The brain truth about creativity

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy
BrainEthics
Published in
4 min readMar 30, 2022

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Your creative mind is lurking in the deep unconscious parts of the brain!

Is creativity associated with right-brain activity? After all, this idea seems to be everywhere, so it must be the strongest link between the brain and the mind, right?

No, it is not! Please forget about this horribly wrong and pseudoscience idea! It’s an urban legend from the 1960s and should now be buried and forgotten as the anachronism it is…

To put it mildly: after working on thousands of fMRI and EEG scans, hundreds of patients with brain injuries and disorders, and reading thousands of research papers, the answer is pretty simple: logical thinking is not predominantly in the left hemisphere, and creativity is not in the right hemisphere.

It just ain't so!

But creativity must still reside within the enchanted looms we call the brain, right?

Indeed, creativity is related to some very interesting brain features. It all relies on our ability to break down creativity into smaller parts. Here are at least three:

  • Ideation & connections: Coming up with ideas and novel connections of ideas rely on deep structures such as the hippocampus and surrounding areas. This process happens automatically and without conscious control.
  • Loss of control: Creative ideas come when there is less top-down control, i.e. when the frontal lobe exerts less control over the rest of the brain. This is also why great ideas come when you’re just about to fall asleep, doing repetitive or mindless things, or being just plain bored.
  • Execution & grit: Everyone can come up with a great idea. People suffering from psychosis can see connections where there are none. But moving from an idea to something concrete and specific is something completely different. Succeeding in going from idea to reality is all about perspiration, grit, and hard work. Here, the frontal lobes are involved again, directing our focus, effort, planning, and execution.

How do I know that the first part of creativity is unconscious? Because I was part of several fMRI neuroscience studies about creativity, logical thinking, problem solving, and more.

In particular, there are two neuroscience studies: in one, we could predict how many thoughts an object would produce. In another, we could predict individual levels of creativity from brain activity.

Study 1: predicting associative spread

In this first study, we asked participants to look at a series of objects that were presented one at a time. Every time an object was shown twice in a row, they were to press a button. After the scan, we asked the participants to write down as many associations they could to each of the objects.

From this, we calculated the number of associations that each participant produced for each item. This was used to look at the relationship between the number of associations to an object and brain activity related to this.

Here, we found that there was a positive relationship between the activity of the hippocampus and the number of associations participants had for each object.

This suggested that objects automatically trigger an associative spread, even when our minds are doing something else.

Creativity is linked to unconscious brain activity. A: a glass brain showing regions of the medial temporal lobe, and in our study, we focused specifically on the hippocampus (green). B: examples of figures that were shown in the task, which included both well-known brand mascots and unknown figures. C: the positive linear relationship between sparse coding in the hippocampus and the number of associations for each object.

Study 2: predicting creative people

In the second study, which was reported in Nature Scientific Reports, we also tested each participant on their trait creativity using a collection of tests to establish a profile — a so-called Creative Potential score.

In this study, we asked participants to passively look at a dot and report when it changed color. At the same time, we showed simple line drawings completely unrelated to the task. After the scan, we showed the same line drawings to each participant and asked them to write down what came to mind about the figure.

Here, we found that creativity as a trait was related to higher activity in brain regions related to object perception and memory. That is, highly creative people could be identified from their brain activity even when they were not doing something creative.

Brain regions found to be involved in individual differences in creativity. B1 shows the brain regions involved (entorhinal cortex and parahippocampal gyrus), and the linear relationship between activity in each region relative to the Creative Potential battery test.

Since the activity was related to the object perception and not the task at hand, this finding suggested that creativity is, in part, unconscious.

What is creativity?

At the very least, our finding confirmed that there is no relationship between hemisphere activity and creativity. The right brain is not more related to creativity than the left. And this was not for a lack of trying: we did test this assumption, but came up short. In both studies.

It’s no surprise, really. Our finding supports a long line of research using many other methods.

So let’s put the hemisphere asymmetry idea to rest, for good this time. Please :D

Instead, let’s focus on something that is much more interesting:

  • Creativity is related to deep-brain activity, such as in the hippocampus and the surrounding region
  • Creativity is a multi-stage process, including de-focusing attention during idea generation, and re-focusing to go from idea to realization
  • Ideation can happen completely automatically and unconsciously
  • The ideation part of creativity is a tell-tale of people with different creative potential
  • Brain activity during the ideation phase can be used to predict people’s level of creativity

I say that is a much more fruitful approach to creativity, won’t you agree?

#creativity #appliedneuroscience #neuromarketing #neuroscience #neurocreativity #innovation #individualdifferences

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Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy
BrainEthics

Applying the latest neuroscience to solve world problems and challenge our minds.