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!
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In Autumn 2010 I was presented with an exciting opportunity: to act as neuroscience consultant for the neuromarketing section of a study that Sparkler, a leading media market research company, were conducting on behalf of Thomson Holidays. Thomson had expressed an interest in understanding the psychology of travel. Up until recently their tag line was: “Holidays built with you in mind”. I immediately envisaged the compelling possibility of changing this to: “Holidays built with your mind“.
We decided to use EEG (electroencephalography) to measure the degree to which participants brains’ were engaged by photos depicting various holiday activities. This enabled comparison of these objective measurements of brain engagment with participants’ subjective ratings of how much they would like to do the activities portrayed. Prior to the main body of the experiment, participants were run through some preliminary testing that enabled the software to establish the pattern of brain activity that occurs when: 1) the individual’s attention was engaged, and 2) their emotions were stimulated. The degree of “brain engagement” with photos of various holiday activities (described below) was established by comparing the pattern of brain responses to each photo, with these subject-specific baseline measurements of attention and emotional engagement.
The photos explored a broad stimulus space, spanning a continuum from pedestrian, unambitious holiday activities like sitting on a deckchair on the beach or reading a book by the pool, to adventurous holiday activities like jungle trekking and abseiling. The activities also ranged across a hedonistic to mind-expanding continuum: fun-packed pursuits like clubbing or indulging in spa treatments to exploring local communities, communing with nature and cultural activities like visiting galleries or monuments.
We divided our 32 participants up into 4 different personality types, according to whether they scored “relatively high” or “realtively low” on two of the Big 5 personality traits: Neuroticism and Extraversion. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative mood states, particularly anxiety, whilst Extraversion is the tendency to be positively engaged with one’s environment. Those that scored high on both scales were our “anxious extraverts” (N+E+), those that scored low on both scales were our “laid back introverts” (N-E-), those that scored high on one measure and low on the other were our “anxious introverts” (N+E-) and “laid back extroverts” (N-E+), respectively. If you’re curious you can try it yourself and see how you score on these measures (PersonalityTest).
The first fascinating insight from this study was that, across the board, all personality types subjectively rated a certain category of stimuli – the adventurous and slightly mind-expanding activities like jungle cruising, visiting a waterfall and horse trekking – amongst their most favoured activities. Yet for two of our personality types these were the very images that engaged their brains the least!! The “anxious extraverts” (N+E+) brains’ were actually most strongly engaged by images depicting much more relaxing activities such as reading by the pool or watching TV in the hotel room. Similarly the “laid-back introverts” (N-E-) brains’ were most strongly engaged by photos of spa treatments or watching traditional dancers or a band in action. Might this suggest that we are not as adventurous as we would like to believe?
It seems that only “anxious introverts” (N+E-) know their own minds – they were the only group whose subjective preference ratings matched their objective measurements of brain engagement. And as for the “laid-back extraverts” (N-E+), the very people you would expect to favour a big night out clubbing or pursuing their love for adrenaline sports, they were actually much more engaged by photos of people walking through hills and parks or visiting galleries and cultural sites.
There are many perfectly reasonable explanations for why we might not have a clear idea of what we really want in a holiday. Kent Berridge has been researching hedonic responses for decades and has established clear differences between liking and wanting. In the context of our study, it is perfectly feasable to like the idea of trekking through the jungle but at the same time not really wanting to waste our precious week’s holiday being bitten by insects, sleeping amidst predators and struggling to preserve our last precious drops of drinking water. There is also the positive illusion of self-enhancement to contend with, whereby the concept of ourselves as an “adventurous-type” falls down when we find ourselves struggling to think of a single example of something genuinely adventurous that we have achieved in the recent past. Not to mention cognitive dissonance, the various potentially conflicting factors that co-exist in our brains as we consider the suitability of each holiday option in terms of whether it suits our wishes and needs, as well as those of our partners and children. In order to reduce the cognitive dissonance all sorts of nonsense can come out of our mouths as we fail to make sense of all these competing considerations thwarting our ability to reach a sensible conclusion.
This was just the very first step into exploring the Psychology of Travel and credit must go to Thomson Holidays for funding an extremely ambitious and wide-ranging, blue skies pilot study. A journalist from the Independent newspaper, realising that this would make a great story, took us up on our offer of putting him through the half hour experiment to investigate the difference between his stated preferences and brain engagement (read his article here). I sincerely believe that there is great potential for this pioneering sortie into the world of travel psychology to be honed and developed into experimental paradigms that are repeatable and therefore publishable in peer-reviewed academic journals. Who knows, in light of these early findings, perhaps one day, in the not-so-distant future, booking a holiday will be as simple as wiring our personal EEG cap into a computer and waiting for the results of our brains’ responses to various holiday pics to be converted into a bespoke selection of holiday options that suit us down to the ground?