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Can You Wire Your Brain for Creativity?

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Maybe. Some people seem to engage networks that don’t usually team together.

Quick! How many ways can you use this brick? How about this rope? It sounds like a game of Clue, but this test of imagination and spontaneous thinking was given by brain researchers at Harvard. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

The researchers were looking for what neural networks might be involved in creativity. Nearly 200 volunteers were asked to come up with inventive uses for everyday objects, while their brains were being scanned using an MRI. A team then reviewed their answers to see how creative they were. Suggesting that a knife can be used for cutting an apple, for example, doesn’t require Steve Jobs-level ingenuity. Someone who suggests that a knife could be used as a bookmark, or a mirror, or a ruler, or as a pointer during a presentation, well, they are thinking more out of the box.

The scientists were able to correlate three subnetworks in the brain that appear to be important in creative thinking: the default mode network, which is associated with spontaneous thinking; the salience network, which picks up on which information is important in the world around us; and the executive control network, which helps people stay focused on useful ideas and toss out whatever’s not working.

“It’s the synchrony between these systems that seems to be important for creativity,” wrote Roger Beaty, the first author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow in psychology. “People who think more flexibly and come up with more creative ideas are better able to engage these networks that don’t typically work together and bring these systems online.”

He hopes that this study will help dispel one of the myths about creative thinking: that right-brained thinkers are more intuitive and left-brainers more logical. “This is a whole-brain endeavor,” he wrote. And there’s good news for people who feel they are not naturally creative. It’s not clear that learning to synch up our networks can’t be done. “It’s not something where you have it or you don’t,” Beaty wrote. “Creativity is complex, and we’re only scratching the surface here.”


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Savannah. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!.


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