Ultimately, Beaty said, the study pinpointed three primary networks in the brain that are involved in creative thinking. The first, called the default network, is the area that activates when a person is relaxing, daydreaming, thinking of nothing in particular.
“It’s the place for spontaneous ideas,” said Beaty. “It’s also strongly related to memory.”
The second network is default’s opposite, the executive control network.“It’s involved in focusing our attention to accomplish challenging tasks,” he said.
“The thing about these two networks is they typically don’t work together,” he added. “If your mind is wandering you don’t need focused attention, and when you’re focusing you don’t want spontaneous thoughts slipping in. It’s kind of an antagonistic relationship.”
For creativity to happen, however, the two have to learn to get along. It’s the interplay between them, in fact, that makes the magic: an iterative process between idea generation and evaluation. That’s where a third player, the salience network, comes in, acting as a kind of toggle between them.
All three of these networks, Beaty said, become active during a creative task. The degree of a person’s creativity depends on the strength of connections between them.
Can creativity be taught?
It’s tempting to conclude that creative people’s brains are simply wired differently. The question then becomes: Is that wiring fixed forever? Might it be changeable? Can a person’s creativity be improved? Once the PNAS study was published, Beaty said, “That was the first thing people wanted to know.”
The popularity of creativity workshops for business leaders and aspiring artists would seem to suggest that creative potential can be developed, or at least unlocked. But can those brain connections actually be strengthened? It’s an open question, and one that Beaty and his colleagues now have NSF funding to try to answer.