Three short divulgation essays – 2 The neuroscience of creativity


Leandro Castelluccio


What is creativity?

Creativity in its aspect of generation of ideas could be considered the expression of the common pattern between two precepts or concepts. When we have a moment of insight or creativity, what we usually do is to see the relationship of one thing with another that we had not thought before, that is, we had not found such a relationship, which refers to a common pattern between both elements, a pattern unknown until now and that had not been part of our attention.

According to Jung, Mead, Carrasco and Flores (2013), creativity is a complex and vast construction that has been vital for the progress of human civilization. Given the immense variety of creative efforts that embrace activities as disparate as those made by painters, sculptors, nuclear engineers, landscape architects, graphic designers and software developers, these authors ask themselves how to define creativity in the face of such a broad construction.

For the purposes of the debate about the neuroscience of creativity, these authors adopt an appropriate and well-accepted operational definition for creative cognition: the production of something novel and useful. Other authors such as Przysinda, Zeng, Maves, Arkin and Loui (2017) also add: the ability to produce a novel, high-quality and appropriate work for an audience.

What can neuroscience tell us about this capacity? According to Jung et al. (2013), structural imaging techniques provide a reliable framework within which the field can begin to discuss brain traits associated with creative cognitive skills. But it is not the only neuroscientific approach, these techniques are also associated to behavioral measures, and genetic studies are used or those that focus on brain biochemistry, such as the ones that highlight the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in creative processes.

Divergent thinking

A key concept regarding creativity is divergent thinking, a driver of it. This differs from convergent thinking. When we use the latter, we seek to arrive to a solution within a defined number of options, so that our thinking converges into an option considered “the correct one”. However, divergent thinking involves openly searching for alternatives that are not pre-defined, so that we engage in a way of thinking that looks for non-apparent options, different from the conventional ones, where we can find a pattern not previously explored, a crucial aspect to find creative solutions (see in link).

One way to appreciate this process is by studying jazz musicians. According to Benedek, Borovnjak, Neubauer and Kruse-Weber, S (2014) jazz musicians show particularly high creativity with respect to specific domain musical achievements, but also in terms of general mastery indicators of divergent thinking ability which may be relevant to musical improvisation, a crucial aspect in jazz.

In this way, according to Przysinda, Zeng, Maves, Arkin and Loui (2017) a useful model of creativity comes from musical improvisation, as in jazz, in which musicians spontaneously create novel sound sequences. According to the results of the study by these authors, jazz musicians prefer unexpected chord progressions, where the amplitudes of response with respect to the information obtained by electroencephalogram (EEG) correlate significantly with the behavioral measures of fluency and originality in the task of divergent thinking.

Creativity involves processes in different neural networks

There is a widespread myth with regard to creativity and brain functioning, and that is that there is a hemispheric asymmetry in the creative process, where the right hemisphere is the “creative hemisphere” and the left hemisphere is the “logical-analytical”. This approach is not based on the latest knowledge and evidence in neuroscience. In fact, the experimental results of several studies indicate that creativity is based on a dynamic interaction between inhibitory and excitatory cortical networks that involve both cerebral hemispheres (Jung et al., 2013).

There are mainly three large cortical networks that participate in the creative process: the network of executive attention, a network that involves communication between lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex and posterior areas of the parietal lobe, which is activated when a great focus of attention is required to perform activities such as solving complex problems, the reasoning that requires the use of working memory or when we concentrate on hearing a conference full of concepts; On the other hand we have the network of imagination (the classic network “default network”), which involves deep brain areas within the prefrontal cortex and the temporal lobe, together with a communication between the various external and internal regions of the parietal cortex, and that is involved in dynamic mental simulations based on past personal experiences; and finally we have the relevance or salience network, formed by the anterior dorsal cortex of the cingulate and the anterior insular cortex, which is responsible for constantly monitoring both external events and the internal current of consciousness and alternate in a flexible way the command control between the executive attention network or the imagination network(see in link). Jung et al. (2013) suggest for example, that when the mind is allowed to free itself of its associations, that it wanders freely, imagining new possibilities and silencing internal criticism, it facilitates the reduction of the activation of the executive attention network, increasing the activity of the networks of imagination and salience.

We could relate the above with the process of attention, considering the most active associations that express a conscious precept, where the focus of attention is that, that is, the associations that would be important for the behavior at the given moment, where others would not, and that is why its activity would be less or inhibited, such associations arise once the activity of the previous associations is partially inhibited or diminished, new associations emerge that may have already developed in a lower level of activity, it is as if the answer we were looking for comes out of nowhere, and we experience the phenomenon of insight. Working with the association that emerges, actively working on it looking for new connections, seeing where it takes us, aids the creative process. It is this step of attention the beginning, where we have to learn to listen to what is possibly already there, and then what emerges from active work with this. In this sense it has been proven that training in mindfulness has the potential to increase creative capacity (see in link).

Creativity and dopamine

Something creative is related to what is rewarding, since finding new solutions to problems or new ways of expressing our abilities has gratifying effects at different levels. The reward in turn is related to the dopaminergic activity of the brain.

