Can We Force Our Brain to Think More Creatively?

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When we think of creative types, it likely brings to mind artists, actors, writers, and musicians, but creative thinking is an asset even to our logic-minded left-brainers. Albert Einstein didn’t become a genius physicist and inventor without a great deal of right-brained creative genius as well. In fact, he was also a violinist and once said had he not become a physicist, he would have become a musician as playing his violin gave him the most joy in life. While we may not all be so equally logic and creative minded, for those of us who want to bring out more of our creative side, a new study suggests it just might be possible to force our brain to think more creatively.

The answer seems to lie in powering down the part of our brain that drives our internal editor and is resistant to bending the rules as we’ve learned them or creating new ones—in other words, the part of our brain that has been programmed to filter or block anything that doesn’t fit into the constraints of our prelearned set of rules.

The Study: Creative Problem Solving Using Matchstick Math

The specific area of the brain researchers focused on in the new study was the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Prior to the procedure, 60 subjects worked 12 matchstick math problems that required creative thought processing to solve. Subjects were then randomly placed into three groups and were not told which group they were in. In one group, subjects’ DLPFC was suppressed for 15 minutes using cathodal (negative, suppressive) transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). In another group, anodal (positive, excitable) tDCS was used, and the third group received a sham stimulation.

After the stimulation was complete, subjects were given 12 more math problems plus the problems they were unable to solve prior to the stimulation. The result? The study found that the  cathodal (negative) stimulation, which suppressed this area of the brain, was more beneficial to think more creatively, or, in this case, solving problems creatively for most of the problems given. It did this by relaxing the strength of those automated processes that typically only allow us to solve problems in a prelearned-rules fashion. In other words, it allowed the cathodal-stimulation subjects to relax the rules and find more-creative ways to solve the problems. The researchers point out that a variety of similar studies have varied in their results, so more research is likely to follow.

The upshot? So the study is interesting, but what are we supposed to do about it? I doubt many of us have cathodal-suppressing transcranial stimulation machines that we can pull out and hook up to when we need a little boost of creative thinking—though if we wait long enough, someone will do doubt claim they have a smartphone app for that. In the meantime, keeping your brain healthy by getting enough exercise, avoiding transfats, avoiding surgery when possible, taking the right supplements, making sure you treat your back pain before it causes physical changes to your brain, and avoiding NSAIDs and artificial sweetners, are important ways in which we can make a difference.

Perhaps, instead, this study says something about the structured, rules-based way we learn from childhood on. The old adage there’s more than one way to solve a problem is difficult to understand when our brains have only been programmed to solve it in one way. Regardless, no matter which side of the brain you fall on—the left-brained logical or the right-brained creative (or even somewhere in the middle)—it appears that our brain can be forced to think more creatively.

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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