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A Recipe for Creativity: Brain Stimulation Plus Effort

New research confirms that electrical stimulation of the brain can enhance creativity — but only if we’re really trying.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Laura Dahl/Flickr)

Time to put on your thinking caps! It’s a common analogy, but one that brings up different associations for different people.

For some, it simply means “Try really hard to come up with the answer.” For others, it connotes images of an actual hat, one festooned with dangling electrodes that can be used to stimulate your brain.

New research suggests simultaneously employing both of those concepts is an effective way to spark creativity.

Over the past few years, a number of studies have found electrical stimulation to the brain can spur innovation. The latest of these, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, provides additional evidence of this dynamic, but with a twist: It reports brain stimulation does work, but only when people are specifically reminded to think creatively.

A research team led by two Georgetown University scholars, psychologist Adam Green and cognitive neurologist Peter Turkeltaub, was inspired by a 2015 brain study that found people who did best on a creativity test showed increased activity in a specific region of the brain — the frontopolar cortex.

Even with artificial stimulation, thinking creatively requires concentrated, focused effort.

They reasoned that artificially stimulating this region might boost creativity, especially if the subjects are actively urged to think in innovative ways. The researchers tested this hypothesis in two experiments featuring 31 volunteers.

Half of the participants received transcranial direct current stimulation for 20 minutes while the experiments were conducted; the others received a sham treatment.

All first performed an analogy-finding task, in which they were given two pairs of words and asked to match them with other pairs to form a viable analogy.

“Please think creatively as you search for valid analogies,” they were instructed. “Some analogies may not be obvious right away, so be sure to look for abstract connections.”

In the second test, participants were presented with a series of nouns (120 in all) and asked to come up with “a verb that was related to the noun in any way.” As half of the nouns flashed on a computer screen, they were told to “think creatively when coming up with your response.” For the other half, they received no verbal cue.

For both experiments, creativity was calculated by “semantic distance”—a measure of how far afield their minds wandered to produce their answer.

In the first test, “the total semantic distance of valid analogies formed” was greater for those who received the brain stimulation than for those who did not. In the second, those who were stimulated again performed better than the others — but only when they received the verbal cue to think creatively.

In other words, it was the combination of internal effort and external stimulation that produced creative results.

So hopes that science will someday produce a true thinking cap that will allow us to instantly access our inner Shakespeares or Einsteins are, sadly, unrealistic. Even with artificial stimulation, thinking creatively requires concentrated, focused effort.

And as we’ve noted previously, that requires turning off another means of electronic stimulation: Our cell phones.