About the Author

Xinyu Liu

Creativity is a natural ability of our brain which doesn’t naturally come itself. A creative idea doesn’t easily occur without the purposeful efforts of an individual and a creative product can hardly come into being in absence of effective collaboration and dedication.Xinyu

Creativity greatly elevates our ability to adapt, to update, and to solve unprecedented problems. It is becoming a necessity in our era of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). We need creative solutions to tackle global challenges such as shortage of fossil fuel and population ageing, to use technology in every possible way for sustainable benefits when technology itself doesn’t predict the consequences, to adjust social conventions and structures when the internet makes our world more connected than ever before, and to adapt values and behaviour for the pursuit of a happy and meaningful life as an individual.

What is creativity?

Creativity is one of the highest cognitive functions for human beings. It is defined as the phenomenon to create something (physical or intangible) original and useful. At an individual level, it can be the flash of a new thought, an unconventional solution, or a nonexistent product. It does not matter whether someone else already thought about or tried it, or whether a similar product is available. To oneself, creativity is the ability to produce something new which does not necessarily have to be useful to other people. Creativity, beyond an individual level yields something original with applied value and meaning. Depending on its closeness to the realm of human knowledge, it can cross a broad spectrum from combinatorial creativity to transformational creativity.

Combinatorial creativity is analogous to building a new Lego castle with blocks of different sizes, shapes and colour. Pre-existing ideas, tools and objects from a wealth of disciplines are recombined and repurposed to create innovative products. There are numerous examples such as tree-inspired columns and leaf-shaped roofs, which were used by architect Gaudi in his masterpiece Sagrada Familia. Similarly Apple integrated touchscreen iPod with internet-connected phone to invent the iPhone. Transformational creativity refers to the culmination of human creative capacity where thinking breaks the boundaries of existing paradigms, for instance heliocentrism, natural selection theory and general relativity. In addition, I think serendipity, meaning making unexpected discoveries by chance and sagacity, can be considered as a non-canonical form of creativity which is probably best exemplified by the accidental discovery of penicillin.

What happens in the brain when creativity sparks?

A creative process may be arbitrarily divided into two phases: first in a spontaneous improvisatory phase, in which novel ideas are generated, and second in the revision phase in which these ideas are evaluated (1). Neuroscientists’ approach is to image the brain activities with a fMRI scanner when people perform a creative task versus a control task and analyze the functional changes in large-scale brain networks.

Large-scale brain network is the functional unit for cognition and can be defined as a collection of interconnected brain areas that interact to perform circumscribed functions. There are two main large brain networks: the DMN or the imagination network, which is active in the internally-directed and free-thinking state and the ECN or the executive network, which is engaged in externally-directed and highly-focused tasks. Some studies showed that when ECN is active, DMN is suppressed (2) whereas some tasks, such as constructive introspection and contemplating socioeconomic meanings, require the collaboration of both networks. Further an efficient DMN network enhances ECN functions that individuals good that internal contemplation tend to score higher on IQ tests and could focus longer on tasks comparing to average (3). These two networks are analogous to the Yin and Yang aspects of brain states, which are seemingly opposite but actually complementary, interconnected and interdependent.

Two recent well-designed and controlled fMRI studies on creativity using different tasks both revealed activation of the DMN (imagination) network and deactivation of the ECN (executive) network during the improvisatory phase (4,5). This might provide a cognitive state in which self-generated ideas are freed from constraints of executive control. Interestingly after the initial improvisatory phase, the ECN (executive) network reactivates and couples with the active DMN (imagination) network in the putative idea-evaluation phase. It is worth mentioning that creative tasks are highly context-dependent (whether it is verbal, musical or motive performance) and the the fMRI findings are oversimplified. Nevertheless a consensus emerges that creative performance involves the dynamic decoupling and recouping of DMN and ECN networks, which probably cycles over a long period. Hypothetically the dynamic and extensive crosstalk of brain networks increases the chance of forming a shortcut or an atypical path between the nodes in the networks. If the newly formed path could make the information flow strong and efficient, via shortening the connection length and/or increasing the connection strength, the path will be maintained and strengthened which yields or even equals to a creative idea. The mental state for creativity might be intuitively pictured as the free mind drives in our imaginative worlds steered by reasoning and senses. It can be coined as defocused attention or mindful daydreaming which could mix seemingly incompatible states and match supposedly contradictory ideas.

How do we nurture our creativity?

