Some scientists believe that studying creativity is a fruitless endeavor, others do not.
Neuroscience can be a dense and unrelentingly complex area of study. The scientists involved strive to answer disparate questions ranging from "how do we walk?" to "how do we remember things?" and from "how do nerve cell membranes communicate?" to "what is pleasure?"
It takes a brave researcher to attempt to bridge the gap between the physics of a firing neuron and the construction of a jazz drum solo.
The gap is nowhere near fully bridged, but strides are being made to answer some of the more esoteric questions humanity has posed.
One such intractable topic is creativity. What is it? Why does it exist? And how on earth does a spongy 3 lb lump create surreal landscapes and construct soaring arias?
Some scientists believe creativity is not a subject worth pursuing, that it is too ethereal and perhaps not relevant to science. Others disagree.
Humanity's ability to create novel solutions to problems has allowed us to thrive on almost every patch of ground on this blue ball we call home. From the frozen north to the tropical waistband of our world, humanity has figured out creative ways of staying alive, solving life-threatening problems every step of the way.
Evolution has fostered and rewarded creativity. Creativity is as human as conversation.
In this article, we will look briefly at some aspects of the brain that are suspected to be involved in creativity, as well as some experiments and theories that shed a little light on such a difficult area of science.
Networks vs. regions
The first point to make is that creativity is not to be found in one distinct section of the brain or a singular clump of nerves behind your left ear. The process is shared across a number of regions and involves a concerto of brain-wide neuronal activity.
This makes sense when considering the variety of tasks that exercise our creative bent. Completing a jigsaw or a sudoku involves a certain amount of creative thought, but the sections of the brain relevant to carry out these types of tasks will be different from those involved in designing an art installation or forging the perfect sentence to explain a complex concept.
The general consensus is that the creative process has two stages. The first stage (which we will mostly be discussing here) is the free flow of experimentation and the creation of a new concept or work of art. The second phase involves rehearsing, editing and assessing the final product as it evolves into the final piece.
As with the study of other dense areas of neuroscience, like emotions, brain-wide networks are key to understanding our thoughts. Below are three such networks that are considered to play important roles in creative thought.
The executive attention network
If a task requires a thorough level of concentration, the executive attention network will be called into play. Connecting lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex and areas toward the back of the parietal lobe, this network is engaged when focusing all of your attention on a task and utilizing your working memory.
Creativity seems to be dependent on the interaction between networks rather than specific brain areas.
For example, as you read this, your executive attention network will be busying itself (as long as you are paying attention, of course).
The executive attention network is not engaged for all creative processes; sometimes, allowing your mind to wander away from its watchful gaze is necessary, as we shall see.
The executive attention network is probably used more heavily in the second phase of creativity mentioned above - focusing on, checking and sharpening the final product, rather than the initial freeform creative process.
The default network
The default network, also referred to as the imagination network, is used to construct dynamic mental simulations. Situated deep in the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe, with connections to parts of the parietal cortex, it builds pictures based on previous experiences and imagines alternative scenarios and events.
Active during bouts of daydreaming, when the brain is not focused on the outside world, the default network is implicated in functions such as collecting facts about the self, reflecting on personal emotions and remembering past events.
This network also appears to be involved in social cognition and empathy; it plays a part in helping us imagine what another individual might be thinking.
The salience network
The dorsal anterior cingulate cortices and anterior insular house the salience network. This set of circuitry helps the brain decide what to pay attention to. Our eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin are constantly bombarded with sensory stimulation. The salience network helps us choose which inputs to pay attention to and which to ignore.
The salience network is thought to be involved in switching between relevant networks of neurons, turning the most appropriate groups off or on depending on its assessment of a situation.
As an example, while driving a car, your visual field is filled with asphalt, sky, trees, traffic lights, birds, the steering wheel, your eyelashes and much, much more. Despite the wealth of options, the salience network draws your attention to the woman with the buggy attempting to cross the road 200 m down on the right.
The ability to switch between networks is a vital aspect of creativity. For instance, focusing on a creative puzzle with all of your attention might recruit the skills of the executive attention network. On the other hand, if the creative task involves producing a sonically pleasing guitar solo, focus might be switched from intense concentration to areas more involved in emotional content and auditory processing.
On the next page, we look at a handful of experiments that shed a little light on the underlying mechanisms at play in human creativity.