Neuroscientists try to unlock the origins of creativity

Discovery © Linda Naiman

Are we getting closer to understanding the process of creativity from a neuroscience point of view?

Here’s the latest…

Dr. Vartanian is on a quest some neuroscientists have come to see as quixotic: to map and understand the brain circuitry involved in creative thinking. Fifteen years of brain imaging studies have left researchers unable to define the regions and networks that are involved, although they have debunked the myth that creativity is seated in the right side of the brain and begun to explore the intriguing possibility that it is related to the ability to silence our inner critic.

Does studying art and music make children more creative in math and problem solving? How do you train a young brain to make it more flexible?

These kinds of questions would be easier to answer if scientists understood the neural circuitry involved, says Charles Limb, a surgeon and saxophonist who studies creativity and is research director of the Neuro Education initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Dr. Limb asked professional jazz musicians to play a keyboard in a brain imager so he could see what was different about their brain activity when they improvised compared to when they played music they had memorized.

He found that a part of the brain that plays a role in self-restraint and evaluation – the inner critic – powered down when the musicians were improvising, while an area associated with self-expression ramped up.

“My instincts tell me this has to be an important component, this mechanism by which the brain shuts off inhibitory impulses,” Dr. Limb said.

Dr. Vartanian is also interested in how some parts of the brain are silenced so that out-of-the-box solutions can emerge.

He painstakingly maps regions of the brain that are either activated or suppressed during creative problem-solving and then looks to see whether patients with damage to those areas have difficulty performing the same kind of tasks.

He suspects that a part of the frontal lobes called the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex plays an important role. It gets activated when you show people bizarre images of a teapot with legs or a key with a snake coming out of it and they have to loosen their perceptual or conceptual constraints to accommodate novelty.

“The consensus is creativity is a big muddled mess,” said Rex Jung, a brain scientist at the University of New Mexico. But the research has at least debunked the myth that the right side of the brain is the creative side, he says. It has also shown the importance of the frontal lobes.

“The standard model for creativity is you need to bring all the different concepts you are thinking and manipulate them and fuse them into new concepts,” Dr. Vartanian said. “We tend to think the frontal lobes are heavily involved in this.”

Some neuroscientists, like Arne Dietrich at American University of Beirut – remain skeptical that much progress is being made. He has compared the quest to understand creativity in the brain to nailing jelly to a wall. But Dr. Vartanian plans to persevere.

Read the full article here:  Neuroscientists try to unlock the origins of creativity – The Globe and Mail


About the Author:

Linda is founder of Creativity at Work and co-author of Orchestrating Collaboration at Work. She helps executives and their teams develop creativity, innovation, and leadership capabilities, through coaching, training and consulting. Linda brings a multi-disciplinary approach to learning and development by leveraging arts-based practices to foster creativity at work, and design thinking as a strategy for innovation.