Let’s consider the “psychomotor stimulant” theory of addiction that proposes that a common denominator of addictive drugs is their ability to cause psychomotor activation. This is related to the idea that positive reinforcers activate a common biological mechanism that is associated with approximation behaviors (Badiani et al., 2011). On this concept, the association between dopamine and creativity is very interesting. According to Mayseless, Shamay-Tsoory, Uzefovsky, Ebstein and Shalev (2013), dopamine and creativity are strongly linked. The aforementioned divergent thinking has been proposed as a way of evaluating creativity since it involves generating multiple novel and meaningful responses to open questions, and this has been related to dopaminergic activity. For example, individuals carrying the DRD4 7R allele of the human dopamine receptor obtained significantly lower scores on divergent thinking tests compared to non-carriers (Mayseless et al., 2013), which would imply an association between dopaminergic activity and divergent thinking at this biological level. According to Zabelina, Colzato, Beeman and Hommel (2016) however, the results of previous studies are mixed on this topic. These authors worked on this relationship considering the mediofrontal and nigrostriatal dopaminergic pathways, in a unique and combined way, and how they relate to different measures of creativity. They claim that creativity can be predicted from the interactions between genetic polymorphisms related to these frontal pathways. Specifically, successful performance in the Torrance test (which measures certain aspects of creativity) is linked to dopaminergic polymorphisms associated with good cognitive flexibility and top-down control. Differently, real-world creative achievements, as assessed by the Creative Achievement Questionnaire, are linked to dopaminergic polymorphisms associated with weak cognitive flexibility and weak top-down control. Taken together, their findings support the idea that human creativity is based on dopamine, and on the interaction between frontal and striatal dopaminergic pathways in particular (Zabelina et al., 2016). All this gives us an idea of ​​what dopamine might be doing in certain pathways and how it relates to motivation. If we think about it, this could be a useful system that helps us to interact with the world in new ways, we are motivated to act and do things for their rewarding properties to interact with the world and maybe find innovative, creative ways to solve problems, therefore, it is easy to see how the two things being related in the brain would be efficient. Such ability to find novel solutions to problems helps our chances of survival, which is associated with reward. This tells us a lot about motivation in general, and why some people may want to use certain drugs, such as psycho-stimulants, if they are trying to solve a particular problem, or simply because they want to be more creative in something, for example. This follows the idea that drugs “hijack” relevant brain circuits related to our survival. The capacity of self-perceived survival and the theory of reproductive fitness (SPFit) for example, represent a human psychobiological construct that prioritizes and organizes behavior, in which a cortical-mesolimbic dopamine system and its modulation interconnections are considered the biological substrate of it. This is also considered to be highly vulnerable to temporary artificial activation by drugs of abuse (Newlin, 2002). Although it is proposed that the system is one of survival and reproductive motivation instead of a reward center or a reward path in itself, we can see that the reward, motivation and physical form or adaptation to the environment seem to go together, and linked to all this is creativity.

The connection with mental disorders: schizophrenia and creativity

Finding or seeing patterns that do not really exist is a problem of schizophrenia, it is in a sense the creative capacity taken to the extreme. schizophrenia is related to the dopaminergic pathways in its positive symptoms. The most frequent positive symptoms reported by patients are hallucinations (usually auditory), irrational delusions-beliefs irreducible to logic and alterations in thinking (disorganization, incoherence).

The drugs indicated in this disorder are those of the group of neuroleptics, which act on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Second-generation or atypical neuroleptics differ from first-generation neuroleptics because they are more specific for the mesolimbic pathway and less so for nigrostriatal, which is involved in extrapyramidal side effects. They also block the serotonergic 5HT2 receptors increasing the action of serotonin in the limbic system, which is associated with the clinical improvement of the negative symptoms of Schizophrenia.

If we consider creativity as the process by which a common pattern is found, a patter unknown or unexplored regarding two concepts, we could consider that a greater ability to understand a multitude of patterns and see the common aspects could imply higher levels of creativity. A greater propensity to see these common patterns could underlie creative people and people with schizophrenic disorder.

It has been shown that high creative abilities are somewhat more common in people who have mental illnesses in the family, creativity being linked to a slightly higher risk of schizophrenia and also of bipolar disorder. Certain psychological traits, such as the ability to make unusual and extravagant associations are also shared by schizophrenics and highly creative non-schizophrenic people alike. This correlation between creativity and mental health has good scientific support. For example, when studying certain receptors in the brain, it has been demonstrated that the dopamine system in healthy and highly creative people is similar in some aspects to that observed in people with schizophrenia. It is observed that highly creative people who obtained good results in the divergent tests had a lower density of D2 dopaminergic receptors in the thalamus than the less creative people. It is known that schizophrenics have a low-density level of D2 receptors in this part of the brain, which suggests a link between mental illness and creativity.It is thought that lower D2 receptors in the thalamus result in a lower degree of signal filtering and therefore a greater flow of information from the thalamus, which could be a possible mechanism behind the ability of both healthy and creative people to see numerous unusual connections in a problem-solving situation in the same sense as people with schizophrenia can see strange associations that do not match reality (see in link).

The connection with mental disorders: bipolarity and creativity

The manic type of psychic expression involves states of reward and exaltation, where dopamine can act and contribute to creative episodes.

A study carried out by the psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison surveyed 47 British visual artists and authors of the Royal British Academy and found that 38 percent had been treated for a mood disorder. The most common mood changes present were an increase in enthusiasm, energy, self-confidence, speed of mental association, fluency of thoughts and elevated mood, with a strong sense of well-being. Participants also reported a noticeable decrease in the need to sleep and feelings of euphoria, excitement and anticipation. These states are characteristic of episodes of mania or hypomania (a state similar to mania but of lesser intensity). Mania is a state present in bipolar disorder. It is considered that the genes involved in bipolar disorder responsible for the debilitating effects of it can also confer an important adaptive or evolutionary advantage. Contrary to other mental or physical illnesses, bipolar disorder is more common in higher socioeconomic groups, suggesting that genes that predispose to bipolar disorder also predispose to greater economic capacity in relatives of people with bipolar disorder and sometimes, even in people with bipolar disorder in themselves (see in link). This advantage may be in the effects that the creative and productive capacity linked to the disorder generates in terms of the social-economic development of the person. Although we should not ignore that this disorder has enormous debilitating effects and can become a high risk factor for the person and his or her environment.


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