Creativity And The Brain

Creativity is one of the most widely debated of human traits. It allows us to invent, solve problems, innovate, create artistic and musical masterpieces, and engage in mental acts that are as simple as solving a scheduling conflict. The impact of creativity on the individual and on society is immeasurable. But what creativity actually is, how it works, and why humans possess this skill are questions that remain largely unanswered.

The brain is very localized when it comes to abilities like vision, hearing, speech or motor activity. The brain of an artist however has no single locale for creativity. Scientists have learned just the opposite—that particular parts of the brain are used when an artist works, and that the artist has increased access to, or use of, those particular parts of the brain.

A simplistic understanding of the brain breaks it down to two halves, the right and the left brain. While the left brain controls logical thinking, analytical thinking and mathematical processing, the right brain is linked to artistic ability and creative thought. Current scientific studies however show that creativity does not depend on a specific region or hemisphere, but on a dispersed network of brain regions involving a synesthesia of both hemispheres of the brain as well as the frontal lobe. Neuro-imaging tools confirm that the creative process is far more complicated than once thought. For example, the frontal lobes of the brain play a role in the decision-making process that leads an artist to create a piece of art on a step-by-step basis. The visual cortex, similarly, is contained within the larger cerebrum, and it does more than process images from the eye into thoughts, it also serves as the recognition center for all types of visual stimuli such as color and proportion. The recognition and processing of these types of visual stimuli play a critical role in the creation of art.

Other studies have shown strong evidence of a coordination between regions of the brain that enables creativity. Some regions that normally monitor and evaluate may stay quiet in order to let other regions that allow self-expression to become more active. Thus, all of the sensorimotor processing is facilitated by ramping up to allow for a creative state. There is no single area of the brain that gives birth to creativity, but rather a series of active portions cooperating, so that one portion may get out of the way to allow another to increase the flow of creativity.

The ability to be creative is difficult to measure and is by no means static. It is not solely a matter of genetics, nurture plays a role as well, and studies on the brain’s neuroplasticity suggest that we are able to rewire our brains based on experiences that can provide a source of creative inspiration, connections and ideas. It has been suggested that artistic expression is the key to comprehending ourselves.

It has also been suggested that some characteristics of creative people, such as openness to new experiences and sensitivity to sensory inputs, may also make them more prone to mental and emotional challenges. Stimulating mind games, meditation, mind-mapping techniques, and left-brained artistic exercises are a few of the ways the brain can remain healthy and be massaged into a state of creativity. Artists who suffer from creative blocks employ a wide variety of approaches to open creativity’s floodgates. An expanded list of these approaches is attached.

Perhaps one of the most interesting views of how creativity can be encouraged is through an historical perspective. Nancy C. Andreasen, a scientist and neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, who started her career as a Renaissance English scholar, argues that certain historical times and places have produced “cradles of creativity.” She lists ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence and mid- to late 19th-century Paris, among the places where creativity flourished because of a combination of societal factors. Intellectual freedom, open competition, a critical mass of creative people, the presence of mentors and patrons, and some degree of economic prosperity coalesced to spur creative endeavor. Clearly, these factors also exist in modern society. With an inspired team, we can nurture a bounty of artistic brilliance today.

Resources for Increasing Creativity in Adults:

Creative Thinking and Daily “Whack” on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech

Creative Exercises from Roger von Oech (founder of Creative Think) for iPhone/iPad

Creative Books and Games from Roger von Oech

Exercises that Stimulate Creativity

Enhance Memory, Attention, Creativity and Cognitive Function—membership required

Resources for re-capturing creativity for artists:

Creative Exercises for Artists by Benoit Philippe—a free eBook to download

101 Creative Projects for Artists

How Lists Can Help Conquer Creative Blocks

Tips from Painters on Overcoming Artist’s Block

More Tips from Painters on Overcoming Creative Block

Laurie Kasparian
September 2011


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