Even in the wilderness that is human thinking, creative ideas seem to be deliberately designed to defy empirical inquiry. There is something elusive, perhaps even mystical, about them – visits from the muse or lightbulbs come to mind.
So what are neuroscientists to do if they want to study inspiration in the lab, under tightly controlled conditions? Clearly, they cannot simply take volunteers, shove them into the nearest brain scanner, and tell them: now please be creative.
Trying to nail jelly to the wall
Yet, many brain scientists have done just that, with tragic consequences. Take the most widespread testing tool used in such studies, the Alternative Uses Test. It asks people to generate alternative uses for common objects such as a brick or a tyre. The more infrequent and unusual the answers, the more points for creativity.
But can we really expect a test that asks you to imagine weird uses of a brick in a one-minute period to pick out the brain of an Einstein from that of a certified public accountant?
The AUT has two problems that render it unusable for neuroscience research. One stems from thinking about creativity as a single, unitary thing or personality trait – as in, Steve Jobs had it (notice the singular) and my grandfather didn’t. Indeed, the whole rationale of brain imaging studies depends on the idea that creativity must be due to a distinct factor, an extra something, added to the mix to make a sparkling difference.
But creativity is a complex psychological phenomenon that taps into many different mental processes, and the AUT cannot identify the ones that matter. And if you fail to isolate the subject of interest in your study, you can’t use neuroimaging to hunt for mechanisms. You just don’t know what the brain image shows.
Weird mental test X gives pretty brain image Y
The other problem with AUT is that it is based on the idea of divergent thinking, defined as the ability to generate many solutions to open-ended questions, and then linked to creativity. But it only takes a moment’s reflection to see that the opposite also generates creativity. Creativity can just as easily be the result of convergent thinking.
What would we otherwise make of Edison’s empirical dragnet method that yielded 1093 patents, still the record; Watson and Crick’s algorithmic approach to testing the stability of DNA base pairs; Bach’s assembly-line tactic of composing hundreds of cantatas; or the imaginative ways in which Nasa engineers solved the problems of the otherwise doomed Apollo 13 mission?
It wouldn’t surprise you to learn then that review articles in the field have exposed the data to be a contradictory stew of brain areas and processes.
Depending on whose paper you read, creativity has been “discovered” in the prefrontal cortex, right brain, hippocampus, superior temporal gyrus, density of white matter, temporal-parietal junction, alpha synchrony, or, the current frontrunner, the default mode network.
This, my friends, is phrenology, and all it demonstrates is that – if one squints hard enough – weird mental test X produces colourful neuroimaging picture Y.
Insights into insights
How else should we think about creativity in the brain then? How does a grapefruit-sized heap of meat crackling with electricity conceive of mathematical theorems, create beautiful art, discover the laws of nature, invent kitesurfing, and design buildings that look like sea shells?
This journey begins with the full understanding that creativity is a multifaceted ability composed of a whole plethora of cognitive processes and is, as a matter of consequence, distributed in the brain.
If painting, mathematics, and parking your car engage totally different brain areas and processes, so should creative painting, creative mathematics, and creative car-parking. Creativity is, in a word, everywhere. Asking neuroscientists for the neural centres of creative thinking is like asking them for the neural centres of thinking. It’s the brain, stupid.
The software of thought trials
This is an awkward moment. If this is right, creativity doesn’t merit elevation to the status of a cohesive entity that is detectable by present-day neuroimaging technology. If you have problems reconciling this with your view that creativity must be somewhere specific, or at least identifiable by a distinct neural signature, you are not alone.
By way of comparison, think of it this way. It’s easy to point out England on a map, but you can’t find all people in the world who speak English that way. Creativity, then, isn’t any different than other complex, higher-order psychological phenomena – political orientation or religious conviction, if you need examples. They also don’t have a precise, single location in the brain. Nor are they computed in a single – even if distributed – network.
This anti-localisation view is known as the vaudeville conception of creativity, and it shifts the focus from mistaking colourful brain images as a substitute for an explanation to the software side of things, that is, the cognitive and computational processes that implement trial-and-error runs leading to creative thoughts.
And in this arena, neuroscientists are just beginning to shed some light on how the brain’s evolutionary algorithms and prediction machinery manage to make us so outrageously creative.
Arne Dietrich is a psychology professor and author of How Creativity Happens in the Brain.