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The Neuroscience of Creativity

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”~ Dr. Seuss.

Creativity has been defined as “thinking outside the box”, “reasoning without all of the information”, “innovation without constraint” and, perhaps best, as “the ability to generate new and useful ideas”. Most of us think of inventors, scientists, artists, writers and performers as creative. But creativity is something we all possess and use daily, for example when planning dinner, coordinating outfits, problem-solving at work, or thinking up clever excuses for things. Creativity involves reasoning and emotion, and has conscious and unconscious elements. Think of all the times your own creative ideas have surprised you. Where do they come from?


Well, creativity happens in our brains. The most important part of the brain, when talking about creativity, is the cerebral cortex. Neurons in the cortex receive and send information, and make connections (synapses) with each other where they can exchange signals. Bundles of axons carry signals from neurons and interconnect different parts of the brain. Cerebral cortex is divided into a left and a right hemisphere, which communicate by a band of axons collectively called the corpus callosum. Each hemisphere has four lobes – frontal, parietal, temporal, occipital. While each lobe is associated with a main role, such as the occipital lobe with vision, things are not that simple. Most functions, especially complex functions like language, emotion, and attention, use neurons in multiple regions working in coordination, and often housed in several non-adjacent parts of the brain.


For any stimulus, external (e.g. touch) or internal (e.g. thoughts), information travels through multiple linked neurons to be appropriately recognized and produce a response. The neurons activated in the process make up a neural network, and may be a few, hundreds, thousands or more in number depending on the function involved. Each neuron receives thousands of inputs, and can thus be involved in many networks. Since there are about 16 billion neurons in the cerebral cortex, each with thousands of synapses and able to participate in many networks, you can imagine what a tangled web our brain circuitry weaves.

There is a hierarchy of interconnected brain networks, and more and more get involved as we move up the chain of task complexity. At the highest level of complexity, a handful of large scale networks are known that will activate for certain types of tasks. For creativity, three networks are most relevant:


1. The default mode network (DMN) uses areas in the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes (including hippocampus). It is active when we are simply relaxing. In that state, we tend to engage in spontaneous thinking, also referred to as mind-wandering, much of which involves remembering recent experiences and imagining future scenarios and outcomes. DMN has also been called the imagination network and when active, often generates creative ideas.

2. The executive attention or central executive network (CEN), is recruited when a task requires attention such as concentrating on a challenging problem. This network involves communication between prefrontal and posterior parietal cortex. Its role is to critically evaluate the ideas DMN comes up with.

3. The salience network (SN) constantly monitors external events and the internal stream of consciousness and selects whatever information is most salient to the task at hand. It consists of regions of the frontal lobes (dorsal anterior cingulate and anterior insular cortex), and is important for switching between the other networks.

So, in the process of creativity, ideas emerge from DMN in mind-wandering. SN sorts through them to pick relevant ones and engages the CEN, which then focuses attention on the most useful ideas and discards others. People who think more flexibly and come up with more creative ideas are better able to engage these three

networks which don’t typically work together. Genetics and early environmental/developmental influences are significant determinants of one’s creativity.


Although it is not known if there is a way to change a person’s overall level of creativity, there are ways to improve it in the short term, and with practice for specific tasks. Adequate sleep and managing stress seem to be useful for creativity. Identifying and meeting individual needs for the best environment conducive to creativity is important. Engaging in activities like a nature walk that can promote mind wandering will increase creativity. And, dampening the effects of the CEN, which can act as an internal censor, may allow a broader range of creative or even fringe ideas to emerge, and meditation practice can help with this.

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Post by: Nadia Fike


Read more: 1. Abraham ,A (2018). The Neuroscience of Creativity. . Cambridge University Press. 2. Shofty, B et al (2022). The default network is causally linked to creative thinking. Molecular Psychiatry, volume 27, pages1848–1854.



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