According to scientists, the human brain needs to suppress obvious ideas in order to reach the most creative ones. These obvious associations can be found in both convergent and divergent thinking (finding a ‘out-of-the-box’ solution) (when individuals have to come up with several creative ideas). Creativity necessitates a departure from more common and easily reached ideas, but we know very little about how this occurs in our brain.
According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, brainwaves play an important role in inhibiting habitual thinking modes and allowing access to more remote ideas.
The researchers discovered that when people need to suppress misleading associations in creative tasks, their brainwaves, or alpha oscillations in the right temporal area of the brain, increase. These obvious associations can be found in both convergent and divergent thinking (when individuals have to come up with several creative ideas). Higher levels of alpha brainwaves allow people to generate ideas that are not immediately obvious or well-known.
The human brain needs to suppress obvious ideas in order to reach the most creative ones, according to scientists at Queen Mary University of London and Goldsmiths, University of London.
The researchers demonstrate that stimulating the right temporal part of the brain at alpha frequency increases the ability to inhibit obvious links in both types of creative thinking. This was demonstrated by passing an electrical current through the brain using a non-invasive technique known as transcranial alternating current brain stimulation (tACS), which has few to no side effects or sensations. The findings have implications for how we understand creativity and open up new avenues for influencing the creative process, including through the use of tACS.
“If we need to generate alternative uses of a glass, first we must inhibit our past experience that leads us to think of a glass as a container,” said lead researcher Dr Caroline Di Bernardi Luft of Queen Mary University of London. The novel aspect of our study is that it demonstrates that right temporal alpha oscillations are a key neural mechanism for overriding these obvious associations.
“In order to understand the processes underlying the generation of novel and adequate ideas, we must first dissect creativity as much as possible, then analyze it in context, before putting it back together to understand the process as a whole.”
The EEG (electroencephalograph) measures different frequencies of brainwaves within the brain. Electrodes are placed at specific locations on the scalp to detect and record electrical impulses in the brain. The frequency of a wave is the number of times it repeats itself in one second. It is comparable to the frequencies that you can listen to on your radio. Our mental performance can suffer if any of these frequencies is deficient, excessive, or difficult to access.
The researchers demonstrated the neural mechanism underlying creativity by monitoring the brain’s electrical activity with an electroencephalogram (EEG), which detects electrical signals via small sensors placed on the head. They were also able to investigate the waves’ causal role by using tACS.
The experiments they carried out looked at how the brain approaches a variety of creative tasks, such as finding words that are related to one another. For example, when we search for concepts associated with a word, we begin with stronger associations and work our way down to weaker or more distant ones (e.g., cat > dog > animal > pet > human > people > family).
Previous research has shown that some people are more creative than others because they can avoid strong associations in order to reach more distant ones, and this study shows that alpha brainwaves play an important role in this process.
Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya of Goldsmiths, University of London, a co-author of this study, added: “In a wood, two roads diverged; I chose the less traveled path. And it’s made all the difference,’ Robert Frost wrote in his famous poem.”
“Thinking creatively requires taking a less traveled path, and our findings provide some evidence on how this is done in our brain.”
The researchers hope to learn how neural processes interact when solving creative problems outside of the laboratory, as well as whether it is possible to create stimulation devices that can monitor the brain and stimulate creativity as needed. The study was carried out as part of the CREAM project, which was funded by the European Commission (Creativity enhancement through advanced brain mapping and stimulation).