What is creativity and can we actually study its underpinnings in the brain? Its no simple challenge but doing so may yield key insights into what makes us human.
Creativity is generally understood as the generation of novel and useful ideas. But “creativity” as a scientific term is complicated since it is not a single process but encompasses many different cognitive processes such as idea generation, problem solving, artistic improvisation and more. What’s more, a wide variety of methodological approaches are being used to study these different types of creative thinking, many of which require a subjective interpretation of the ‘creativity’ of the result. This has resulted in wide and varied results with respect to brain activity and there is still no real consensus as to whether there actually are any core regions or effects that underpin “creativity” as a whole, or if it even makes sense to look for them.
Despite these challenges, there is still considerable scientific effort to find common ground, not just with fMRI, which shows large-scale cooperation across the brain during creative cognition, but also EEG.
Alpha band activity in idea generation
Like with many cognitive processes, creativity has been associated with higher EEG alpha band activity. As far back as the 70s Martindale and Hines found higher levels of alpha activity associated with better performance on creative tasks. After over two decades of relative quiet, this early work has seen a revival with researchers like Andreas Fink from the University of Graz in Austria. His approach has often focused on what is called “divergent thinking” – the type of creativity associated with coming up with new and original ideas and concepts. One common task used to study this kind of creativity is the alternative uses task where, in the most standard version of the task, people have to generate multiple uses for a particular object.
His findings have shown that activity in the alpha band across frontal and parietal regions is an important component of divergent thinking. More specifically, he, and other researchers, have found greater alpha band activity across frontal and parietal regions (up to ~80% magnitude increases in some instances) when people performed tasks requiring divergent thinking with their eyes open (you get the opposite pattern if people have their eyes closed during the baseline and task), and also increased alpha activity in these regions when people generate more original ideas (~17% magnitude increases in some studies).
A link between expertise and creativity
Another study from Andreas Fink’s lab compares creative outcome in 15 professional and 17 novice dancers. This study showed that professional dancers showed up to 50% increases in alpha band power when imagining an improvised dance routine as compared to a non-improvised one, and when performing an alternative uses task when compared to novice dancers. This kind of study highlights the difficulties of studying creativity. Depending on how one defines creativity, expertise may be construed as a confound, or conversely considered a fundamental element of creativity by providing a greater repertoire of elements to create with. Nonetheless, it contributes to the overall picture of alpha being an underlying factor in “thinking creatively”.
That Eureka! moment.
There are also other forms of “creativity” which have been explored using EEG. For example, the process of “insight” where the solution to a problem is suddenly revealed – a eureka! Moment – is typically measured using a remote associates task where, in it’s most simple form, individuals have to think up a word which correctly connects together a set of 3 presented words. And although alpha is thought to be necessary for “convergent” creativity albeit to a lesser extent, researchers such as Mark Jung-Beeman from Northwestern University have also revealed that the moment of insight – the point in which your brain generates the solution and solves the problem is actually represented by a “burst” of gamma activity across anterior temporal regions (see figure below from Jung Beeman et al 2004), potentially reflecting the moment that the solution manifests itself consciously.
Confounds in interpretation
Interpreting these results in the context of creativity has some significant challenges.
Enhancement of alpha activity has been shown to relate to attention, mental imagery and a host of other cognitive tasks as well as moods. Like many of the other discussions relating to the functional role of alpha in the brain, it is therefore not clear whether this increase in alpha associated with creative tasks reflects processes which are related to generating the ideas per se, or whether they are related to the suppression of unwanted information to ensure adequate resources are allocated for internally directed thought.
Another challenge to interpretation is that spectral elements reported are often incomplete, typically not showing or discussing results for other frequency bands. In addition, across the literature methods generally fail to distinguish between oscillatory alpha activity and non-periodic alpha band activity within the 1/f spectrum, potentially an important distinction. A full picture of the shifts in the power spectrum across all bands could be significantly more informative to distinguish between different cognitive processes. Non spectral aspects of the signal may also provide more specific insights (see The Blue Frog in the EEG).
Complex to study, but a worthwhile endeavor.
Creativity is a multifaceted and dynamic process and one that encompasses a wide breadth of thinking. And because of the difficulties of effectively capturing the richness of creativity within a controlled psychological paradigm, it is less studied, and therefore less well understood, compared to other core cognitive processes such as memory and attention. But creativity at the heart of what makes us so successful and adaptable as human beings and may help to shed light on core principles of what makes the human brain distinct from other species.