I have always prized “outside the box” thinkers. In fact, my favorite are those who say, “What box?” However, measuring creative thinking has always been way beyond our technical abilities. However, a new study changes all of that by allowing us to see that creative thinkers activate different brain networks than “inside the box” types.
Creativity drives independent thinking and original and innovative ideas and solutions. In fact, our entire disruptive economy that has emerged to upend decades to centuries-old institutions is based on creativity. How can we rethink and reimagine how industries should work?
In fact, a couple of years ago, I shared the effect of the lack of creative thought in the modern-day educational field of my own industry of medicine. Specifically, the rise of automated learning and algorithms and the fall of original thinking and innovation in educating young doctors. Turns out we physicians, in general, are training doctors to be automatons rather than creative thinkers.
So what do we know about creativity? We know that we would label some people creative thinkers while others we might label analytical thinkers. However, a new study seems to show that those who are highly creative thinkers have the ability to simultaneously activate the creative networks in their brain that are responsible for both generating and analyzing ideas—something less-creative thinkers don’t have the ability to do. Let’s take a look.
In the new study, consisting of 163 subjects, researchers first recorded the responses to a series of questions using an alternate uses test (i.e., thinking of creative uses for common objects—a rock, for example). Blood flow in the brain was also measured using functional MRI (fMRI) brain scans. The subjects’ responses were categorized based on the creativity level of the ideas. Using the rock above, throwing the rock would fall into a low-scoring category, while using it as a bookend or to flatten a knife blade, for example, would fall into a higher-scoring category. They used this process to narrow down the 35,000 connections in the brain to just those associated with high creativity, or the ability to generate novel ideas.
Using the data gathered, researchers then attempted to predict creative ability (creative scores) in a new round of subjects based on their specific network connections measured on fMRI. These subjects then performed the alternate uses test, and researchers’ scoring predictions were compared to the subjects’ actual results. The findings were significant between the predicted and actual creativity scores, with both showing the stronger the creative network connections, the more creative the ideas generated.
Another fascinating finding was the ability of these highly creative thinkers to activate certain brain networks to work together that typically only work separately. These networks are the default network, which activates with imagination and brainstorming; the executive control network, which activates with idea control, or determining the feasibility of the idea and adjusting it as needed; and the salience network, which alternates between the other two.
So if we want to be more creative thinkers, are we capable of shaping and strengthening our own creative networks…or are some just born more creative than others? That’s a study for another day, but there are likely elements of both at play. A study I covered last summer found that one scientific approach to stimulating creativity was to use a mechanical method to turn off the brain’s learned internal editor. Learned internal editing, for example, might be that automated medical-school training I discussed earlier—we learn the way instead of generating new ideas that might result in a better way.
So perhaps in some, our creativity has been stifled by rigid learning and is in there somewhere just waiting to be reawakened. While purchasing a machine that can turn off the internal editor that blocks your creativity isn’t really something you can do it home, it is, nonetheless, an interesting finding.
The upshot? Creatives really do use their brains differently. Can we train analytical thinkers to be more creative by using fMRI to help them activate more parts of their brain simultaneously? Who knows, but that sounds like an amazing future study!
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About the Author
Christopher J. Centeno, M.D. is an international expert and specialist in regenerative medicine and the clinical use of mesenchymal stem cells in orthopedics. He is board certified in physical medicine as well as rehabilitation and in pain management through The American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.…