Creativity and the Brain

“Who here is creative?” I ask at the beginning of a lecture. Few put up their hand. 

Sadly, too many people don’t consider themselves creative. Yet creativity is in our nature, our genes, and in our brains! Look around you now... all the “stuff” around us did not emerge without the incredible human brain capacity to create. Buildings did not erect themselves. Books did not write themselves. Courses did not design themselves. Fashion did not walk itself down the runway. We can even see the creative capacity in every-day life: Relationships and friendships, jobs and job opportunities are created, vacations and trips, are created. New sports, teams, businesses, non-profits, all kinds of events, dinners and dinner parties, weddings, celebrations of life... all created through the power of our brains. Even this soya cappuccino didn’t create itself, some brain did.

We were born to create! In fact, before we were born, we, with the help of our mothers, exerted a significant amount of energy in creating neural connections among neurons (the brain’s major brain cells). These connections created a complex brain system, with some of the most interesting connections happening in our frontal cortex - the big protrusion at the front of our head. This part of the brain is quite distinct from other animals and often described as being responsible for many of the incredible abilities that we tend to consider “humanly”, including our creativity. 

Awhile ago I watched a great TED talk by medical doctor, Charles Limb. He was curious about creativity and began to study musicians ability to improvise, both jazz and rap, while their brains were being visualized with fMRI. He found that when musicians engaged in improv, brain areas otherwise known to be involved in self-monitoring (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and lateral orbital cortex) were deactivated, while at the same time, an area involved in self-expression (medial prefrontal cortex) was ramped up. Limb explains these neural findings as representing the musicians ability to shut down his inhibitions and let his inner voice shine through. In other words, neural evidence of an inner creative unsuppressed by an inner critic.

The medial prefrontal cortex (particularly the area on the right side of the brain) is an interesting area to pop up, or rather light up, largely because it is also known to be involved in the production of original ideas. Researchers Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues argue that creative cognition may be interfered with by our very dominant language areas of the brain. If that area becomes damaged, our creativity is unleashed. Oddly, or rather interestingly, there are several neurological conditions in which this does happen, i.e., in which creativity is facilitated through damage. This paradox happens in some forms of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s kind of like killing the inner critic. 

The inner critic might also involve another area of the brain (the precuneus) that is activated typically during self-consciousness and some types of memory (episodic memory). This area isn’t in the frontal lobes, but rather resides in the cortex at the top of the brain, known as the parietal lobes. What is interesting about the precuneus is that researchers Takeuchi and colleagues found this area to have reduced activity in creative individuals, further suggesting a quiet “inner critic”, or reduced self-consciousness.

Ok, but how can we apply this to our brains? Well, let’s assume then that those of us who do not normally put up our hands when asked “who here is creative” are now convinced that maybe, just maybe, we have a dormant inner creative that is hoping to be unleashed. What are we to do now? Simple. 

Change our brains, of course!  

One of the most wonderful things about neuroscience is that we know that the brain has an incredible ability to change and to change itself (see below for some great books on this topic). In fact, that is what the brain does. It changes. It changes in response to learning, new information, insights, criticism, reward, and much, much more. What we do inevitably changes our brain. Therefore, it serves us well to be a bit more intentional about it.

Unleashing Your Neural Creative:

  1. Change our mind and silence your inner critic.  When you hear it say “I’m not creative” argue with it. Explain to him/her all the reasons that you ARE creative. Re-write the script in your brain and let your brain change itself. This may sound strange but in fact, there is a huge body of literature that shows that “cognitive reframing” is highly effective for many things including reducing symptoms of depression and relapse of depressive episodes. See below for book ideas on related topics.

  1. List the creative activities that you have engaged in that day or that week. Actually, why not do a gratitude journal each night giving thanks to all the creativity activity you engaged in. We know, in science, that gratitude journals are effective for increasing wellness and quality of life, so it likely won’t hurt to try! And I can guarantee that it will change your brain.

  1. Practice being creative. Take a paper clip. In a classic psychology exercises that look at divergent thinking processes, participants are asked to list all of the ways in which a paper clip can be used for something other than keeping paper together. Kids can come up with about 100 in 1 minute.  Adults... well, they need practice. Their inner critics are much more... mature. So practice away. 

  1. Admit you are creative. Next time someone asks “who here in creative?” put up your hand confidently knowing that a neuroscientist once told you that you are creative! :) And then let me know how it goes...  

Scientific References:
Limb, C. & Braun, A. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PlOS ONE, 3(2). e1679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001679  (you can also watch TED talk:
Shamay-Tsoory, SG., Adler, N., Aharon-Peretz, J., Perry, D., Mayseless, N. (2011). The origins of originality: The neural bases of creative thinking and originality. Neuropsychologia, 49(2). 
Takeuchi, H., Taki, Y, Hashizume, H., Sassa, Y, Nagasse, Tl, Kawashima, R. (2011). Cerebral blood flow during rest associates with general intelligence and creativity. PLoS 6 (9). e25532. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025532

Great Stories of Brains that Change Themselves:
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doige, MD
The Woman Who Changed Her Brain by Barbara Arrowsmith, MA
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD

Books Involving Cognitive Reframing & Gratitude:
Mindful Way Through Depression, Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness by J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. 
Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

For Further Reading on Applied Neuroscience Topics 
Check Out the Science Page at the Centre for Applied Neuroscience: