Creatives unlock unique brain networks

By Nicole A. Tetreault, PhD.

The creative brain engages unconventional brain networks where manifestation of divergent thinking emerges. 


A new study found when measuring connectivity within the brains of subjects, researchers could approximate how creative the subject’s ideas would be based on connectivity.  The researchers found three subnetworks in the brain that are engaged during creative problem solving: the default mode network, the salience network and the executive functioning network.  Interestingly, these subnetworks do not normally engage except when engaged in creative thinking. This finding highlights how an imaginative brain in flow accesses multiple brain regions and both hemispheres.  Importantly, for imagination and ingenuity, it is the orchestration across brain regions that produce creative problem solving. The discovery of three subnetworks working in synchrony debunks the age-old myth of “right brained and left brained.”  It demonstrates how the brain absorbed in creativity uses multiple regions. So, what do these three subnetworks do and why are they in synchrony in creative thinking?


The default mode network is involved in emotions, memories of self and others.  It is activated during mind wandering, planning the future, thinking of past events, and rest.  This network is critical for understanding how mind wandering accesses the information at a deep level to ignite imagination.  The finding may explain the creative behaviors we call being “spaced” or “heady.”  Perhaps that is what is exactly needed to be in a deep creative thought process. 


The salience network sorts through information internally and from the environment.  It is hypothesized that the salience network analyzes the thoughts and emotions from the default mode network. It is where the symphony starts in the brain of collecting ideas and memories and sorting through the imagination. 


The executive functioning network happens in the frontal lobe (dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex and the orbital frontal cortex), where essential cognition occurs related to attention, working memory, cognitive inhibitory control like fluid reasoning, problem solving and cognitive flexibility.  These regions may be responsible for taking action on the creative ideas and putting them into play.  Testing and working out multiple outcomes based on memories of trial and error is crucial for problem solving. 


The incredible value of this study shows that high creativity requires large scale brain networks.  Creatives engage a unique brain network for expansive imaginative thinking that allows for creative problem solving and novel solutions.  Additionally, there was a strong correlation between respondents' self-reports of creative behaviors and creative thinking. This leads to the next wave how can we ignite more imagination in our daily life?  Daydream perhaps. 


Remember the next time you think your friend, partner, child, or co-worker seems “spaced out” they may be in the deep creative thought developing the latest invention or work of art.


References:

Beaty RE, Kenett YN, Christensen AP, Rosenberg MD, Benedek M, Chen Q, Fink A, Qiu J, Kwapil TR, Kane MJ, Silvia PJ. Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Jan 30;115(5):1087-1092. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1713532115. Epub 2018 Jan 16. PubMed PMID: 29339474.


Beaty RE, Benedek M, Kaufman SB, Silvia PJ. Default and Executive Network Coupling Supports Creative Idea Production. Sci Rep. 2015 Jun 17;5:10964. doi:10.1038/srep10964. PubMed PMID: 26084037; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4472024.


Diamond A. Executive functions. Annu Rev Psychol. 2013;64:135-68. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750. Epub 2012 Sep 27. Review. PubMed PMID: 23020641; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4084861.


Horn A, Ostwald D, Reisert M, Blankenburg F. The structural-functional connectome and the default mode network of the human brain. Neuroimage. 2014 Nov 15;102 Pt 1:142-51. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.09.069. Epub 2013 Oct 4. PubMed PMID: 24099851.


Janka Z. [Neuroscience of mental flexibility]. Orv Hetil. 2017 Nov;158(45):1771-1786. doi: 10.1556/650.2017.30906. Review. Hungarian. PubMed PMID: 29135273.

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