Skip to content

Stanford researchers tie unexpected brain structures to creativity – and to stifling it

EinsteinHow often does the accountant turn out to be the life of the party? How often do the Nike sneakers, rather than the Armani suits, call the shots? Yet that may be the case when it comes to - of all things! - creativity.

As I wrote in this news release about an imaging study just published in Scientific Reports:

[Stanford scientists] have found a surprising link between creative problem-solving and heightened activity in the cerebellum, a structure located in the back of the brain and more typically thought of as the body’s movement-coordination center... The cerebellum, traditionally viewed as the brain’s practice-makes-perfect, movement-control center, hasn’t been previously recognized as critical to creativity.

That's putting it mildly. And that's not the only bizarre outcome of the study, whose findings also suggest that shifting the brain’s higher-level, executive-control centers into higher gear impairs, rather than enhances, creativity.

When I interviewed neuroscientist Allan Reiss, MD, the study's senior author, about the research, he told me:

We found that activation of the brain’s executive-control centers - the parts of the brain that enable you to plan, organize and manage your activities - is negatively associated with creative task performance.

Creativity is one of the most valuable human attributes, as well as one of the hardest to measure. Tying it to activity in particular brain structures in a living, thinking human brain is a brainteaser in itself.

The study's lead author, Manish Saggar, PhD, said in an interview, “Everybody wants to think creatively ... But how do you get somebody to actually do that on command?” Worse, how do you get them to "be creative" in an imaging study, when their brain processes are being monitored while they’re stuck inside a dark, cramped MRI chamber?

It was Saggar who came up with the idea of knocking off Pictionary, a game in which players have to draw words while teammates shout out guesses about what word they're drawing. Participating experimental subjects were wheeled into an MRI scanner and asked to draw either "action words" (such as "vote," "levitate," "snore" and "salute") or (as a control) a simple zigzag line, which taxed the fine-movement and attentional-focus areas of the brain but didn't require much in the way of creativity. A pair of expert raters scored the resulting drawings for creativity, accuracy and other parameters.

On analyzing the imaging results, the researchers found that the cerebellum (a rather "old" part of the brain in evolutionary terms), in league with certain other portions of the cerebral cortex (the evolutionarily newest part of the brain), was especially active when participants were drawing pictures subsequently rated most creative. But when the executive-control areas of the brain, responsible for focusing on the task at hand and evaluating performance in real time, were churning away in high gear, creativity dropped off a cliff.

It turns out that the cerebellum, a structure some people have called “the brain’s tennis shoes,” is a real player in creativity - and that creative solutions come faster and more furiously when the “smart centers” that handle the brain’s executive and managerial functions keep their mouths shut.

My take: When you want to solve a problem demanding creativity, wear your baggy clothing, have a beer, stare into space and daydream. The "aha!" moment comes when you least expect it.

Previously: X marks the spot, and so does Y: Brain differences, missing or extra sex chromosomes, and gene dosage, Humor as a mate selection strategy for women? and Making kids laugh for science: Study shows how humor activates children's brains
Photo by DonkeyHotey

Popular posts