Want to Be More Creative? Get Out the Electrodes

New research finds a particular type of brain stimulation can increase creativity.
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(Photo: Mopic/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Mopic/Shutterstock)

Many a blocked writer or frustrated inventor has wished there was a simple way to stimulate his or her brain to boost creativity.

So it’s exciting to report that, in a new study, a specific type of electrical stimulation has produced that very result.

Artificially activating “cortical oscillations in the alpha frequency band”—a type of brain wave that has previously been linked with creativity—leads to higher scores on a standard test measuring innovative thinking, according to researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Their results suggest there are “specific neuronal dynamics that drive creativity, and can be modulated by non-invasive brain stimulation,” a team led by Flavio Fröhlich and Caroline Lustenberger writes in the journal Cortex.

Artificially activating “cortical oscillations in the alpha frequency band”—a type of brain wave previously linked with creativity—leads to higher scores on a standard test measuring innovative thinking.

The researchers describe an experiment featuring 20 people between the ages of 19 and 30. Each was fitted with three rubber stimulation electrodes, which were secured to their scalps. They then completed two forms of the figural version of the well-known Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (taking a half-hour break in between).

During both rounds, they performed three 10-minute exercises: One in which they were given a shape and then asked to draw a picture that used it “as an integral part;” another in which they “used 10 different incomplete figures to construct and name a new object;” and a third in which they invented and then named “new objects from 30 circles or lines.”

As they worked on the first test, all participants had their alpha waves stimulated. This process was repeated for half of them as they took the second test; the others were subject to “sham stimulation."

Those who completed the second test while undergoing alpha wave stimulation scored significantly higher than their counterparts on "an overall measure of creative potential and strengths." The researchers report 12 of those participants demonstrated "a pronounced increase in creative thinking."

In a follow-up experiment, a different type of brain stimulation did not produce higher levels of creativity than those in the sham condition. This suggests it wasn’t brain stimulation in general, but a specific focus on alpha oscillations that made the difference.

But why? A 2012 study that found a correlation between “observed alpha power” and creative thinking reported such power helps the brain shut out external stimulation, and inhibits “task-irrelevant cognitive processes.” Flöhlich and his colleagues believe this “inhibitory top-down control” allows the brain to focus on “the generation of internal ideas.”

So a person in the act of being creative is successfully quieting his or her brain chatter and allowing those innovative ideas to come to the surface. If that process doesn’t occur naturally, this study suggests it can be helped along with a little bit of electricity.

I’d end this account with a witty wrap-up, but nothing is coming to mind. Guess it’s time to strap some electrodes to my skull.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.