Skip to main content

The Unique Neural Network of the Creative Brain

New research identifies a pattern of brain activity that is associated with superior creativity.

What, exactly, was going on inside Beethoven's head when he wrote the Eroica Symphony? Or Lin-Manuel Miranda's as he created Hamilton?

It's an important question. Finding a reliable way to stimulate creativity—a scarce resource we desperately need to solve complex problems—will require understanding the neural circuitry that supports it.

Not so long ago, it was commonly believed that the right hemisphere is the exclusive generator of creative thought. Later on, researchers' focus shifted to connectivity between the two hemispheres.

That model has been refined in recent years, as scientists have begun mapping not just regions of the brain, but the neural networks that spring into action as needed. Now, researchers have identified a brain network that is strongly associated with creativity.

"Creative thinking ability is characterized by a distinct brain connectivity profile," writes a research team led by Harvard University psychologist Roger Beaty. "Highly creative people are characterized by the ability to simultaneously engage these large-scale brain networks."

Beaty is referring to three specific neural systems: the executive network, which is engaged in complex mental tasks such as problem solving; the default mode, which is activated when we're in a resting or ruminative state; and the salience network, which monitors incoming input, prioritizes it, and allows us to efficiently process it.

Normally, it does so by suppressing either the executive or default mode, allowing the network that is best-equipped to deal with the information at hand to do so unimpeded.

But this research finds that, in highly creative people, this suppression does not fully occur. Rather, key parts of the problem-solving and internal rumination systems are simultaneously engaged, allowing the formation of creative connections.

The study. published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, featured 163 participants recruited from the University of North Carolina–Greensboro and the surrounding community. While their brain activity was being scanned using fMRI technology, they completed a task that required creativity, and another that did not.

For the creative task, they were presented with everyday objects such as a box and a rope, and asked to imagine a new and unusual uses for them. They also noted their creative achievements, and the extent to which they are creative in their daily lives.

Using a recently developed technique in fMRI data analysis, the researchers found the aforementioned pattern was stronger in the brains of highly creative people. This coordination between the three main networks "is consistent with a recent model of brain dynamics supporting creative cognition," they write.

According to this framework, the default network spontaneously combines memories and random thoughts. The salience network identifies which of these are potentially useful; it then forwards them to the executive network, which engages in "high-order processing, such as idea evaluation, elaboration, or revision."

This understanding raises the tantalizing possibility of developing "behavioral and neural interventions (such as brain stimulation) to enhance creative performance by targeting large-scale networks and their dynamic interactions," the researchers conclude.

Indeed, earlier research has found stimulating specific parts of the brain can, under certain circumstances, enhance creativity.

Of course, other studies have found interventions ranging from dim lighting to Vivaldi's The Four Seasons can increase innovative thinking. It will be fascinating to discover whether and how such stimulants prompt activation of this newly discovered neural network.