Creativity plays a big part in most areas of everyday life. Sternberg and Lubart (1996) define creativity as the ability to produce work that is original, useful and, generative. Psychologists usually measure creativity with the Alternative Uses (AU) task. In this particular test individuals are asked to list as many possible uses for a common item. It is thought to test divergent thinking, a thought process associated with creativity and problem solving. The AU task has been shown to activate especially frontal areas of the brain. More specifically, Carlsson and colleagues (2000) found that the AU compared to a verbal fluency task was associated with stronger level of activity of the anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC). The same area was found to be activated during divergent thinking problems (Goel & Vartanian, 2005) and in creative story generation (Howard-Jones et al., 2005). Other brain areas that have been found to play a role in creativity include posterior brain areas like the anterior supramarginal gyrus
Fink and colleagues scanned 31 healthy participants while they were performing one non-creative control task and three creative tasks (the AU and two variations of it). In one of those variations, the incubation condition (AUinc) the researchers administered the AU task and instructed participants to reflect on their own ideas or responses they gave during the performance of the respective test item in the simple AU condition. The final task was the cognitive stimulation condition (AUstim). In this condition the participants were asked to do the AU task but were also exposed to other people’s ideas.
The AU conditions differed significantly with respect to the originality of generated ideas. In particular the highest originality was observed when the participants when exposed to other people’s idea (AUstim), followed by the incubation task (AUinc). These findings suggest that cognitive stimulation via the exposure to other people’s ideas has beneficial effects on creative cognition. At the neurophysiological level, the main differences in activations between the experimental tasks were found in posterior, especially temporo-parietal brain regions. More specifically the generation of original ideas was associated with more activation in the (anterior) supramarginal gyrus and stronger widespread deactivation in the inferior parietal cortex (around the angular gyri), especially in the right hemisphere.
Reflecting on own ideas (AUinc) compared to the simple AU condition was accompanied by higher activation in the bilateral cingulate cortex (or less deactivation, respectively), and lower activation in regions of the bilateral occipital cortex, the latter probably reflecting the stronger attentional focus to the visual input in the AU compared to the AUinc condition. The stimulation with external ideas (AUstim), yielding the strongest increase in originality compared to AU, was also associated with stronger activation (less deactivation) in the cingulate gyrus, now extending to the precuneus bilaterally. The latter contrast also revealed additional activation clusters in the right temporo-parietal cortex (including portions of the middle temporal, angular, and supramarginal gyri) and in medial orbitofrontal regions, with both clusters displaying less deactivation in the AUstim compared to the AU condition.
Interestingly, the contrasts between the two different intervention conditions (AUinc vs. AUstim) did not reveal any significant activation clusters, even though those two conditions produced different behavioural results.
According to the authors:
we may conclude that the interventions effects – though resulting in different behavioral results – appear to be rather unspecific with respect to brain function. However, this finding could also reflect the possibility that both creativity interventions provoke fairly similar psychological and neural processes during the idea generation period. Both interventions require participants to actively attend to and to process stimulus-related information which was in the one case self-generated (AUinc) and in the other case produced by other people (AUstim).
The findings of this study suggest that creative cognition can be improved effectively by cognitive stimulation and techniques (e.g. brainstorming). Furthermore, these effects are also apparent at the level of the brain. It would be very interesting to see similar studies in the future that attempt to employ more complex, ecologically valid creativity tasks.
Fink A, Grabner RH, Gebauer D, Reishofer G, Koschutnig K, & Ebner F (2010). Enhancing creativity by means of cognitive stimulation: evidence from an fMRI study. NeuroImage, 52 (4), 1687-95 PMID: 20561898