He was a 46-year-old accountant, a man who had no training as an artist and no particular interest in the arts. But soon after suffering a stroke, he felt an overwhelming urge to draw.
"He began to draw in notebooks at the hospital, and continued to paint several paintings a day at home," an Israeli research team led by University of Haifa psychologist Naama Mayseless writes in the journal Neuropsychologia. "The patient described being 'preoccupied with pencil sketching and pastel paintings and feeling as if I was suddenly able to see visual objects in a different perspective and wanting to paint them.'"
Over the following eight months, his hemorrhage receded, his impaired language abilities gradually returned, and his urge to create art "diminished to the point that he felt he was no longer able to draw," the researchers write. Three years after the stroke, "he was no longer producing art and felt that drawing no longer came naturally to him."
A unique case, to be sure. But to Mayseless and her colleagues, it suggested a way to study brain function and creativity, and to specifically test a prominent theory as to why some people are more creative than others. Their focus was the dual process model, which looks at creativity as a two-stage process of generating innovative ideas, and then evaluating them for their originality and usefulness.
"Our findings suggest that individual differences in creativity may be related to a differentially activated network of evaluation that imposes a stricter process of evaluation, and hence inhibits creative production."
"According to this model," the researchers write, "idea evaluation ... can range on a continuum between very lenient and very stringent evaluation." Ideally, you want to let interesting ideas through and dismiss dull or impractical ones. But if the evaluation process is overly stringent, it "can impose an inhibitory effect on the creative process, by restraining and hindering ideas," they write.
The aforementioned patient was diagnosed with a left temporoparital hematoma—an intriguing location, since previous research has tentatively suggested "the existence of an evaluative neural system" primarily operating in the "left temporoparital and frontal regions" of the brain. Could it be that the clot inhibited activity in the part of the brain that evaluated, and dismissed, creative ideas?
To test that notion, the researchers conducted an fMRI experiment on 37 people. Their brains were scanned while they completed two evaluation tasks. One focused on creativity—they were asked "whether or not they thought a stated use of an object was original or not"—while the other did not.
Confirming their suspicions, they found that lower activation in the regions of the brain damaged in the suddenly artistic man's stroke predicted higher levels of creative thinking. What's more, "the correlation found was specific to the evaluation of creativity, and not applicable to evaluation in general," they write.
The results are "in line with the notion that the evaluation-of-originality network may act to inhibit creativity by influencing the surge of ideas specific to divergent thinking," the researchers conclude. "Our findings suggest that individual differences in creativity may be related to a differentially activated network of evaluation that imposes a stricter process of evaluation, and hence inhibits creative production."
While providing important evidence for this notion, the study is not definitive. Other researchers are approaching the subject from entirely different angles: A University of New Mexico team recently published a study suggesting that the creative process is different for men and women on a neural level, with women using "more regions of the brain."
Nevertheless, if the Israeli researchers are right, it leads to fascinating speculation over whether we might somehow find a way to restrain, or re-train, that part of the brain that is prematurely dismissing our creative ideas. Preferably without suffering a stroke.