Creativity is a fundamental ability that is central to scientific, technological, and cultural progress. Psychologists define creativity as a cognitive skill – the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. But what happens under the hood – in our brains – when we are engaged in creative thinking, is only now starting to become clear.
Deeper levels of creativity, often called Big C creativity, like those demonstrated by Einstein or Steve Jobs, involve years of work and are therefore not as easy to study. Nevertheless, understanding how the brain works in simpler creative tasks can still give us valuable clues about our thinking patterns.
Experiments To Nurture Creativity
One example of a simple creative task is divergent thinking – for example, generating new uses of an object like a brick. Divergent thinking has been found to moderately predict real-life creative achievement making it an ideal choice for neuroscience experiments.
In one experiment to understand the neurological underpinnings of creativity, Swedish scientists gave short tasks to two groups of healthy adults. One group had received very high scores on a creativity test while the other group had scored low. While the participants worked on these short tasks, researchers measured the blood flow to different parts of the brain. The results of the experiment showed that the highly creative group utilized both hemispheres of the prefrontal region during creative tasks while the low creative group primarily used the left side.
Multiple experiments have so far shown that there is no one particular brain area that is exclusively responsible for our creativity. Contrary to popular belief, creativity isn’t a right-brained activity. Instead, both hemispheres work together during creative tasks. A better way to think of this is in terms of brain networks.
In a more recent study, scientists found that the interconnection between three key networks that span both hemispheres aids in creative thinking.
The Key Brain Networks Involved In Creativity:
- Default network: The default network is active when you are not in deliberate thought. It is responsible for spontaneously generating new ideas by combining concepts from memory and external stimulation. The default network consists of the cortical midline and posterior inferior parietal regions of the brain structures.
- Salience network: The salience network facilitates the transition between the default and executive networks. It identifies potentially good ideas generated by the default network and passes them on to the executive network for further processing. The salience network is comprised of the bilateral insula and anterior cingulate cortex.
- Executive network: The executive network is active when you are consciously thinking, and is responsible for planning, reasoning, and decision making. Once the salience network forwards candidate ideas, the executive network takes over and starts evaluating and refining them. The executive network is composed of the anterior and lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex and other interconnected regions like the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
The above study, which used connectome-based predictive modeling, found some interesting results.
How Does The Brain Of Creative People Work?
First, more creative people showed dense functional connectivity between the core nodes in the three networks compared to less creative people. Of the highest connected nodes, almost half of them belonged to the default network followed by those in the salience and executive network. This suggests that the ability to generate more novel combinations of ideas plays a strong role in creative abilities. In contrast, the low creative network showed a greater connection between the subcortical, sensorimotor, and cerebellar regions. These brain regions are associated with habitual responses suggesting that low creative people tend to rely on previously learned responses.
Second, more creative brains were able to simultaneously activate these three brain networks to a greater degree than the low creative case. Typically, these networks work in opposition – when the default network is active like during daydreaming, the executive network stays dormant. However, during creative tasks, a more creative brain is able to engage these networks to work together seamlessly.
Creativity is a complex mental activity and we are only now starting to understand how our brain functions during creative thinking. Unlike the more popular belief that creativity is a right-brain activity, current research shows that several parts of the brain across both hemispheres are recruited during creative thinking.