The Scientific Origin of Creativity

Dec 10, 2019 · 7 min read
Graphic by Philip Papapolyzos

For some people, being original is easy. Professional artists are able to produce thousands of unique and captivating songs, books, movies, and drawings every year, while others struggle to produce even a single piece of art of comparable quality. Just as engineers have trained themselves to be proficient at math for a living, these artists are in the business of being creative. although creativity may appear less tangible than mathematical skill, it is still an ability with a cognitive and neurological basis that can be measured, taught, and nurtured.

According to Anna Abraham, author of The Neuroscience of Creativity, creativity is defined as the ability to produce “ideas that are original, unusual, or novel in some way” that is also “suited to the context in question.” Your creation can’t just be new, it also must somehow be considered good. Any toddler can paint something that’s never been painted before, but that doesn’t make them the next Picasso. However, Abraham also brings up the fact that there are no adequate tools to quantitatively measure creativity. One of the most pressing issues with scientifically studying creativity is that it is a spontaneous phenomenon that can’t be easily prompted during a controlled psychological study. “Trying to be creative,” Abraham says, “is not the same as being creative.” This presents a hurdle in the mission to accurately measure creativity.

That said, asking participants to try to be creative has not been entirely fruitless. In a study published online in Neuroscience News, research subjects were asked to complete the “alternative uses task,” in which they try to think of new or unusual uses for common household items, like a sock or a brick, while an fMRI measures their blood flow in the brain, allowing scientists to examine which brain regions are the most active and requesting the greatest blood flow. Participants were rated based on how many ideas they could come up with, how uncommon their usages were, and how elaborate their explanations were. Despite the difficulty in cueing spontaneous creativity through this task, there was a correlation shown between doing “better” at this task and enjoying more creative every day hobbies, according to the activities that participants self-reported. The fMRI showed the levels of blood flow through 268 brain regions, using statistical analysis to determine which connections correlated with higher scores on the alternative uses task. These were grouped together as a “high-creative network,” while other edges, negatively correlated with creativity, were grouped into a “low-creative network.” Measuring the strength of this network then allowed them to find that the correlation goes both ways; it was possible to estimate how well a person would perform the alternate uses task from the strength of connections in their high-creative network.

Researchers have found that this high-creative network is comprised of three different, smaller networks that are not typically activated at the same time — the salience network, the default network, and the executive control network. The default network is at play during idle, spontaneous thought, while the executive control network activates during tasks that require focus. The salience network, meanwhile, “acts as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks.” They concluded that more creative people have improved co-activation of “brain networks that usually work separately.” Yet, other scientists have had separate hypotheses on what separates more creative people, such as the theory that it is improved by specialization of brain hemispheres. Kenneth Heilman of Cornell University conducted a survey finding that writers, artists, musicians, and other people with more creatively-stimulating careers or hobbies had a smaller corpus callosum — the structure of nerves which connects the two hemispheres of the brain. Heilman suggests that this smaller corpus callosum leads to a distinct differentiation between the sides of the brain and allows each side to “develop its own specialization.” However, as Anna Abraham explains, the idea of the “creative right brain” is a myth: in fact, both hemispheres play critical roles in producing creative thought.

The question of how components in the brain can be used to measure creativity also raises the question of how creativity is shaped and determined. Knowing how these features are already constructed at birth, and how they can change throughout one’s lifetime will allow us to understand how creativity can be improved. For example, certain neurological conditions with strong genetic risk factors, such as bipolar depression, which consists of swings between euphoric highs (mania) and depressive lows, are associated with different levels of neurotransmitters. Research done at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that individuals with bipolar disorder and their relatives had elevated creativity on average; meanwhile, schizophrenia, another highly heritable psychiatric condition, is associated with lower creativity. Although some of this ability is attributed to the increased motivation experienced during episodes of mania, the fact that relatives without the disorder also possess a creative advantage seems to indicate that it is not the disorder itself, but the genetic mechanisms that influence creativity.

