How does the brain produce creative thought?
Recently, my 13 year old niece had an interesting English assignment. She had to write a story about a well-known villain that would cause the audience to see the villain in a new light. She was having trouble coming up with ideas so she sent a group text to her aunts and uncles seeking inspiration. Because I love my niece, and because it was a good distraction from a complex task I had been working on, I spent some time brainstorming potential story ideas and was surprised how energizing the activity was.
Have you ever wondered what is going on in your brain when you are engaged in a creative work? A series of papers has explored this question across a range of creative tasks. The papers report similar patterns of brain activity.
A blog post on The Conversation.com discusses one of these studies. The study uncovered the “high-creative network”, a series of brain connections used in generating original ideas. Regions of the brain active in the “high-creative network” belonged to three specific brain systems:
- the default network that is activated when people are engaged in spontaneous thinking such as day-dreaming;
- the executive control network used when people need to focus their work or evaluate; and
- the salience network that acts as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks.
Interestingly, these networks don’t usually fire together, yet in people who excel at creative tasks they do. The theory is that people who excel at creative tasks may have a brain that is better able to run two brain networks at the same time. We can all think of creative people who act a little differently, and this study suggests they may be wired differently. (I think my creative sister-in-law, who grew up in a family of engineers, would agree).
What does this mean for people and organizations wanting to increase their creativity and their ability to innovate? I can see some important applications.
- Use a creative network. When you have a problem that requires a novel approach, follow the example of my niece and tap into a creative network. Use your network of people as a creativity network. Often, at our training workshops, participants find that talking through a problem with a colleague from a different area gives them a creative boost.
- Want improved creativity? Focus on collaboration. If the brains of creative people are better able to manage the spontaneous thinking (default network) and structured thinking (executive control network) then a creative organization needs to create teams with the skills and processes in place that allow people with different thinking strengths to work together and collaborate.
- Facilitation can help with creative problem solving. The “high-creative network” involves the network in the brain that switches mechanisms between spontaneous thinking and evaluative thinking. If your team is having trouble solving a creative problem, an experienced facilitator can bring your ideas together.
Researchers say that further research is needed to explore whether practice helps people increase the connectivity within these brain networks. While neuroscience researchers are engaging their creative networks to devise studies to examine this, I plan on trying my hand at more creative tasks. Already this week I have found that creative tasks such as writing a blog posts, applying neuroscience to organizational effectiveness, or re-telling the Little Mermaid so people view Ursula the sea witch more sympathetically, are engaging and also really fun.