How does creativity work? And, more importantly, what can we do to become more creative individuals? These questions baffle the minds of neuroscientists, philosophers, artists, and corporate leaders alike, with phrases such as ‘creative thinking’ and ‘creative problem-solving’ on everyone’s lips nowadays. New research may have finally found an answer, and it involves electrodes and a knowledge of the human brain.
Researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Goldsmiths University of London, both in the United Kingdom, set out to better understand the neurological mechanisms behind creativity, and to test whether or not creativity can be stimulated “on demand.”
Previous research has suggested that “turning off” the editing, self-censoring parts of our brains could potentially enhance creativity. In a former experiment, jazz players placed inside a functional MRI machine revealed how the brain switches from “self-monitoring” mode to creative mode during improvisation.
The new research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, aimed to actually “shut down” one of the brain regions involved in self-control to see whether it had any bearing on creativity.
The first author of the new study is Dr. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.
Dr. Luft and her colleagues used the so-called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) technique to stimulate creativity in 60 participants. tDCS is a form of neurostimulation, or neuromodulation, that involves sending weak electric currents directly to the cortex using electrodes. The technique can inhibit or activate neural activity, and it has been used in neuropsychiatry and clinical rehabilitation.
In this experiment, the electrodes were soaked in saline solution and placed over the scalp of the participants in order to modulate a brain region called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which plays a crucial role in thinking and reasoning.
This brain area is also involved in working memory – that is, the brain’s ability to temporarily hold and process new information – as well as in decision-making and social interaction. Furthermore, the DLPFC is key for cognitive control, including self-control.
Dr. Luft explains the relationship between the DLPFC and creativity:
“We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process. It works fine most of the time, but fails spectacularly when we encounter new problems which require a new style of thinking – our past experience can indeed block our creativity. To break this mental fixation, we need to loosen up our learned rules.”
Using tDCS, the researchers managed to alternately suppress and activate the DLPFC. They examined the participants’ creativity by asking them to solve problems such as “matchsticks puzzles.” Such tasks are great for assessing creativity; they require a flexible and creative approach to arithmetic and algebra.
The participants were asked to solve these problems in three conditions: while their DLPFC was inhibited, while it was activated, and when the brain area was not stimulated at all. The researchers examined the participants both before and after each of these interventions.
The experiments yielded fascinating results. The participants whose DLPFC was suppressed were more likely to excel at creative problem-solving compared with their counterparts whose DLPFC was either active or not stimulated. Those with a “silenced” DLPFC performed better at the problem-solving tasks.
This indicates that temporarily “shutting down” the DLPFC helps the brain to think “outside the box” by finding a way to work around pre-existing assumptions and previously learned thinking patterns. Turning off our DLPFC helps us to “loosen the rules,” which, as Dr. Luft explained, is the key to creativity.
However, the researchers also noticed that participants with a “silenced” DLPFC were less likely to solve tasks that required an increased working memory ability. In the tasks where several cognitive items had to be juggled at once, these participants tended to perform worse than their active DLPFC or non-stimulated DLPFC counterparts.
The study was not without its caveats, however, as its first author explains the challenges behind the research and the significance of the findings:
“These results are important because they show the potential of improving mental functions relevant for creativity by non-invasive brain stimulation methods. However, our results also suggest that potential applications of this technique will have to consider the target cognitive effects in more detail rather than just assuming tDCS can improve cognition as claimed by some companies which are starting to sell tDCS machines for home users.
I would say that we are not yet in a position to wear an electrical hat and start stimulating our brain hoping for a blanket cognitive gain.”
Dr. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft