Making Connections: Psychologist explores the neuroscience of creativity

Roger Beaty, assistant professor of psychology, foreground, and a participant demonstrate use of the research MRI scanner in the Social, Life, and Engineering Sciences Imaging Center at University Park. Beaty uses functional MRI to study activity in the brain during creativity.    Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Is there anything more mysterious — or human — than the creative impulse? Whatever the  field of endeavor: music, art, science, business… What accounts for the inspired burst of innovation? The spark that flits to flame and lights the way to something entirely new?

Roger Beaty became interested in this question as an undergraduate, in a class that explored the psychology of genius. An amateur jazz pianist, he was already well-versed in improvisation. But “this was the first time I realized that you could study creativity scientifically,” he remembers. Combing through case studies of Picasso and the Beatles, following in their gigantic footprints, was a way toward understanding why some people are more creative than others. 

Roger Beaty, an amateur jazz pianist, plays a Miles Davis piece on the keyboard in his lab. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

There are several cognitive processes involved. Memory is a crucial one, says Beaty, now an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State.

“Memory is what we already know. Creativity involves going beyond what we know — but if we don’t know anything, we can’t create anything new," said Beaty.

What’s really relevant, he said, is the organization of memory, how a person’s brain catalogs disparate concepts and experiences in order to facilitate making connections. It’s an ability that varies between individuals.

Also important is the ability to focus, to narrow one’s attention to the task at hand. But focus needs to be balanced with spontaneity, Beaty said. “Creative people tend to be open to experience, to seeing things in new ways.” 

These processes and others all have their roles to play. But how much does each contribute to an individual’s creativity? Is there something noticeably different going on inside the head of an innovator? How does creativity happen in the brain?

Wired differently

The neuroscience of creativity is an emerging field that has attracted researchers from several disciplines, but it can seem an odd combination. How do you fix a thing as ephemeral as creativity? How pin the butterfly of a new idea to the realm of neurons and physiology? 

First, Beaty said, you have to agree on a definition. Researchers in the field generally accept that in order to be considered creative, an idea must be both new and useful.

“Pure novelty is not enough,” he said, “even if ‘usefulness’ in a domain like abstract art is not so clear cut.” Creativity is essentially the solving of a problem, even if it’s a problem that no one knew existed.

To measure creativity in individuals, researchers employ various tests. One requires giving a study participant pairs of randomly-selected words — “shoe” and “door,” say, or “rowboat” and “parrot” — and asking them to rate how closely these words are related to one another.

“People who are more creative are able to see connections between things that might seem unrelated,” Beaty explained.

Another test of “divergent thinking” asks participants to find new uses for common objects, like a sock or a brick. One creative person, Beaty reported, suggested using a sock as a water-filtration system.

Things start to get really interesting when people perform these tasks while researchers observe their brain activity via a functional MRI scan, which provides a real-time image of blood flow to various parts of the brain. 

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2018, Beaty and colleagues asked 163 people to complete an alternate uses task while in the scanner. Noting the areas that were lighting up in participants’ brains, indicating activity, they computed the linkages between these regions. Thus for each individual they were able to create a map of connectivity that could be related to performance of the task at hand — essentially a map of creative thinking. 

This next step was even more revealing. The researchers put the brain-connectivity patterns of the people whose answers on the test were deemed most creative into a computer model, then brought in a fresh set of participants to take the test. Just from comparing a new person’s connectivity patterns with the model, they found, they could predict what that individual’s creativity score would be.

Detail from a figure in Roger Beaty's PNAS paper shows functional brain networks associated with high-creative thinking ability. The red lines on the brain represent connections predictive of creativity scores and the dots represent brain regions: the larger the dot, the more predictive connections. Regions of the default, executive control, and salience networks are indicated within this larger network by the larger dots. The strength of connections between these three regions predicted people's ability to think of creative uses for test objects. Credit: courtesy Roger BeatyAll Rights Reserved.

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.