• Creativity and the Brain by Dr Jack Lewis

    I’ve recently developed a new live presentation on: “The Neuroscience of Creativity,” which I first presented at the Royal Society of Arts in February 2012. The rapidly expanding list of Brain Coach Live topics continues to grow.

    I kick off by describing some of the features of modern life that are “Enemies of Creativity.” To help motivate this section I describe a Channel 4 architecture series I contributed to called “The Secret Life of Buildings.” In this show I used EEG to illustrate how the brain responds to a variety of sensory distractions typically encountered in a modern work environment – the open plan office. The presenter, The Independent architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff (pictured left), was wired up with an electrode studded scrum cap and plonked in the middle of a busy open plan office to write up an overdue newspaper article. When a colleague (to his left in the photograph) mentioned the word “pub,” an extensive burst of activity was triggered across his prefrontal cortices (pictured top right). His brainwaves also pulsed in response to movements in the background, conversations going on around him and especially the rattle of the trolley loaded with crockery and cutlery as the tea lady tottered by.

    The point I wished to convey was that, although we might not consciously register sights and sounds that are constantly being picked up by our senses, they are nonetheless processed in the brain; diverting precious resources away from the task at hand.

    This is relevant to the process of creativity because soaking up and considering vast quantities of information from a variety of sources for a prolongued period of time is often the first step towards solving a tricky problem and this requires sustained attention. And it is not just disturbances in our open plan working environments (classrooms fall into this category too, of course) that pull the brain’s attentional resources hither and thither, thus disrupting the intake of information. The demands made on us by our smartphones constantly alerting us to the arrival of endless emails, texts, calls and social networking updates also interferes with creative thinking.

    The first tip for boosting creativity is thus to block out distractions by switching off smartphones, closing down email accounts and sticking in the earplugs. Take a tip from french polymath Henry Pointcaré and work in regular two hour sessions from 10:00-12:00 and 17:00-19:00 to get those distraction-free bouts of unbroken concentration in. That way you will be able to take in all the necessary input relevant to the problem at hand. Later, once the subconscious brain has mulled over the possibilities, circumventing the inevitable mental blocks, your Eureka moment will come when you least expect it.

    Great thinkers have typically reached their big creative breakthroughs, usually described in the scientific literature as “Aha! moments,” at a time when they were not thinking terribly hard. For instance, Henry Pointcaré cracked one of his biggest mathematical conundrums whilst stepping onto a bus, Kekulé day-dreamed a snake biting its tail to crack the chemical structure of benzene whilst dozing by the fire and Archimedes was famously plonking himself in the bath.

    The point is that when a “mental impasse” is reached i.e. you’ve done lots of work on trying to crack the problem, but don’t seem to be getting anywhere – the best thing you can possibly do is walk away from it and do something else. You must leave it to your subconscious to play with all the information you have furiously uploaded into your brain and wait for the solution to percolate up into consciousness once you are between thoughts.

    The rest of the talk describes a medley of the latest neuroscientific investigations into the Aha! moment courtesy of the likes of Joydeep Bhattacharya and colleageues at Goldsmith’s University. They discovered that the moment that a problem is solved is associated with activation across the right prefrontal cortex up to 8s before the person registers their response.

    I also touch upon Alan Snyder and colleage’s contraversial experiment where transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) was used to transiently deactivate brain areas over the left anterior temporal/prefrontal areas whilst stimulating right anterior temporal/prefrontal areas resulting in three-fold improvements in finding solutions to creative problems. The idea is based on the theory that, in most right handed people, the left brain controls well rehearsed over-learned behaviours, whilst the right brain is more involved in grappling with novel stimuli and generating creative behaviour.

    Finally, I described what modern science knows about the hypnagogic state, where wakefulness drifts off into sleep, well know to be an incredibly fertile ground for creativity. Scientist and engineer Thomas Edison was a great believer in using the hypnagogic state to boost creativity and given his 1,093 patents and inventions that lead to electric lighting, plus the music and movie industries, I would say that his is a testimony we can all believe.

    Clues as to how and why this brain state is so enormously innovative arise from very recent studies (Magnin et al, 2010) in which electrodes attached all over the surface of a human brain to measure the neuronal activity as a person falls asleep. This has revealed that the thalamus – the brain’s main junction box through which all parts of the cortex are connected to all other parts – “falls asleep” first whilst other brain areas “switch off” up to 5mins, 10mins, 15 mins and even 20 mins later! Until then these brain areas are still firing away, yet cut off as they from the rest of the brain by the absence of viable cortico-thalmo-cortical connectivity, it is surely this dissociation which leads to those magical sparkles of insight?

    Edison even invented a clever device for capturing creative thoughts before they are forgotten. If you want to know more about this then you can click here to book me in to give this talk at your school, university or firm!

    If you’d like to leave a comment below, please do, but so that I can find it amongst all the spam comments would you please email me to tell me on what day and at what time you left it so that I can find and approve it.

    In addition to these brainblogs you can also follow my regular #braintweets by following me (@DrJackLewis) on Twitter.

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