Creative Thought Has a Distinct Pattern in the Brain

It’s easy to recognize the byproducts of creativity: a masterful painting, a lyrical symphony, or even a well-crafted argument. But scientists have spent a long time trying to find creativity’s neurological correlate. What patterns and synaptic percolations result in a creatively churning mind?

That’s the question Roger Beaty, a psychologist at Harvard University, decided to pursue, along with colleagues in Austria and China. What they’ve come up with is a more accurate way to detect how flexible a person’s thinking is.

Scientists are keen on figuring out how creativity works in the brain.

To test participants’ creative juices, the researchers gave them 12 seconds to come up with an innovative use for an object that flashed on a screen. Meanwhile, a brain scanner recorded their brain activity and three independent adjudicators rated their answers.

Here’s Ian Sample, reporting for The Guardian:

Reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study found distinct patterns of brain activity in the most and least creative people. In the highly original thinkers, the scientists saw strong connectivity between three networks of the brain. One, known as the default mode network, is linked to spontaneous thinking and mind wandering, while a second, the executive control network, is engaged when people focus in on their thoughts. The third, called the salience network, helps to work out what best deserves our attention.

The first two of these three brain networks tend to work against one another, Beaty said, each dampening the other down. But the scans suggest that more creative people can better engage both networks at once. “It might be easier for creative thinkers to bring these resources to bear simultaneously,” he said.

The study involved participants from the University of North Carolina first, and then expanded to volunteers in Austria and China—giving the scientists a cross-cultural look at creativity in the brain. In the future, Beaty wants to see if these neurological patterns change from task to task…or if they function differently in the sciences, for example. The results could influence educational policy, or merely challenge our assumptions of what creativity is and how it works.