The Science of Creativity: What Happens In Your Brain When You Create

Could brain scans have predicted Albert Einstein’s theories, the Sistine Chapels, or your latest creative thinking project? Not exactly, but a group of researchers recently used MRIs and artificial intelligence to predict which individuals are more creative than others with surprising accuracy. Studying the brain can help us understand where creativity comes from and how to encourage new connections between creative expression and the mind.

The science of creativity is an evolving concept. Several brain science studies have changed our understanding of the creative process in just the last ten years alone. Each new study discovers a new factor that helps — or hinders — creativity in the brain.

That’s great for the experts that understand the intricacies of the human brain — but what about the creatives? How should creatives take the latest creativity science research and actually apply it to the creative process or their creative problem-solving skills? Here’s what you need to know about the science of creativity.

The neuroscience of creativity

The brain has different lobes or regions that all handle different tasks. And while you can blame that stupid decision you made as a teenager on your frontal lobe, creative thought doesn’t have a dedicated area of the brain where those innovative ideas come from.

In a Psychology Today article, Grant Hilary Brenner, MD, FAPA explains that the brain has three different networks. A default network is the brain’s inactive mode; the executive network is the decision and emotion center, and the salience network determines what things you will always notice and what things you don’t.

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A major theory suggests that creativity happens with those networks problem-solving together, an idea supported by a group of psychology experts from Harvard, Yale and others that used MRIs to predict an individual’s creativity level earlier this year. When the researchers compared brain scans to participants engaging in creative work compared to those that were not trying a creative task, the researchers found more connections between the areas commonly associated with those three networks. “For creativity, scientists hypothesize that the Big Three operate as a team: the default mode network generates ideas, the executive control network evaluates them, and the salience network helps to identify which ideas get passed along to the executive control network,” Brenner writes.

An individual’s creativity is likely a mix of genetics and experience — but more of the latter

In one part of that same study, researchers used MRIs and AI to predict how creative an individual is. And if you can predict someone’s level of creative thought even while not engaging in a creative task, then the idea that some people are more creative than others probably is more than just an idea. Additional studies suggest that creativity is both a result of genetics and experience — the latter suggesting that everyone has the potential to become more creative and one does not trump the other.

Several studies support the idea that creativity runs in families. Scientific American even found that creative people tended to have smaller connections between the two hemispheres of the brain (the left brain and right brain), called the corpus callosum, which could help give ideas more time to develop. Still more studies show evidence connecting a creative mind with more gray brain matter and higher levels of serotonin.

But for every study on the brain’s link to creativity, there’s another on how psychology, and not just physiology, helps wire the brain for creative expression. Studies of children, in particular, show that watching someone else be creative, viewing a fantasy film and unstructured play encourages new insights, analytical thinking, and creativity.

Cultivating creativity doesn’t have to be done exclusively in childhood, however. Additional studies suggest that habits, like writing down new ideas, trying new things and regularly learning on unfamiliar subjects, can help foster creativity. Further studies explore the connection to getting enough sleep, spending time outdoors or holding brainstorming sessions at work as ways to boost creativity. Divergent thinking or the ability to explore multiple solutions to a problem is another way to engage the creative mind.

Creative thinking can be boosted through play, practice, and experience

Valerie van Mulukom, a researcher specializing in the cognitive ties to the imagination, suggests play, practice, and experience are all things that can boost creativity. Studies show that watching someone engaged in everyday creativity boosts your own creativity, so she suggests taking a class or holding a brainstorming session with a group. Additional studies show that both kids that play pretend in imaginary worlds and adults engaging in non-professional acting are more likely to have bigger imaginations.

Additional studies point to the role of experience in the creative process. Mulukom suggests that the longer creatives engage in their particular art, the more likely you are to come up with creative ideas. How often have you been blown away by the ideas coming from a favorite photographer, musician, or another artist? Consider how long Pablo Picasso worked on his craft. Don’t let the creativity of an artist with a decade of experience discourage you as a beginner.

Creativity isn’t boosted overnight, but original ideas can be cultivated through innovation-boosting habits and hard work.

The science of creativity suggests some choices can dampen creative thinking

While several things can help boost creative expression, other factors of everyday life can simultaneously pull those creativity levels down. While much of the research on creativity is new, scientists have understood for some time that stress and time constraints dampen innovation. Other creativity downers are recognized simply from experience — many creatives find working in the same place every day lowers creativity, others cite a lack of sleep, perfectionism and a fear of failing.

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., suggests that today’s sense of always being connected and always having something to do also diminishes creativity — instead, creatives should welcome boredom and reduce multitasking. This will help idea generation.

Creativity is innovation without constraints — but the constraints of scientific research does help us understand, where, exactly, creativity comes from. Researchers are just beginning to peel back the layers of creative expression. However, understanding the science of creativity, along with the factors that encourage and discourage those new ideas, can help creatives better understand their own process.

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Hillary Grigonis FOLLOW >

Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.