form a somewhat flexible and responsive system which is a “complex adaptive system”. It is not a resilient learning system; obviously, the brain has evolved in relation to the environment. However, with human beings, it isn’t just the physical environment; it is the world of language, culture, and ideas coming from social relations. The level of entropy is way higher as a result of these social and cultural factors because the information reflected back has so many more possible states it can be in. That’s entropy, a measure of the number of possible states a system can possibly be in, and consciousness is very entropic.

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An example of the neuroscience of creativity

A few hours after Einstein died, Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed his autopsy, removed Einstein’s brain without his family’s due permission and against Einstein’s wishes of what he wanted done with his remains.

He then carved out his brain into 240 pieces and preserved all of them. After hiding them for several years, he finally sent parts of the brain to other scientists to conduct studies and unravel the mystery behind Einstein’s intellectual prowess.

One of the studies found that Einstein’s brain, compared to 11 other control brains, possessed a higher ratio of glial cells to neurons in a part of the association cortex, which is responsible for integrating and then synthesizing information from multiple parts of the brain. This possibly had resulted from Einstein spending so much time visualizing and solving complex scientific problems in creative ways. Not everyone agreed with the study’s conclusions though, and there have been many valid criticisms of the way this and other similar studies have been conducted.

Since the time of such (potentially flawed) studies, we have come a long way in understanding about the brain structures that aid in creative and critical thinking. We have moved towards the ability to think creatively depending on the interconnectedness between the different parts of the brain involved in creative problem solving making the neuroscience of creativity our superb gift to be duly cherished

“We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them”. – Albert Einstein

Three videos on the neuroscience of creativity

Guest Author: Trishna Patnaik, a BSc (in Life Sciences) and MBA (in Marketing) by qualification but an artist by choice. A self-taught artist based in Mumbai, Trishna has been practising art for over 14 years. After she had a professional stint in various reputed corporates, she realised that she wanted to do something more meaningful. She found her true calling in her passion that is painting. Trishna is now a full-time professional painter pursuing her passion to create and explore to the fullest. She says, “It’s a road less travelled but a journey that I look forward to every day.” Trishna also conducts painting workshops across Mumbai and other metropolitan cities of India. Trishna is an art therapist and healer. She works with clients on a one-on-one basis in Mumbai. Trishna fancies the art of creative writing and is dappling her hands in that too, to soak in the experience and have an engagement with readers, wanderers and thinkers. 

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