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Mapping the Creative Brain

European researchers find a connection between creativity and the structures of certain regions of the brain.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: asymmetricalbydesign/Flickr)

If you’ve struggled to write that novel, compose that song, or come up with something truly original in any form, chances are you have wondered whether the brains of creative geniuses are simply different than those of the rest of us.

Well, a group of European researchers report that just might be the case. They have found a link between the structure of certain regions of the brain and the ability to think creatively.

“We revealed a brain network centered on the left frontal pole (a region just behind the forehead) that appears to support the ability to combine information in new ways,” a research team led by David Bendetowicz writes in the journal Cortex. This ability to make surprising connections is, of course, at the heart of creative thinking.

The study, which was conducted in Paris, featured 54 native French speakers ranging in age from 22 to 75. While in an fMRI machine that allowed their brain activity to be tracked, participants completed an adaptation of the well-known Remote Associates Test.

In a series of 72 trials, they were given three words and asked to come up with a fourth that was associated with each. Some of these were fairly obvious, but others required making a real mental leap. To measure creative ability, the researchers calculated both the person’s mean performance and the difference between how they fared on the easy and difficult trials.

To make sure the test was actually measuring creative ability, the researchers had each participant also fill out a different creativity test — the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults — and estimate their “real-life creative production.” They found high scores on the Remote Associates Test “correlated significantly” with these other measures of creativity.

In their main finding, the researchers report the ability to make connections between distant concepts was associated with “structural variation” of several specific brain regions, one of which “was connected to distant regions through long-range pathways.”

“This network may support the ability to combine information in new ways, by bridging semantic distances between individual pieces of information,” they write.

The researchers caution that “creativity is a multidimensional capacity that is unlikely to be fully captured by a single test.” Such factors as “cognitive control, attention capacities, personality, and cognitive style” are likely additional factors determining one’s creative potential.

Nevertheless, they note that their findings are “in agreement with patient studies that showed significant impairments on creativity tasks in patients with damage to (certain regions of the brain).”

The research does not get into the issue of whether creative people were born with this particular brain network, or whether they developed it over time as they pursued creative projects. But a 2015 study found that taking an introductory class in painting or drawing alters students’ brains in such a way that their creativity was heightened.

So, no, your brain probably doesn’t look like Beethoven’s. But if you keep pursuing your creative goals, it just might respond.