The Flow of Creative Juices

Creativity is the development of a new or novel understanding, and this process is essential for individual wellbeing and social survival. But, just how creativity works has been elusive to those who study the brain – both its form and its function. Now, researchers have uncovered a neural basis for creativity and have discovered clues on how to enhance it and stifle it.

Recently, investigators at Stanford University directly implicated the cerebellum in creativity. (The cerebellum is located at the back of the brain and is usually associated with controlling the body’s movements and coordination.) The investigators also found that shifting the brain’s activity to high-order, executive functions impairs creativity. The parts of the brain the help to plan, organize, and manage tasks negatively affect the creative process.

The current study, which was published in Scientific Reports, combined a balance of “right-brained” and “left-brained” thinkers: the Institute of Design worked hand-in-hand with the School of Medicine to examine the biology behind creativity. Participants were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and asked to draw pictures based on action words. (They drew a simple zigzag line to establish baseline brain activity for the task of drawing.) The participants also ranked each word picture on level of difficulty to draw. The drawings were sent to instructors at the design school who rated each drawing on a 5-point scale of creativity.

The prefrontal cortex – traditionally associated with thinking – was most active during the drawings the participants ranked as most difficult. The cerebellum was most active during the drawings that were ranked as being the most creative. The overall conclusion was that the less the participants thought about what they were drawing, the more creative they were. The bottom line: more thinking means less creativity.

Other areas of the brain, as well as patterns of blood flow, have been associated with creativity, and most of the findings indicate bilateral involvement of structures and increased blood flow. Together, the results suggest that the brain is a complex system with interconnected regions; for example, the cerebellum has likely evolved to establish connections with many brain regions and participate in tasks other than just cognition.

The findings of any study of creativity are limited by the lack of objectivity when assessing creativity. Creativity is inherently subjective and there is no consensus among the scientific community on how to measure it objectively. And, in the current study, the creative drawings may simply have been associated with more complex motor skills, which could explain the association with the cerebellum. Finally, this study measured visual creativity only. But, creativity comes in all shapes, sizes, and media, so more investigations of other creative processes are needed to clarify associations with brain regions.

As neuroscience research expands and new models of brain function are developed, creativity and cognition will be examined as 2 important pieces of an intensely interconnected puzzle. Of course, there is no cognition without creativity and no creativity without cognition, and new understandings of the neuroscience of creativity and higher cognition will allow humans to reach new, higher potentials in innovation and resourcefulness.


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Heilman KM and Acosta LM. Visual artistic creativity and the brain. Prog Brain Res. 2013;204:19-43. PMID: 24041317

Saggar M, Quintin EM, Kienitz E, et al. Pictionary-based fMRI paradigm to study the neural correlates of spontaneous improvisation and figural creativity. Sci Rep. 2015. PMID: 2216245

Shah C, Erhard K, Ortheil HJ, et al. Neural correlates of creative writing: an fMRI study. Hum Brain Mapp. 2013;34 (5):1088-101. PMID: 26018874

Image via Carlos Horta / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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