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  • Writer's pictureColleen Munro

This is Your Brain on Creativity

What is Creativity?

Albert Einstein said, "creativity is intelligence having fun."

Today, neuroscientists study how exactly creativity happens in the brain -- where do novel ideas come from? What are the necessary ingredients to have a creative mind? Are some people more creative than others?

Creativity opens the mind, allowing people to see new perspectives and make new connections between existing ideas. It relies on imagination and knowledge.

It's defined as "the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others."

It's difficult to describe something as ephemeral as creativity. Whatever phrase one settles on always feels somewhat limited, like defining a rainbow as "an arch of colors in the sky," when you know it's nothing short of a miracle.

In general, researchers agree that in order for something to be creative, an idea must be both new and useful.

Sorry Michael Scott, I'm not sure your unicorn drawing counts as creative in the eyes of science. I'm sure your mom enjoyed hanging it on the fridge, though.

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

Have you ever been called "left-brained" or "right-brained?" Maybe you took one of those tests in a psychology class that professed to tell you whether the right or left hemisphere of your brain was most powerful.

The left-brain is meant to be the home of orderly, linear, sequential thinking. "Left-brained" implies a talent for mathematics, science, reading, and writing. The right hemisphere is the hub of intuition, imagination, visualization. The theory goes that while the two sides work in harmony, one tends to be stronger or preferred by an individual.

Those quizzes always bummed me out because I love being creative, and it's always been my dream to be an artist, but somehow I always get told I'm a "left-brain" person: logical, analytical, reasonable. When I told people I was going to arts school, some thought I wouldn't enjoy it because I was too organized and driven. There's a stereotype that creative, "right-brained" people are scattered and messy.

There seems to be some pervasive idea that the two halves of the brain are unequal, and their imbalance is a permanent fixture of your personality; however, this doesn't seem to be the case. Scientists now believe that the interaction between the two sides is most important for facilitating creativity.

Roger Beaty is a psychologist studying creativity. He became interested in the topic during an undergraduate course on the psychology of geniuses. “This was the first time I realized that you could study creativity scientifically,” he said. Studying the greats in various fields, from Picasso to the Beatles, he had to wonder if there was something unique, something fundamentally different about the function of their minds that lended itself to creative endeavors.

Beaty's research found three primary networks in the brain involved in creativity. The first, called the default network, is the area of the brain that activates when a person is daydreaming, lost in thought, thinking of nothing in particular. It’s the realm of spontaneous ideas.

The second network is the area of executive control, essentially the opposite of the first. This part of the brain focuses your attention to accomplish difficult tasks.

​​“The thing about these two networks is they typically don’t work together,” said Beaty. “If your mind is wandering you don’t need focused attention, and when you’re focusing you don’t want spontaneous thoughts slipping in. It’s kind of an antagonistic relationship.”

So how does creativity happen? These two networks in the brain need to learn how to get along. Thus a third network, called the salience network, must act as a referee between the first two. When all three networks collaborate, that’s when the magic happens. “The degree of a person’s creativity depends on the strength of connections between them.”

If you'd like to read more about the fascinating research behind these studies, check out:

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