How Creative Brains Function Differently

by JR Thorpe

Are the brains of highly creative people genuinely different than others? The answer, according to some recent neuroscience, is yes — but not in the way you may think. Many neuroscientific advances over the years have focused on identifying which specific parts of the brain correlate to particular talents or behaviors, which has been useful; knowing that the amygdala, for instance, is partially responsible for how we form emotional memories gives us a lot of insight into how this can go wrong with Alzheimer's disease or brain damage.

But this sort of brain science can also give rise to the erroneous idea that the brain is a bunch of separate bunches of tissue, all performing distinct jobs. Instead, their interconnection and how they share out particular neural responsibilities are an important part of the picture. And it's that connectivity that's in focus when it comes to new research about creativity.

What's this research good for? Well, it may go a long way towards demystifying artistic talent, which many of us still regard as a kind of divine "inspiration," rather than something that could be a combination of neural predisposition and dogged cultivation. It could also give us more insight into what happens when things go haywire in the brain's physical structure, and how that affects mental work and behavior, from epilepsy to memory loss. It's also, frankly, just deeply cool. Here's how creative brains function differently.

Connection Is The Key To Greater Creativity

The newest research on the structure of creative brains, and how it distinguishes them from less-creative ones, came out this February from Duke University, and it joins a collection of other studies about the importance of connectivity. The scientists behind the Duke findings did some intriguing experiments: they used data from experiments that both tested the creativity of college-aged people and subjected their brains to diffusion tensor imaging, which looks at how the brain's white matter is connected via internal "wiring." And according to the numbers, there's definitely a connection.

How do you measure somebody's creativity? Isn't it kind of difficult to assess? Well, neuroscience has its own methods. There are a variety of neural tests that can be done to assess this, from getting participants to come up with as many new uses for household objects as they can in five minutes to designing geometric shapes. It's a model that's called the "composite creativity index," and is commonly used to assess peoples' creativity in these sorts of experiments, along with a kind of questionnaire that asks people to rate their own creative achievements (not that reliable on its own, as half the world likely thinks they're the next Zadie Smith).

The scientists found that the people who scored in the top 15 percent on the creativity tests had significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain than those in the bottom 15, mostly along the frontal lobe. This isn't new; in 2014, a vast creativity study that used MRIs of participant's brains found strong connections in highly creative individuals between the brain region known as the inferior prefrontal cortex, which goes across both hemispheres, and the brain's default mode network, which is what tends to activate when we're "at rest" and daydreaming, reminiscing, or thinking about others. Those connections were specific, while these new ones seem to be more general, but the picture overall is pretty evocative: an interconnected brain is a creative brain.

But It's Not Just The Connections — It's How Often They Change

There's another side to this, though. A study from the University of Warwick in 2016 made a huge splash because it provided an extra clue to how human intelligence works, and why artificial intelligence isn't there yet: how brain connections change. The Warwick scientists also looked at the resting brain, and found that creativity and intelligence seem to be tied not just to how brain regions are interconnected, but to how often those connections shift and recalibrate.

By looking at over 1000 people's brains over time, they saw that the bits of the brain that are most associated with learning, like the hippocampus and inferior temporal gyrus, show the highest "variability," shifting their connections with other regions often and rapidly. It may be an insight into the other aspect of connection's importance: creativity might not just be anchored in how well the brain's segments are interconnected, but in how often those connections evolve and recalibrate.

The idea that connectivity may lie behind high intelligence as well as creativity is also discussed by a study of Albert Einstein's brain released in 2013. Compared to other groups, Einstein showed a much higher level of connection between both side of his brain, which may have had an influence on his stupendous intellect and capacity for innovative ideas. It's not entirely clear whether we can enhance connectivity on our own at home, but it's definitely something to keep in mind for neuroscience of the future.