How do creative brains work? New study sheds light

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New research sheds light on the neuroscience of creativity. Qi Yang/Getty Images
  • The latest research into creativity compares the brain function of exceptionally creative visual artists and scientists with a highly educated group.
  • Scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan participants’ brains while they performed tasks that tested creative thinking.
  • The researchers found that the brains of exceptionally creative people worked differently and had a unique brain connectivity pattern compared to the control group.

Research into creative brains is not new, but it is also not a field that has a lot of research, especially where exceptionally creative people are concerned.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) wanted to look more into how the brains of extremely creative people function. Rather than making the comparison to the average person’s brain, they wanted to compare that functioning to non-creative people with comparable IQs.

The study was published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

The researchers compiled two groups of participants for the study. The first group consisted of exceptionally creative artists and scientists who were nominated by experts.

The people in this group, which was labeled “Big C,” included only people who scored in the top 2% of the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (CAQ). According to the American Psychological Association, the CAQ “assesses achievement across 10 domains of creativity.”

These domains are visual arts, music, creative writing, dance, drama, architecture, humor, scientific discovery, invention, and culinary arts.

The other group consisted of people who were not exceptionally creative but were still highly intelligent. The researchers labeled this group the “smart comparison group” (SCG).

The SCG participants were previously involved in another study at UCLA and were matched with people in the Big C group. The two groups were matched on age, sex, race, and estimated IQ.

The researchers used fMRI testing on both groups while they were at rest and while they were engaged in tasks. They studied brain activity in different regions of the brain.

The study results showed that while the Big C group participants were engaged in tasks, their brains tended to make more random connections on the global scale compared to the SCG participants.

“Our results showed that highly creative people had unique brain connectivity that tended to stay off the beaten path,” says Dr. Ariana Anderson, assistant professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and lead author of the study.

The authors noted that the Big C groups showed “reduced small worldness” compared to the SCG participants.

“’Small worldness’ is a property thought to increase efficiency in many networks, generally by increasing the clustering of nearby nodes into ‘cliques’ or ‘hubs’ where the average path between nodes is short,” write the authors.

“This offers evidence that reduced small worldness may characterize exceptional creativity across creative domains.”

To put it simply, the researchers compared Big C’s brain functioning to how airlines work.

“In terms of brain connectivity, while everyone else is stuck in a 3-hour layover at a major airport, the highly creatives take private plans directly to a distant destination,” Prof. Anderson says.

“This more random connectivity may be less efficient much of the time, but the architecture enables brain activity to ‘take a road less traveled’ and make novel connections.”

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, spoke with Medical News Today on the study findings.

“Interesting and well-done study on how creativity is expressed in the brain,” said Dr. Newberg. “Determining who is creative and who is not always a challenge to these studies, but the researchers did a good job selecting highly creative people from normally creative intelligent people.”

Dr. Newberg is a professor and Director of Research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia.

Professor Adam Green also spoke with MNT and called the study “exciting.”

“A study like this is immediately exciting because of the sample that was studied,” Prof. Green said. “Creativity matters on all levels, but the most impactful forms of creativity come in the form of ‘Big C’ — the big ideas in art and science that change the way things are done.”

“In most instances, researchers can’t study the people who have those kinds of ideas, and instead make inferences based on neuroimaging and behavioral measurement in more ordinary samples. This study is a rare instance in which creative brain function can actually be investigated in a group of people who are ‘Big C’ thinkers.”

– Prof Green

Prof. Green is a lab director and Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor at Georgetown Laboratory for Relational Cognition in Washington, DC.

The authors note some limitations to the study, including the sample size being “modest.”

When Dr. Newberg spoke with MNTI have noted that the people tested were sometimes tested outside their areas of specialty.

“Another important limitation is that they studied these people during creativity tasks that were not specific to their creative domains,” Dr. Newberg said. “In other words, these were tasks that asked people to come up with novel uses for common items rather than artistic or scientific explorations.”

“However, the results provide new directions for looking at brain changes associated with creativity,” Dr. Newberg continued. “Perhaps future studies can explore whether creativity can be actively fostered by doing practices that support the kind of brain changes observed in these studies.”

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