Creativity and the Brain: What We Still Don't Know - Pacific Standard

Creativity and the Brain: What We Still Don't Know

An NEA report argues it's time for a major effort to increase our understanding of the neurobiology of creativity.
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(Photo: lassedesignen/Shutterstock)

(Photo: lassedesignen/Shutterstock)

It is time for a large-scale, multidisciplinary study into the nature of creativity—one that would integrate the insights of neurobiologists, psychologists, artists, and educators.

That's the conclusion of a just-issued report from the National Endowment for the Arts entitled How Creativity Works in the Brain. The report finds that, while recent decades have produced much psychological research on creative thinking, we remain largely in the dark regarding its neurological underpinnings.

"Imagine the potential for our nation's health, education, culture, and productivity if we were able to truly understand the anatomy of our 'aha' moments, and how they can be nurtured, optimized, and deployed," says Bill O'Brien, NEA senior advisor to the chairman for innovation.

How to measure and optimize creativity "remains an overheated, under-resourced topic," O'Brien states in the report's executive summary, noting that various academic disciplines describe and investigate the topic in decidedly different ways.

While recent decades have produced much psychological research on creative thinking, we remain largely in the dark regarding its neurological underpinnings.

In an attempt to get scientists, artists, and others with a stake in creativity on the same page, the NEA conducted a research workshop in conjunction with the Santa Fe Institute in July of 2014. This new report summarizes its conclusions, which include:

  • There need to be more partnerships among neurobiologists and psychologists, as well as artists and educators, to identify the conditions, correlates, and causes of creativity.
  • There needs to be neuroscientific validation of existing tools to assess creativity in individuals. These tests, if effective, can be adopted more widely by our nation's educators, employers, and other decision-makers.
  • The time for these research investments is now, when new models, techniques, and technologies for studying the brain are still in development.

Getting more specific, the report lays out two "research objectives" worthy of cross-disciplinary study. The first: to "discover and describe the neurobiological correlates and conditions under which different kinds of creative experiences occur, using a carefully orchestrated, mixed-methods study design."

This research would explore if the onset of "flow"—a psychological state associated with creativity—is "linked to a shut-down or relaxation in the pre-frontal cortex." (If so, it would suggest a link between imagination and a lack self-consciousness, which would be an important finding.)

"Our understanding of how creativity should be defined, nurtured, and optimized remains surprisingly elusive."

The research would also look at the issue of internal rewards, including "How do aesthetic processes during arts creation link to the pleasure centers of the dopamine-driven midbrain system?"

The second research objective is to "submit behavioral assessments of creativity to neurobiological testing to validate them further, for the purpose of encouraging their widespread use by educators and employers." Findings backed up by hard data will be easier for people to accept, making them more likely to be implemented.

"The arts and sciences, technological progress, economic prosperity—nearly every significant advance achieved by entire societies—are driven by human creativity," O'Brien writes in the report's preface. "Yet somehow our understanding of how creativity should be defined, nurtured, and optimized remains surprisingly elusive."

Perhaps the fastest and most effective way to change this, he adds, "will be via an all-hands-on deck approach that synthesizes and activates insights across arts, sciences, and the humanities."

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.

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