Other such genetic factors that have been found include genes responsible for serotonin and dopamine processing. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters, molecules that are used to signal between neurons, and their levels in the brain are a major contributor to determining mood. A gene for one of the many compounds that “receive” dopamine, turning chemical signals into electrical impulses along neurons, known as the dopamine D2 receptor gene or DRD2 has a variant associated with heightened verbal creativity. Meanwhile, a gene pertaining to serotonin, known as TPH1, is associated with “figural” creativity — or creativity regarding shapes, diagrams, and drawings.

With knowledge of how these chemicals and structures of the brain contribute to creative thought, they can be more effectively harnessed. For decades, people have sworn by exercise and healthy habits as ways to improve creativity; these traditional methods have only proven to strengthen all abilities requiring executive function, not creativity specifically. These findings are consistent with our scientific understanding of creativity. Researcher Rex Jung has discovered that allowing “your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic” is enabled by decreased activation of the executive control network while increasing activation in the salience network and default network. Although it’s not known how to purposefully control the activation of various brain networks, this state of mind is somehow used by improvisation artists such as jazz and rap musicians. Other, less abstract approaches to improving creativity center around the importance of serotonin. According to research by Baba Shiv, serotonin levels are tied to creativity. This means that, since stress and poor sleep lower serotonin levels, they also hamper creativity, and because cardiovascular activity boosts serotonin levels, it increases creativity. Oddly, serotonin levels also tend to be highest in the morning and may be associated with heightened creativity during earlier hours.

Some have even turned to recreational drugs as a form of creative outlet; psychoactive drugs, like LSD, that alter perception and imitate the emotion of happiness by increasing the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Although it is still a scientific uncertainty as to whether or not these drugs have a direct impact on creativity itself, its connection to serotonin causes many people to believe that creativity is based on happiness and positive feelings. People have even put this to the test by creating artwork after taking different kinds of drugs; Bryan Lewis Saunders, for instance, drew 50 self-portraits for 50 days straight, each on a different drug. The visuals differed drastically, varying in different colors, styles, and patterns, showing that each drug had a different effect on the brain’s creative output.

In contrast to this, new innovations have led people to turn to technology for creative assistance instead. Recently, with non-invasive neurotechnological methods introduced that can possibly enhance creativity, researchers have debated whether transcranial electrical brain stimulation is actually safe and effective for the average person to use. Transcranial electrical stimulation, or tES, is a noninvasive method of brain stimulation in which an electric current is passed through the skull by electrodes; it is used to alter brain function in people with brain injuries or psychiatric conditions like depression.

Researchers from Georgetown University claim that tES usage is definitely risky for children and developing brains; in addition, they worry that frequent use of tES could lead to new disorders because the procedure drastically shifts levels of neurotransmitters. tES is commonly used as a treatment for neuropsychiatric conditions; therefore, when used on a person that does not have a mental disorder and does not require tES treatment, brain function could be altered negatively. In addition, tES has been proven to be ineffective for some people, due to differing skull sizes and overall brain activity; thus, some are unresponsive to the effects of tES.

Future research is aimed at creating a universal neurotechnological method for those who wish to enhance their creativity; for now, tES is currently only used in clinical settings, but it is likely that consumer-based tES technology will be developed soon. General discussion about creativity and its origin is still debated due to the difficulty of measurement and quantitative analysis, But we can look towards a future where scientists and engineers can access creativity in a way only possible for artists before.

This article was written by Jandy Le and Michael Xiong, and edited by Jwalin Joshi.

Jandy Le studies Neurobiology at UC Berkeley.

Michael Xiong is an undergraduate studying Chemical Biology at UC Berkeley.

Jwalin Joshi is a UC Berkeley undergraduate studying Applied Math and Computer Science.


Writers, consultants, engineers, and designers working toward advancing neurotechnology for the benefit of humanity.


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We write on psychology, ethics, neuroscience, and the newest in neural engineering. @UC Berkeley


Writers, consultants, engineers, and designers working toward advancing neurotechnology for the benefit of humanity.

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