Transcranial electrical stimulation is increasingly being used to boost creativity. A new article reviews the ethical, legal, and social implications of this phenomenon.

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Electricity can be used to give our brains the ‘lightbulb’ moment.

Creativity might seem like too spontaneous and too messy a process to be dictated by precise brain mechanisms that science can unravel.

However, the latest advances in neuroscience prove that this is indeed the case.

Processes that science may be able not only to understand, but also influence, underpin the seeming unpredictability of the creative process.

For instance, we know that the brain’s default network is involved in daydreaming, or focusing on one’s inner emotions and ignoring the outside world. Activity in this brain network may be responsible for the first stage of creativity, where idle, free associations and experimentation bring forth original ideas.

Conversely, entering “editing mode” — where a creator might hone and polish an artwork, an article, or a song — requires the input of the executive attention network.

Does having such neuroscientific knowledge help bring forth creativity, however? Can we potentially use neurological data and neuroscientific tools to “cure” writer’s block?

Some researchers think so. For example, Adam Green — an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. — led a study that used a procedure called transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) to boost creativity.

In TES, a weak electrical current is applied to the skull via tiny electrodes that are placed on the scalp for a few minutes. Such stimulation is thought to modulate neuronal activity and implicitly behavior.

As a result, the technique has been used to help stroke survivors regain their motor and language skills, and to treat people with depression.

However, when it comes to using TES not to rehabilitate but bolster a skill such as creativity, there is a range of ethical, legal, and social implications that must be addressed. A new article co-authored by Green highlights and explores these implications.

Prof. James Giordano, chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at Georgetown University Medical Center, is the senior author of the article, which was published in the Creativity Research Journal.

There are a few potentially worrisome consequences of using TES to boost creativity, according to Prof. Giordano and colleagues.

Firstly, TES devices are being sold directly to the consumer and are often manufactured in a DIY way. This poses the risk of the procedure being used to foster creativity in children.

There are multiple potential concerns with DIY-ers self-administering electric current to their brains, but this use of TES may be inevitable. And, certainly, anytime there is risk of harm with a technology, the scariest risks are those associated with kids and the developing brain.”

Adam Green

Secondly, the researchers explain the safety concerns that stem from such DIY manufacturing and wide availability. “DIY applications can pose certain challenges in that constraints may not be appreciated or adhered to, and in some cases, not regarded,” says Prof. Giordano.

Although safety is an important issue, the investigators also highlight the delicate balance between respecting regulations and empowering the DIY community to create original and possibly more effective devices.

“[T]he nature of DIY engagement,” adds Prof. Giordano, “can also provide an environment of avant-garde iterations of science, technology, methods, and applications. This is not necessarily a bad thing, per se, as it may, in fact, ‘push the envelope’ to some extent.”

However, warns Prof. Giordano, there is “justified concern that such attempts could incur safety issues.”

“In that light,” he goes on to note, “we have called for an ongoing dialog with the DIY community to enable improved communication of techniques and effects so as to remain aware of what’s being done, how, and the outcomes of such work that may be important to advancing the field and clinical care of any adverse manifestations.”

The team also notes the danger that an increasingly widespread use of TES for improving creativity would elicit the more or less arbitrary “creation” of a new “disorder” that could be treated with TES.

Adjusting the threshold of what abilities are deemed “normal” may open the gates to unnecessary treatment, explain the authors.

Prof. Giordano and colleagues also note that scientists are increasingly looking into using TES for treating memory problems in neurodegenerative conditions, cognitive problems in Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, and certain symptoms of anxiety.