Cognition Can Cripple Creativity: A Study

Left brain, Right BrainI tend to discover scientific studies waaaaay after they are published, but not this time! This study was posted ScienceDaily March 14, 2013. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have conducted a neurological study showing that inhibiting the activity of cognitive control in the brain can actually boost creative performance.

Some background information:

Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex supports cognitive control and decision-making.  This region of the brain filters our actions, interprets social cues, and plans our emotional reactions. In short, it orchestrates thoughts and actions according to our goals. The left prefrontal cortex seems to be particularly linked to semantics. This is a crucial connection, as language seems to have a huge hand in shaping the way we think, the way we conceptualize the world. In fact, there’s a term for it: the principle of linguistic relativity.

Creativity: Creativity (if I attempt to sum it up) is the bringing together of disparate ideas into new combinations or patterns. What does “creativity” in the brain look like? No, it is not only the right hemisphere of the brain that lights up on scans. Studies have shown that the right brain AND the left brain are highly activated during artistic endeavors, though the right side a little more so. Furthermore, Alice Flaherty developed a neurological model for creative drive in 2005, claimed that creativity is not localized in the single area of the brain but a collaboration of a network of regions. (2005, Journal of Comparative Neurology 493:147-153).  In particular, there must be a balance between the frontal lobe (planning, reasoning, judgement, impulse control) and the temporal lobe (organizing sensory input, memory association and formation).

tDCS: Scientists have developed a way to manipulate the neurons in specific areas of the brain, thus temporarily changing brain function in that area. The method used in this experiment is called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. The researchers hoped to intersect the cell-to-cell communication in the prefrontal cortex areas.

The Experiment:

This experiment attempted to inhibit the activity of the left frontal cortex while adults completed creative tasks.

Each adult was shown pictures of everyday objects and asked to come up with inventive uses for each as quickly as possible (i.e. using a baseball bat as a rolling pin). The participant would see a new object every 90 seconds, 60 objects in total. Scientist measured how long it took the individual to come up with a valid response (if at all).

There were three group of adults: one would receive tDCS on their left prefrontal cortex, one would receive tDCS to their right frontal cortex, and the last group would receive a kind of placebo effect. In addition, each of the three groups were split again: half would state the objects’ common uses, the other the objects’ creative uses. The researchers hypothesized that inhibiting the cognitive control in the left frontal cortex would improve the adult’s ability to come up with uncommon uses for each object.

Why? One of the paper’s authors, Evangelia Chrysikou, said “When we use objects in daily life, our cognitive control helps us focus on what the object is typically used for and ‘filters out’ irrelevant properties…However, to come up with the idea of using a baseball bat as a rolling pin, you have to consider things like its shape and the material it’s made of.”

The Results:

The experiment did not affect the performance of those asked to simply state the common uses of objects. No surprise.Here’s where it gets interesting: The participants from the placebo groups and the right prefrontal cortex group could not come up with uncommon uses for an average of 15 out of 60 objects, BUT those in the left prefrontal cortex group only missed about 8. In addition, the left frontal cortex group provided more correct answers an average of one second faster than the other two groups.

In a statement by Sharon Thompson-Schill, Penn professor of Psychology and director of the University’s Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, a second is a big deal. “A second faster difference is huge in psychology research…We’re used to seeing differences measured in milliseconds. This is probably the biggest effect I’ve seen over my 20 years in research.”

The Moral of the Story:

The paper discusses childhood learning and human development, but I believe it is also relevant to artists. In our field, creativity and imagination are key. It would pay off, I think, to practice setting aside that reasoning, logic-ridden, judging voice and simply make patterns happen. Notice things without squishing them into a mold of what they ought to be or what they have been before. “There are things that are important to not filter, in particular when you are learning,” Thompson-Schill said. “If you throw out information about your environment as being irrelevant, you miss opportunities to learn about those things.” And as Mark Twain said, “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.”


One response to “Cognition Can Cripple Creativity: A Study

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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