Neuroscientists try to unlock the origins of creativity

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Neuroscientists try to unlock the origins of creativity

The Globe and Mail

Anne McIlroy

January 28, 2011

What can you do with a brick? It’s a standard question on tests used to study creativity, but Toronto neuroscientist Oshin Vartanian puts it to volunteers when they are in a brain scanner. He wants to see what happens when they shift from listing the obvious uses for a single brick, like a paperweight or doorstop, to more original ideas, like a tombstone for a pet or jewellery for giants.

Dr. Vartanian is on a quest some neuroscientists have come to see as quixotic: to map and understand the brain circuitry involved in creative thinking. Fifteen years of brain imaging studies have left researchers unable to define the regions and networks that are involved, although they have debunked the myth that creativity is seated in the right side of the brain and begun to explore the intriguing possibility that it is related to the ability to silence our inner critic.

Ultimately, their experiments could lead to a better understanding of creativity and help teachers nurture it in the classroom. There are growing concerns that creativity is in decline in North America. A recent, as yet unpublished study by Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary in Virginia suggests that creativity levels among nearly 300,000 adults and children in the United States and Canada are falling, at least as measured by a commonly used test.

Dr. Vartanian, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto, says he and others are getting closer to understanding the mechanisms involved in different kinds of creativity, where they overlap and features they have in common.

The research is challenging. It is hard to get people to be truly creative in a brain scanner, and there are many ways that creative juices can flow. The neural circuitry of the “aha” moment experienced by a scientist may not be the same as what happens in the brain of a novelist who thinks of a brilliant metaphor. A jazz musician may come up with a new idea in a very different way from a mathematician.

Does studying art and music make children more creative in math and problem solving? How do you train a young brain to make it more flexible?

These kinds of questions would be easier to answer if scientists understood the neural circuitry involved, says Charles Limb, a surgeon and saxophonist who studies creativity and is research director of the Neuro Education initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Dr. Limb asked professional jazz musicians to play a keyboard in a brain imager so he could see what was different about their brain activity when they improvised compared to when they played music they had memorized.

He found that a part of the brain that plays a role in self-restraint and evaluation – the inner critic – powered down when the musicians were improvising, while an area associated with self-expression ramped up.

“My instincts tell me this has to be an important component, this mechanism by which the brain shuts off inhibitory impulses,” Dr. Limb said.

Dr. Vartanian is also interested in how some parts of the brain are silenced so that out-of-the-box solutions can emerge.

He painstakingly maps regions of the brain that are either activated or suppressed during creative problem-solving and then looks to see whether patients with damage to those areas have difficulty performing the same kind of tasks.

He suspects that a part of the frontal lobes called the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex plays an important role. It gets activated when you show people bizarre images of a teapot with legs or a key with a snake coming out of it and they have to loosen their perceptual or conceptual constraints to accommodate novelty.

But it is also active when people find creative solutions to puzzles. Its job may be to suppress activity in regions that would normally offer a reality check on wild ideas, says Dr. Vartanian.

Creativity often involves divergent thinking – coming up with as many unique ideas or answers to an open-ended problem or question like “What can you do with a brick?” But it also can involve convergent thinking, or narrowing down or combining ideas into the best result.

Breaking down creativity into different steps is essential if scientists are going to identify the networks or regions involved, says Dr. Vartanian, who also works for Defence Research and Development Canada, an agency of the Department of National Defence. His research there is focused on reasoning and decision making. He says there is a lot of overlap in the cognitive components of those processes and creativity.

He has been investigating the neuroscience of creativity for 10 years and is now co-editing a book about it for Cambridge University Press. He and his colleagues accept that, so far, their efforts haven’t produced the clear picture they were hoping for.

“The consensus is creativity is a big muddled mess,” said Rex Jung, a brain scientist at the University of New Mexico. But the research has at least debunked the myth that the right side of the brain is the creative side, he says. It has also shown the importance of the frontal lobes.

“The standard model for creativity is you need to bring all the different concepts you are thinking and manipulate them and fuse them into new concepts,” Dr. Vartanian said. “We tend to think the frontal lobes are heavily involved in this.”

Some neuroscientists, like Arne Dietrich at American University of Beirut – remain skeptical that much progress is being made. He has compared the quest to understand creativity in the brain to nailing jelly to a wall.

But Dr. Vartanian plans to persevere.

“Initially, a lot of people were looking for the holy grail,” he said. “They were searching for the creativity module in the brain. Now we know it is more complicated. We need to look for the component processes, and then somehow bring it all together.”