This is Your Brain on Creativity

While the genesis of an idea remains mysterious, a huge amount has been written about the creative process and how to enhance our own creativity. The advice that is offered (eg. be open to the unexpected, experiment, reserve judgement, disrupt habitual thinking, etc) has been developed over years of practical experience. We do these things because they work. More recently, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have been able to reveal WHY these things work. And when you know the science of creativity, it is also easier to identify the barriers too.

For example, think about the two distinct creative processes, divergence and convergence (mentioned in last week’s post). The former requires openness, playfulness and de-focussed attention, all of which support lateral thinking. When divergence is being encouraged in a workshop or brainstorming session, it usually comes with the ‘yes, and…’ rule. This rule encourages participants to build on suggestions made by their colleagues, rather than torpedo them down with the usual plethora of bald statements that start with ‘no, but…’ I’m sure everyone has experienced the ideas-assassin, who responds to every suggestion with ‘no, but… that would never work… we tried it 10 years ago and it failed so we’ll never try again… and we’ll never get the funding… and the boss wouldn’t let us…’ If the other participants become self-conscious and start self-censoring, nothing new is going to appear. There is a time for judgement and evaluation (ie. convergence) but that comes next, when the group has generated a mountain of ideas that need sifting, sorting, and – often – binning.

So what’s going on upstairs when we are in a positive, ideas-generating environment? There is increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which works to ‘learn associations between context, locations, events, and corresponding adaptive responses, particularly emotional responses’ (1). It is linked with memory, self-expression and autobiographical narrative. It is also part of the ‘default mode network’, which is most active when a person is recalling memories, or otherwise in a resting state that can range from not thinking about anything in particular to sleep. But this is only half the story – as the medial prefrontal cortex fires up, the lateral prefrontal cortex decreases activity at the same time. This area is responsible for ‘conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of actions you’re about to implement’ (2). Psychology professor, Sharon Thompson Schill coined the phrase ‘hypofrontality’ to describe this suppression of activity. Transient hypofrontality has huge benefits, such as for language learning and creative thought, and can even explain the positive influence of exercise on emotion and cognition.

To put it another way: When someone is engaged in a task that requires cognitive control and focussed attention – for instance, solving a math problem or deciding what to pack for a camping trip – so-called beta waves, which oscillate at a frequency of 15 to 20 hertz, usually dominate. When people came up with new ideas, however, researchers recorded alpha waves over the prefrontal cortex. These eight to 12 hertz waves are typically a sign of relaxed wakefulness and diffuse attention. Their presence thus bolstered the notion that idea generation is associated with a state of lower cognitive control. (3)

This explains so much, not just the conditions that we need to generate ideas, but also the conditions that inhibit our ability to come up with ideas too. In layman’s (ie. my) terms – if you’re in the wrong part of your head, you’re going to struggle to think up anything new. ‘Cognitive flexibility’ is the ability to rapidly switch between modes of thinking, and it’s thought that creative individuals are ‘better able to upregulate or downregulate their cognitive-control system depending on the demands of the situation’ (4). This also makes sense to me, as the creative and design processes require a balance of divergent and convergent thinking, and the ability to move fairly comfortably between the two as required.

Another fundamental aspect of creativity is the ability to recombine and mashup existing ideas. I wrote about this in my post, ‘Ideas by Association’, and included the following quotes:

Creative thinking is a break with habitual patterns of thought… All of our existing thoughts have creative possibilities. Creative insights occur when they are combined in unexpected ways or applied to questions or issues with which they are not normally associated.”

Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements… the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships… To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge.”

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

So what is the brain up to when we’re doing this? An important aspect is cognitive disinhibition, which is when the mental filters that screen out extraneous or irrelevant details are less effective. Latent inhibition, also known as ‘learned irrelevance’, is one of these cognitive filters; when it is reduced, more information than is needed reaches our awareness and there is a tendency to look for patterns and associations that aren’t necessarily there. In small doses, cognitive disinhibition aids creativity as unexpected combinations of ideas are more readily made; in large doses, it is associated with hallucinations and schizophrenia.

Personality theorists have also made links between latent inhibition and ‘openness’, one of the so-called Big Five personality traits (the others being conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). In his article, Openness to Experience: the Gates of the Mind, Luke Smillie explains:

Open people tend to be intellectually curious, creative, and imaginative. They are interested in art and are voracious consumers of music, books, and other fruits of culture… Openness reflects a greater “breadth, depth, and permeability of consciousness,” and propensity to “cognitively explore” both abstract information (e.g., ideas and arguments) and sensory information (e.g., sights and sounds)… Learning what to ignore is critical for effective psychological functioning… So we sieve… information for relevant details, screening-out everything else. The problem is, the screened-out information might be useful later, but by then we’re slow to realize its significance, to un-learn its irrelevance.

This process can be modeled in the laboratory by pre-exposing participants to seemingly unimportant stimuli that later form the basis of a learning task. For the average person, this pre-exposure stifles subsequent learning—the critical stimulus has been rendered “irrelevant” and fails to penetrate awareness. Not so, however, for those high in openness, who are less susceptible to latent inhibition. This again demonstrates a more inclusive mode of thinking—a “leaky” cognitive system, if you will—which lets in information that others screen-out. These studies show that open people are less susceptible to the psychological “blind spots” that help us pare back the complexity of the world.

Having large volumes of additional, unfiltered information passing through one’s consciousness must be overwhelming and doesn’t always result in creativity. Both high IQ and strong memory have been linked with reduced latent inhibition in creative people, suggesting that the brain needs highly effective support mechanisms to make productive use of all that disparate content.

I love the relationship between our lived experiences of creativity – what we know works, but couldn’t tell say why – and then understanding the real power behind the throne, and how our brains go about pulling the relevant strings, pulleys and levers to make new ideas happen. It’s reassuring to know that someone in there knows what she’s doing.

IMAGE: The Persephone Chalice, 1914-15, Phoebe Anna Traquair, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

(1) ‘The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Memory and Decision Making’, Neuron, 2012, Dec 20, 76(6), by Euston, Gruber and McNaughton

(2) ‘Charles J Limb: Inner Sparks’, Scientific American MIND, January 2014, by Alicia Anstead

(3) ‘Your Fertile Brain at Work’, p.88, Scientific American MIND, January 2014

(4) Ibid, p.90.


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