Science and creativity

apple_bite2This week I watched the BBC programme Horizon about creative thinking. Scientists are trying to understand what happens in our brains before and during what they call ‘creative flashes of inspiration’ or ‘aha moments’.

Prof Jonathan Schooler from the University of California uses a simple set of puzzles to test which side of the brain is more influential in generating creative thoughts; the left side – which is more often associated with logical thinking and language – or the right side which is more often associated with spatial awareness and intuition. He shows puzzles to people, and then provides clues to the answers to the left or the right side of the brain. In his tests, when the clues were directed to the right side of the brain people solved the puzzles faster. His study of brain patterns shows that neurons branch differently on the left and right sides of the brain. On the left side the branches are shorter, on the right side the branches are longer which means distant unrelated ideas have a greater ability to connect. Those connections are the creativity bit.

Prof Schooler also investigates why the best ideas come when you are least expecting them.  He takes 3 volunteers. Each has two minutes to come up with as many creative uses as they can for a normal house brick. Then they are given a two-minute break. During the break,

  • The first volunteer is instructed to sit and do nothing
  • The second is given a non demanding task of sorting Lego into colours
  • The third is given a demanding task to build a model house from Lego

Then they think about different uses for the brick again. The person with the demanding task does least well and the best performer is the person given the undemanding task. Indicating that taking time out to think about something else, something not too demanding could help your creative abilities

Mark Beeman, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University examines brain activity as volunteers solve word association puzzles like the one below. What one word is the common link? *answer at the bottom of the page

  • Pine
  • Crab
  • Sauce

He is interested if the volunteers solve the puzzles in a logical way, for example picking individual words and checking against each to see if there is a link, or if the answer just comes to them in a flash of inspiration. Different parts of the brain work differently when we solve something by logic than when we solve something through a flash of inspiration. Mark shows how when the puzzles are solved with inspiration the right side of the brain reacts; gamma waves erupt from one spot in the right hand side of the brain. Which is congruent with Dr Schoolers point about the right hand side of the brain activity being more closely connected to creative thought.

John Kounios from Drexel University is a scientist studying the sequence of brainwaves before the creative inspiration comes. He shows how the brain momentarily shuts down visual information, cutting off distractions thereby helping you summon your new idea into awareness.

Dr Rex Jung from The University of New Mexico is investigating the difference between creativity and intelligence. Studies of brain patterns show that pathways for Intellectual thinking are short and quick. Creative thinking patterns are less about speed and more about longer, slower and meandering pathways. Dr Jung shows that the brain structure of highly creative people have more of what scientists call ‘white matter’ that slows the connections down.

Dr Charles Limb from John Hopkins Hospital Baltimore studies idea flow when musicians improvise. He studies jazz musicians and shows us how the frontal lobes of the brain; the bit that does conscious self-monitoring, changes when the musicians are improvising.

Simone Ritter from Radboud University investigates if new and unexpected experiences boost your creativity. She runs experiments where volunteers experience a virtual world that does not follow the normal rules, for example things get smaller as you approach them and objects defy gravity. She also sets volunteers everyday tasks where they follow a script that forces them to complete the task in a way that is different from ‘normal’, for example making a sandwich.

Volunteers then take the brick creative thinking test. Their creativity scores increase by 15%. Ritter describes a concept of ‘functional fixitness’; which is when our thinking gets stuck in a rut. We need to overcome this and build new associations between concepts. Changing your routine forces you to abandon well travelled neural pathways which forces new connections between brain cells which leads to new and original ideas.

We already know that making more different and new connections, relaxing and breaking patterns all help creative thinking. All the scientists featured are working independently on the areas of creativity that interest them. However it does paint an interesting picture because these experiments begin to reveal a neurological basis to creative thinking, a topic that is often viewed as subjective and unpredictable. If we can identify neurological patterns and triggers, could it be possible to apply a methodology to enhance our creativity skills.

How can you use the science stuff to increase your creativity?

  • Practice cutting off distractions to the outside world
  • Seek unexpected experiences and disrupt ‘normal’ routines to help you approach problems in a different way
  • Take time out to do something different, taking your mind away from your problem.
  • Practice improvising and responding quickly to situations

You can watch The Creative Brain: How insight works on iPlayer for another few weeks here.




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