Unlocking Creativity in the Brain

In 1995, computer animation visionary Ed Catmull and a team of highly creative individuals at Pixar Animation Studios did something remarkable; they produced Toy Story, the world’s first full-length computer-animated film. The movie thrilled audiences and pushed the boundaries of creativity in film and technology to new limits, completely revolutionizing the industry.

Almost 20 years and five Academy Awards later, Catmull, now president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, is considered an authority on creativity.

At Neuroscience 2013's Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society, an annual lecture series that explores the ways in which neuroscience intersects with the world around us, Catmull revealed several keys to fostering a sustainable creative culture at Pixar. By encouraging honesty, relinquishing control, acknowledging the unknown, and promoting a safe environment for making mistakes, creativity and excellence can flourish, he explained.

In recent years, scientists have grown more interested in understanding what’s going on in the brain when people are engaged in creative activities such as playing a musical instrument, singing, or brainstorming.

When musicians improvise:
To begin to uncover the neural underpinnings of creativity, scientists are using the latest imaging technology to peer into the brains of professional artists. By studying jazz artists and freestyle rappers, for instance, scientists can gain insight into how the brain handles the spontaneous creation of music — be it in the form of musical notes or words.

One such study compared the brain activity of professional jazz pianists as they freely improvised or played a memorized composition on a keyboard while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. In addition to widespread activity in sensorimotor and language areas, improvisation was associated with increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), a brain area involved in introspective thinking. Improvisation was also associated with decreased activity in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a region involved with executive functions, such as planning and inhibition.

In another study, scientists used fMRI to peer into the brains of freestyle rappers as they improvised or performed rehearsed lyrics. Similar to the jazz pianists, improvisation in the rappers was associated with increased activity in the MPFC and decreased activity in the DLPFC.

The findings suggest that when the regions of the brain involved with executive control are disengaged, musicians may be better able to indulge in self-expression.

When the mind wandersNumerous studies show that when cognitive control is low, regions of the brain comprising the default mode network (DMN) — which is involved in unconscious forms of information processing — become active. Scientists theorize that this network, which includes the MPFC, contributes to spontaneous thought generation during daydreaming and plays an important role in creative behavior.

Could DMN structure shape a person’s creative inclinations? To find out, scientists performed structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on a group of men and women. Afterward, the study participants were given two minutes to jot down as many responses as they could to the question, “What can you do with a brick?”

Researchers found that the more creative study participants’ responses were, the greater the volume of gray matter (nerve cell bodies and projections) observed in regions of the DMN, including the left precuneus and left insula — regions thought to participate in consciousness and self-awareness — and both hemispheres of the MPFC.

Scientists cannot confirm whether the increased DMN volume in creative individuals preceded or resulted from frequent creative thinking. Still, they continue to search for how gray matter concentration relates to creative function in the brain. While the neuroscience of creativity remains a relatively young field, the results of these and other studies of creative artists and thinkers suggest that reduced cognitive control is important for creativity.

As Catmull explained to the crowd gathered at Neuroscience 2013, people will be most open to creativity when they work in an environment where they know it’s OK to make mistakes. “Everyone has the potential to be creative. Our choices enable or block that creativity. Remove the blocks to candor,” he said. “Ease isn’t the goal. Excellence is.”

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Courtesy: Society for Neuroscience
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