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Neurological Basis of Creativity using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

I have friends that produce music, dance effortlessly, and create paintings that are hauntingly realistic, and unfortunately, none of that comes easily to me. I’m just not that good at art as I would like to be. Perhaps partly due to my lack of artistic abilities and partly due to my sense of curiosity, I have always wondered what it is about artists that allow them to render such beautiful works of art, be it a vivid and beautiful painting or the production of a soundtrack that evokes goosebumps. Is it innate? Is it the conscious attention to detail? Are their brains just wired differently?

In this article I aim to explore the mechanisms of the brain that give rise to creativity and how one could harness their knowledge of this to potentially increase their creativity.

Almost all creatives, most would agree, have a heightened sensitivity for the senses they use in their work, an enhanced ability to pay attention to the details. Musicians can easily identify features in a composition the untrained ear would not pick up on, and similarly, artists in the visual field are better at noticing subtleties in shape, form and color. But this quality doesn’t come instantaneously; it’s the result of years of practice in honing their craft.

One particular technique that comes to mind that allows artists to consciously attend to the details is the Grid Method employed in painting and sketching.

I was reminded of this popular technique used when I saw my brother working on an assignment for his art class. The grid method, as the name suggests, simply consists of dividing any image that is to be drawn into a grid of evenly spaced boxes. The grid enables the artist to isolate features of the image without being distracted by the scene/object as a whole.

An Example of the Grid Method

Here’s why that’s useful. When trying to draw a face without a grid, for example, it can be very daunting to figure out where to start and develop a method to systematically build the image. Moreover, you are more likely to overlook certain key details in the context of a bigger scene. A grid dismantles the scene into geometrical shapes, curves, and lines, enabling the artist to examine the features for what they are instead of what they add up to.

Before I go on to explain how the grid technique lends insight into the creative processes of the brain, a little background knowledge in visual processing is necessary.

Occipital Lobe

The brain has 4 lobes, with the occipital lobe towards the back of the brain being in charge of visual processing. The visual cortex is the primary region of the brain in the occipital lobe that is responsible for receiving, integrating, and processing visual information coming in from the retina. This visual cortex can be broken up into five different areas (V1 to V5 — very creative, I know). V1 is responsible for lower level processing; things like orientation and shapes are processed in this region. V4 and V5 are useful for higher level processing like object recognition or classification, basically integrating individual features to interpret a visual scene.

This same concept applies more or less to other parts of the brain as well such as the auditory cortex.

It’s almost as if the grid technique is dissociating V1 from V5. The grid forces the artist to focus on the shapes and orientation, tapping into low level visual processing while simultaneously blocking out higher level object recognition.

Now, what if those with higher creativity or savant-like skills were using more of their lower level cortices when engaging in creative tasks? It’s like their brains have a built-in grid of sorts already, allowing them to focus on the details associated with low-level processing.

In fact, in a paper published in the The Royal Society Publishing, Allan Snyder, director for the Center for the Mind at the University of Sydney, argues that “savants have privileged access to lower-level, less-processed information, before it is packages into holistic concepts and meaningful labels…they can tap into information that exists in all of our brains but is normally beyond conscious awareness.”

What if we are able to turn off regions like V4 and V5 in our brains? Would that help us normal humans get one step closer to those with savant-like abilities? Would we be more attentive to the subtleties and details of the medium that we are working in?

In a 2006 study, Snyder decided to put this theory to the test. Originally inspired by a group of autistic twins who had trouble doing basic arithmetic but could easily guess the number of match sticks that fell on the ground, Snyder wondered if he could also get average humans to develop extraordinary abilities in numerosity.

To do this he employed the use of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a kind of technology that momentarily disables certain targeted areas of the brain by sending magnetic pulses. They recruited 12 participants and applied low frequency TMS to the left anterior temporal lobe, the part of the brain associated with factual knowledge like places, people, numbers, etc.. The participants were then shown a collection of items and asked to guess how many objects were in the cluster; almost immediately, 10 out of the 12 participants improved their guesses. Moreover as the effect of the magnetic pulses waned, 8 out of the 12 participants got progressively worse in their accuracy.

The success of the study supported Snyder’s initial theory that savant-like abilities lie in the access to low-level processing, which is often masked by higher cognitive functions in the average human brain. It’s ironic how we are turning certain parts of the brain off to enhance our abilities, but this evidence sheds light on the possibility of potentially being able to upgrade our skills in the future and reach new limits of our mental functions.

Certainly, Snyder’s study makes a compelling case for his theory, but TMS can affect people in different ways. After all, the creative process itself varies so drastically between artists, so wouldn’t shutting off certain sections of the brain also produce a variety of results? The robustness of the claim is yet to be determined, but maybe, in the future, with a certain kind of wearable TMS device, I would be able to temporarily disable certain areas of my brain and enjoy an elevated level of creativity, enabling myself to render drawings and compositions I once never thought I was capable of doing.

Maybe one day, a consumer-based TMS device in the market would serve as a means through which we could all unleash the inner artist or savant inside of us.



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