Creativity often means taking the road less traveled. New research identifies the neural mechanism that enables us to come up with unexpected associations and original ideas.

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New research finds that certain brain waves enable creative thought.

Scientists’ attempts at deciphering the neurological processes that explain creativity have recently zeroed in on the brain’s so-called alpha waves.

Alpha waves are strong when the brain’s visual cortex is resting. For example, when a person is relaxed and closes their eyes, alpha wave activity is higher. When they open their eyes, this attenuates alpha activity.

More recently, scientists have hypothesized that alpha waves might serve to inhibit certain cortical areas when these are not necessary. Some researchers have even suggested that there is an association between the strength of these waves and creativity.

New research provides further details on the role of alpha brain waves in the creative process. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, Ph.D., from the Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom, led a team to the finding that higher alpha brain wave activity correlates with people’s ability to come up with less obvious or well-known ideas.

Luft and colleagues published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers used electrical current to stimulate the right temporal part of the brain at the alpha frequency while the participants engaged in a range of creative tasks.

To stimulate the brain, the researchers used a noninvasive procedure called transcranial alternating current brain stimulation (tACS).

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), the researchers monitored the effect that tACS had on different brain waves. The tasks that the participants took part in involved word associations.

When it needs to find words that connect to one another, the brain typically starts with stronger or more common associations and gradually moves on toward less familiar ones.

For instance, if we start with the word “cat,” we might initially associate it with words such as “dog,” “animal,” and “pet,” before gradually moving toward more remote concepts, such as “human,” “people,” and “family.”

The authors of the new study have applied the findings of previous research and taken remote associations to be a marker of creativity.

When the participants had higher levels of alpha brain waves in their right temporal brain area, they came up with associations that were more remote and less expected.

Study co-author Joydeep Bhattacharya, who is a professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, comments on the findings. He says, “Two roads diverged in a wood, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference,’ wrote Robert Frost in his famous poem.”

“Taking a less traveled route is needed for thinking creatively, and our findings provide some evidence on how this is done in our brain.”

The study’s lead researcher also comments to explain how the findings illuminate the nature of creativity and how alpha brain waves help inhibit habitual ways of thinking in favor of unexpected, more ingenious ones.

If we need to generate alternative uses of a glass, first we must inhibit our past experience which leads us to think of a glass as a container. Our study’s novelty is to demonstrate that right temporal alpha oscillations is a key neural mechanism for overriding these obvious associations.”

Caroline Di Bernardi Luft

“In order to understand the processes underlying the production of novel and adequate ideas,” Luft continues, “we need to break down its constituent processes, dissecting creativity as much as possible at first, and then analysing them in context, before putting them back together to understand the process as a whole.”