Imaging the creative unconscious

Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy

November 6, 2017

How far can neuroscience bring us in understanding and even predicting creativity? When it comes to creativity, the term has such a long history and with an abundance of connotations, so even embarking on a biological explanation of creativity is something of an undertaking. But that doesn’t mean we are going to give up. In our latest article published in Scientific Reports we shed light into the neural basis of creativity.

What creativity is

Fortunately, we can stand on the shoulders of giants. Others have paved the way in our understanding of creativity not just as "divine intervention" but something pertaining to highly specific brain mechanisms and processes. Moreover, the old and completely erroneous urban legend of a right-left distinction between creativity and rationality, respectively, has not been helpful.

Today, creativity is often seen as a multi-layered process wherein we have an immediate and "autonomous" system that initiates ideas and spreads associations. Here, regions such as the extended hippocampal system (HPC) has been suggested, along with basal ganglia structures such as the putamen, caudate, and nucleus accumbens. Second, a system that pertains to the control and maintenance of information is often found in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), a working memory system that basically controls and modulates information streams.

What prior research has suggested is that creativity is the result of a deactivation of the dlPFC, which then leads to lower levels of control of the HPC system, again leading to a larger flurry of ideas and initiatives. Highly creative people should in this view be less controlled overall, and probably have a shorter attention and working memory span.

To study creativity

In the present study, our question was twofold. First, we were interested in just how these mechanisms work, and to what extent the HPC system can be involved in creativity, especially the part that relies on the generation of ideas and associations. Second, we were interested in just how soon this process got online and whether it needed conscious initiation and control.

To answer this, we tested participants with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), in particular the BOLD (Blood Oxygenation Level-Dependent) type, while participants were doing a central detection task in the scanner. The task forced them to pay attention to the center of the screen while in the background there were figures of line drawings.

The crucial task came when participants had finished their fMRI scan. Here, we gave them a surprise task to name as many associations and thoughts that came to mind when they saw different line drawings. The line drawings were, of course, the same as they had just seen in the scanner. For each item, we got how many associations each item generated for each person. On top of this, we also assessed participants' general creativity level by employing a battery of tests (which we call the Creative Potential battery).

In this way, we could both have a score of how creative each participant was (trait creativity) as well as how much each of the items led to a spreading association (state creativity).

The unconscious, automatic creative

By using these individual and item-data we went back to the fMRI data to test whether we could indeed predict the two scores. Here, our efforts were rewarded! We found that fMRI data could predict both state and trait creativity.

The main findings were:

  • Activity in superior occipital regions was predictive of state creativity
  • More creative individuals (trait creativity) had stronger responses in the entorhinal cortex, a part of the HPC complex.

Together this suggests that creativity has a strong subconscious component, which kicks in even when we are not even trying to be creative, and only watching items, listening to the radio, seeing a movie, or engaging in a conversation. On top of this, our fMRI results suggest that we can predict from passive brain scans just how creative each individual is. Together, we hope that this study provides a substantial contribution in our search for understanding a fundamental trait of human nature: creativity and innovation.

Imaging the creative unconscious

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