Where Does Creativity Come From?

As a writer, I spend the majority of my time wondering where creativity comes from. The rest of my time is spent wishing someone would figure it out so I could use the information, and also thinking about cats. (Duh.) Creativity has been a topic of interest to scientists for centuries; evolutionarily speaking, it's not exactly the type of ability that's going to help you survive in the wild — or so you'd think.

Researchers have long hypothesized that creativity might actually come in handy when it comes to survival, largely because it allows us to develop original solutions to problems. But what allows us to think outside the box in the first place? Scientists at Israel's University of Haifa investigated the subject in a recent study, and according to their research, creativity requires more than just the ability to come up with new ideas. In the study, volunteers were given 30 seconds to come up with original uses for different objects. The creativity of these ideas was judged by the frequency of the answers: The less frequent the idea, the more creative it was considered, and vice versa. In a second test, participants were asked to describe the objects. Most importantly, participants were scanned with an fMRI machine the whole time, which measures blood flow to different parts of the brain.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, volunteers with high originality scores showed more activity in an "associative" region of the brain that works similarly to daydreaming. However, the study also revealed that this area of the brain didn't work alone: In order for an answer to be original and useful, a more "administrative" area related to social norms and rules was also activated. As researchers put it, "There is surely a need for a region that tosses out innovative ideas, but on the other hand there is also the need for one that will know to evaluate how applicable and reasonable these ideas are."

In other words, a truly creative solution is twofold: It's original, but it also has to be applicable. Otherwise, what's the point? This was further supported by the study's results: According to the data, the stronger the connection between associative and administrative areas of the brain, the more original the answer turned out to be.

At first glance, the study might not seem applicable — what's the big deal about knowing what areas of the brain are involved in creativity? However, it's one of a growing number of studies showing that creativity isn't always a lightning-strike of inspiration. As romantic as the eureka moment may be in theory, originality is actually the result of a variety of environmental factors, from upbringing to, weirdly enough, your state of intoxication. It's a boring answer to an interesting question, but there's a silver lining: At least this means there are plenty of ways to boost your creativity on your own.

Images: Sascha Kohlmann/Flickr, Giphy (2)