Creativity and the Brain - What We Know and What We Don't - Full Text Summary

During this briefing, AUB Professor of Psychology Arne Dietrich and Platypus Neuro CEO David Bach debunk myths and misconceptions surrounding the creative process and attempt to explain its underlying mechanics. Dietrich defines creativity “in terms of the product that it produces." That product, he says, must be new, functional, and surprising. He mentions the alternative uses test as a means of measuring creativity which asks test takers to come up with as many possible alternative uses for a given object. This test measures divergent thinking; however, convergent think—intense focus, rather than a wandering mind—produces creativity as well. The difficulty in nailing down a skill or thinking pattern that reliably and exclusively predicts creativity makes testing creative capacity difficult.

Scientists and laypeople have speculated on the origins of creativity for millennia, producing myriad myths and fallacies according to Deitrich. "Creativity is in the right brain. That is an idea that ought to be treated like nuclear waste and buried for a million years. It's phrenology straight up... Complex psychological functions are not done in one particular brain area. There's no brain area where you have your belief in Santa Claus." Dietrich debunks the idea that creativity sits in the prefrontal cortex, as one can be creative when that part of the brain is inactive. He suggests neuroscientists stop trying to locate creativity in a particular area of the brain, but instead embrace the idea that it is present everywhere. He says we must break creativity into types to better study it. Ultimately, he characterizes creativity as a sort of evolutionary algorithm that involves the testing of solutions to challenges.

Bach's talk centered on the brain's neuroplasticity, the state of flow, and how stress inhibits creativity. He cited a study he conducted where he scanned the brains of hedge fund traders while they were working. He discovered that the traders went in and out of two brain states. In one state, they made money. In the other, they lost money. In the state where they were making money, Bach observed six regions of the brain talking to each other and lower stress in their nervous system when they were making money, and less interconnectivity and greater stress when they weren't. He believes further research and larger datasets will allow scientists to home in on the flow state over time.

As a practical tool, Bach suggests finding ways to destress in order to be more creative. Stress, he says, pushes blood away from the brain toward the muscles in line with the fight or flight response. "From research, we know that high levels of stress can drop one's IQ by 30 points," he says. The easiest thing you can do to induce creativity in your brain he says is to start to build a training regimen so that the level of stress in your nervous system declines; stress reduction comes through getting enough sleep, exercise, and meditation.

Bach spoke of a client of his, Mary, a business executive who ran a firm with her ex-husband. She found her husband's presence anxiety-inducing to the point that she would suffer a panic attack when he entered her office. Bach told her to meditate on her husband in the morning and induce laughter while doing so. She followed his advice for thirty days. After the regimen, when she saw her husband, she began to laugh and her relationship with him improved. She reframed her husband, transforming him from a stress inducer to a source of laughter, an example of rewiring.

A question and answer session followed Bach's and Dietrich presentations. After a student proclaimed that she felt more creative under pressure, Bach noted that some arousal did in fact induce flow, as opposed to complete relaxation. Another audience member mentioned the challenge of working with populations who've suffered severe trauma and how destressing techniques seem to be less effective on them. Bach countered that the techniques simply had to be applied for a longer amount of time and with greater intensity.

Bach and Dietrich believe that lots of money will pour into neuroscience in the coming decades, yet they warn of pseudoscience and pseudoscientific claims leaking into the public consciousness. They believe that we will continue to progress in our understanding of creativity and how it works, albeit slowly. ​