Seems Highly Creative Thinkers Activate Brain Networks Others Can’t

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creative thinkers

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.

Defining Creative Thought

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.

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Study Finds Highly Creative Thinkers Really Are Wired Differently

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.

Can We Strengthen the Creative Networks in Our Brain?

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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2 thoughts on “Seems Highly Creative Thinkers Activate Brain Networks Others Can’t


    Your article on creativity has grabbed my attention. (Actually, all of your articles do.) My field of study was, and is, Gifted and Creative Person Education. My husband and I ran a small, private, inner city, Waldorf school … that we founded. We both were impressed with the creativity found in the Waldorf Schools. The Waldorf schools definitely “thought outside of the box.” The children were “different.” They were not afraid to question or to be innovative. I believed it was because of the freedom the Waldorf teacher had been given … to be creative while they taught. The children weren’t forced into competition or comparing. There were no grades given … only written evaluations.
    When my husband and I wrote our dissertations on this “creative and innovative” method we did read the brain research at that time (in the 80s.) The “right-brain/left-brain research was popular then (and very helpful.) We noticed that the children who spent 13 years in a Waldorf environment scored very high in “self actualization.” But, in our small sample, we also noticed that even just a couple years in this creative “thinking outside the box” environment had a positive effect on students in the realm of thinking and creativity.
    When the administration doesn’t respect or trust the teachers, and the teachers don’t trust the students we end up with statements/commands like this: “Everybody will be in the same book and on the same page, on the same day, so that everyone will learn.”
    The Medical schools are receiving students who were trained in this public school method. Innovation and thinking outside the box can get you fired. We definitely need a safe environment to be creative … creativity perishes in an environment of fear.

  2. Teresa M Hermiz

    There is one statement you have made that, I think, if reversed is the answer to creativity. You said “Creativity drives independent thinking and original and innovative ideas and solutions.” It is that independent thinking and way of being that drives creativity. Independent men and women made the renaissance, industrial revolution, the United States of America possible. Technology can show us what is going inside of creative brains but it is the free will of the creator that makes the brain do the work- as you must know to be the kind of person you are. Continue your great work but don’t mess with my “I”!

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