The Creative Brain
By Dr. Kelsey Medeiros
Are creative brains the same as uncreative brains? A new study recently covered by The Guardian suggests not! Specifically, a team of researchers identified a “brain network” that was better connected in those who demonstrate higher levels of creativity compared to those who demonstrate less creativity.
To examine this, 163 participants were placed in an fMRI machine and asked to work on a divergent thinking task. A divergent thinking task is a classic measure of creative potential in which respondents are asked to list as many ideas as possible to a prompt. For example, Guilford’s Consequence Task (a well known divergent thinking measure) asks, “What would be the results if it appeared certain that within three months the entire surface of the earth would be covered with water, except for the few highest mountain peaks?” Respondents are then instructed to list as many responses as possible. The total number of responses creates your “fluency” score.
In this study, the brain network activity of those who scored highly on the divergent thinking measure (i.e., higher fluency) was compared to those who had low scores (i.e., lower fluency). The researchers identified 3 networks active during the divergent thinking task. Importantly, they also found that these networks were highly connected for those with high fluency scores and less connected for those with low fluency scores.
The first network is associated with mind wandering and spontaneous thinking. The second network is typically active during periods of focused thought. The third network determines where we focus our attention. But, how can we let our mind wander and focus our attention at the same time?
Although somewhat surprising, these neural network findings back up a theoretical argument in the creativity literature – the dual-pathway model! As the name suggests, this model argues that there are two important paths to creativity. The first is the “flexibility pathway” which argues for the importance of wide exploration. This pathway most closely aligns with the first neutral network identified in the fMRI study. The second pathway, “persistence,” suggests that digging deeper into a smaller subset of ideas results in more creativity - a concept that aligns with the second and third neural pathways.
In addition to telling us that the creative brain is more complex and maybe even a little weird, this study also relates to the work we do in the ECO lab. We are interested in how constraints, limitations or restrictions on open-ended thought (e.g., goals, limited resources), influence creativity. Researchers in the past argued that adding constraints would be bad for creativity. Now, however, researchers (including us!) are starting to argue that constraints may actually be beneficial for creativity. Even a few pretty cool business leaders like Biz Stone and Marissa Mayer agree!
Specifically, we argue that constraints help to focus attention and allow for more mind wandering within a limited, or constrained, space. In other words, constraints give your brain a specific area to wander in rather than wandering endlessly. It’s like if I were to tell you to go explore the woods and find something new. You’d have a lot of ground to cover and likely wouldn’t be able to dig very deep into the ground to explore uncharted territory. But, if I tell you to go explore a specific, smaller section of the woods, you have more time and energy to dig deeper and look more closely at the details. So, by adding constraints to a creative project, you may focus your attention and identify new connections or new ideas by looking a bit more deeply.
Results from the fMRI study suggest that people who demonstrate more creative potential may be better at managing these conflicting pathways than people with less creative potential. This suggests that perhaps, they are better able to manage mind wandering in a limited space, which may help them be more creative when presented with a highly constrained project!
So, if you think you have a “creative mind,” try introducing constraints to spark new ideas. Want to improve your creativity? Practice generating new ideas and introduce new requirements such as a stricter budget, a more specific goal, or a shorter timeline. Might be difficult at first, but over time you may be able to improve your creativity!