We’ve all heard the simplistic adage that left-brain thinking is logical and analytical while right-brain thinking is creativity (creative and innovative). It’s an easy to understand binary that is also a complete myth. The brain is, unsurprisingly, much more complicated than a simple left/right binary, and new research is illustrating that creative thought can be determined by how effectively the brain can communicate between different regions that usually work separately.
Over the past couple of decades improvements in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology has allowed scientists a remarkable insight into brain activity. Numerous studies have mapped brain activity across a myriad of creative or artistic tasks from composing poetry to sketching an illustration. While no single “creative” part of the brain has been revealed, what is increasingly understood is that novel thinking generally engages a unique and broad configuration of brain regions that don’t typically work together.
In newly published research an international team of scientists examined 163 subjects under fMRI while participating in a classic divergent thinking test. The test involved subjects being shown an everyday object and given 12 seconds to come up with the most creative use for that object they could think of. The responses were then ranked by originality and creativity.
“Creativity is typically defined as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas,” explains Roger Beaty, first author on the study. So for example when a subject was shown a sock, a common and uncreative response was it can warm your feet, while a novel, highly ranked response was to use the sock as a water filtration system.
The results found that three distinct brain networks were key to the most creative thinking. These are known as the default network (related to brainstorming and daydreaming), the executive control network (which activates when a person needs to focus) and the salience network (known for detecting environmental stimuli and switching between executive and default brain networks).
“It’s the synchrony between these systems that seems to be important for creativity,” says Beaty. “People who think more flexibly and come up with more creative ideas are better able to engage these networks that don’t typically work together and bring these systems online.”
The study took things a fascinating step further and developed a model that set out to predict how creative a person’s thinking could be, based on the strength of the connections between different brain networks. The results were successful and using a new sample of participants the team could effectively predict how creative an idea was simply by studying the fMRI results.
“…we found that based on how strong the connections are in this network, we could guess pretty accurately how creative you’re going to be on a task,” says Beaty.
Moving forward one of the next questions to be investigated by the researchers is finding out if these brain networks can be modified or improved. Can brain training or certain classes lead to greater brain network connectivity? And if connectivity between these networks can be “grown” would that boost a person’s general creative thinking abilities?
“Creativity is complex, and we’re only scratching the surface here, so there’s much more work that’s needed,” says Beaty.
The new study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.