The neural basis of creativity suggests that it is a natural ability of our brain which emerges during development and possibly evolves across generations. In other words, we are “wired” to be creative. Given its nature of “dynamic crosstalk among brain networks” or “unusual and unexpected associations of existent ideas”, there are certain tips we could use to nurture creative capability:

  • Think out of the box: free your mind and give it time to wander. Unleash imagination.
  • Crosstalk: fill your mind with different ideas.
  • Write ideas down: make sure you capture an idea when it surfaces. The “aha” moment might come when you least expect it. Don’t censor ideas at early phase.
  • Criticise your ideas: don’t hold your ideas to the chest. Bring them forward for judicious evaluation and criticism. Improve the ideas accordingly to gain practical value.
  • Sleep on your problem: when focused efforts don’t yield solution, shift your attention and let the subconscious mind work in the back.
  • From an idea to a product: If a creative idea is actionable, seek collaboration with experts to implement the idea.
  • Look inside: Brain imaging studies have shown that mindful practices such as constructive introspection increase connectivity within the DMN (imagination) network, which facilitates agile switch among different brain networks and helps making unusual associations (6).
  • Motivation matters: Psychology study has shown creative capacity positively correlates with the intensity of motivation instead of emotions such as happiness or a relaxed feeling (7).
  • Diversity in emotion and experience helps: It was demonstrated that emotional ambivalence (mixture of positive and negative emotions) could increase our sensitivity to unusual associations and ideas. Consistently the experience of unusual and unexpected events, from joyful to traumatic, has been shown to enhance cognitive flexibility. Stepping out of the comfort zone may place you in a better position to be creative.
  • Expertise is the foundation: A brain imaging study comparing differences between professional writers and novice writers when they conceive a new story showed that in brains of expert writers, a brain area called the caudate nucleus, which plays an essential role in skills that require practice, became much more active. Moreover the coupling of DMN (imagination) network and the ECN (executive) network is also more efficient in experienced writers (8).

Intuitively speaking experience defines the intellectual space where our minds wander and expertise determines the quality of ideas which could collide for creativity.

How do we build a creative society?

Creativity is a natural ability of our brain which doesn’t naturally come itself. A creative idea doesn’t easily occur without the purposeful efforts of an individual and a creative product can hardly come into being in absence of effective collaboration and dedication. In order for creativity to flourish, we should work on building a society with at least the following features:

  • Free: The first step to foster creativity is to let it happen.
  • Open: Evaluate instead of reject new ideas which often appear odd and crazy at first sight.
  • Tolerant: To have good ideas, bad ideas which far outnumber the good ones are needed.
  • Diverse: The diversity of people and the extent of their collaborations determine the capacity of combinatorial creativity.
  • Supportive: It takes lots of time and resources to bring a new idea from conception to birth.

In the context of the current academic system, interest-driven research, acceptance of failed trials, and acknowledgement of “insignificant” findings get much less attention and implementation than they deserve. In a large scale, scientific discoveries are roughly a linear output of amount of funding and the capacity for combinatorial creativity (which is determined by the diversity of people and the extent of their collaborations). However it is not the same with scientific breakthroughs which usually hides beyond our horizon. It is our curiosity which leads us to unknown fields and the numerous failed attempts which pave the way to transformational discoveries. Stepwise efforts such as increase in the scope and length of funded research projects are called for to build a sustainable and productive academic system.

Crosstalk breeds creativity on multiple levels

Creativity correlates with the dynamic and extensive crosstalk between large-scale brain networks at the physiological level. Conceptually creativity can be considered as the unusual and unexpected associations of existent ideas, which happen often when individuals step out and cross other uncomfortable zones. On the societal level, crosstalk among multiple disciplines significantly stimulates creativity. To be more creative than now, connect and communicate.

References and Notes

  1. Ellamil M, Dobson C, Beeman M, Christoff K., Evaluative and generative modes of thought during the creative process. Neuroimagei. 59(2):1783-94, (2012)
  2. van den Heuvel MP, Stam CJ, Kahn RS, Hulshoff Pol HE., Efficiency of functional brain networks and intellectual performance. JNeurosci. 29(23):7619- 24, (2009).
  3. Spring RN, Mar RA, Kim AS.,The common neural basis of autobiographical memory, prospection, navigation, theory of mind, and the default mode: a quantitativemeta-analysis.JCognNeurosci. 21(3):489-510,(2009).
  4. Liu S, Chow HM, Xu Y, Erkkinen MG, Swett KE, Eagle MW, Rizik-Baer DA, Braun AR., Neural correlates of lyrical improvisation: an FMRI study of freestylerap.SciRep. 2:834,(2012).
  5. Beaty RE, Benedek M, Kaufman SB, Silvia PJ., Default and Executive Net-work Coupling Supports Creative Idea Production. SciRep. 5:10964,(2015).
  6. Brewer JA, Worhunsky PD, Gray JR, Tang YY, Weber J, Kober H., Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. PANS. 108(50):20254-9, (2011).
  7. Michael W. Ceci and V. K. Kumar., A Correlational Study of Creativity, Happiness, Motivation, and Stress from Creative Pursuits. Journal of Happiness Studies.10.1007/s10902-015-9615-y, (2015).
  8. Erhard K, Kessler F, Neumann N, Ortheil HJ, Lotze M., Professional training in creative writing is associated with enhanced fronto-striatal activity in a literary text continuation task. Neuroimage. 100:15-23, (2014).