The Neuroscience of Creativity

Yes, it’s true. It takes a brain to be creative. So those of you who don’t have one…hey, sorry:

By Kathy Graham

We don’t normally associate neuroscience with creativity yet the study of the brain has much to contribute to what is set to be the premium topic of the 21st century.

Susan Greenfield is a scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords. She was also a keynote at last year’s Mind & Its Potential conference where she presented on this very subject, framing her talk around four specific questions: Is our creativity genetically determined? What happens in the brain during the creative process? How can we maximise the opportunities for creativity? How can we develop a sense of creativity?

Is our creativity genetically determined?
Greenfield tells us our genes are important but they’re not the whole story and that environment plays a key role. Not only that, we have the superlative ability to adapt to our environment, a state of affairs known as brain plasticity.

The upshot is that each and every one of us has our own unique configuration of brain cell connections shaped by our individual experiences, which in turn are driven by mental processes. “The critical issue is not the contraction of the muscle, it’s the thought that has preceded it, that has left its mark on the brain,” she says.

That’s her first main point. Her second is that the more connections there are – our brain cells work harder and these connections multiply when we’re engaged in a stimulating enriched environment – the more “you can see one thing in terms of something else, then perhaps it has a significance to you. That’s what we mean by understanding. In this way, by virtue of our neuronal connections, we can navigate the world [and] start to understand what’s going on.”

What happens to the brain during the creative process?
Greenfield shows a slide of a portrait that’s been painted in an abstract style to demonstrate that creativity requires three necessary steps. “Perhaps the first stage in creativity is to deconstruct to abstract sensations, to challenge dogma. The second is unusual associations.” The third? “[A work of art] only has validity if it has a significance and meaning, if it will therefore drive other connections in your brain.”

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