Openness to Experience linked to reduced cortical thickness in several brain regions

Individual differences in the personality trait Openness to Experience are associated with variation in brain structure, according to new neuroimaging research. The findings, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, shed new light on the neural basis of creativity.

The magnetic resonance imaging study found Openness to Experience correlated with reduced cortical thickness in several brain regions.

“Historically, one of the most robust findings in the literature on creativity is that there is a relationship between personality and creativity,” said study author Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto and Defence Research and Development Canada.

“More recently, researchers in the field of personality neuroscience have begun to explore regions of the brain that are related to variations in different personality factors—one of which is openness to experience. Openness to experience—defined as the breadth and depth of a person’s experiential life—is of great interest to creativity researchers because people who score higher on this factor also tend to think and behave more creatively.

“This prompted us to use MRI to explore how two distinct aspects of this factor—Intellect and Openness—might be related to variations in brain structure, enabling us to make some inferences about the relationship between brain structure and individual differences in a personality factor related to creativity,” Vartanian explained.

The researchers examined the brain structure of 185 participants who were working in or studying the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  The participants also completed a test designed to measure the big five personality traits.

“The key finding from our study was that there was a negative correlation between Openness and cortical thickness in regions of the brain that underlie memory and cognitive control. This is an interesting finding because typically reduced cortical thickness is associated with decreased cognitive function, including lower psychometric measures of intelligence,” Vartanian told PsyPost.

“We believe that the reason why Openness is associated with reduced cortical thickness is that this condition reduces the person’s ability to filter the contents of thought, thereby facilitating greater immersion in the sensory, cognitive, and emotional information that might otherwise have been filtered out of consciousness.”

In particular, Openness was associated with reduced cortical thickness in the left middle frontal gyrus, left middle temporal gyrus, left superior temporal gyrus, left inferior parietal lobule, right inferior parietal lobule, and right middle temporal gyrus.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“There are caveats to our findings. First, although we measured cortical thickness, area and volume, other measures of brain structure may have revealed a different picture of the underlying association,” Vartanian explained.

“Second, although the regions that exhibited reductions in cortical thickness in relation to Openness have been shown to be activated in previous neuroimaging studies of creativity, there is a need to show that Openness mediates the link between brain structure and creative behavior. Finally, as with all findings in psychology and neuroscience, independent replication is necessary to establish the reliability of the observed effects.”

“Although we are beginning to gain some traction on the neural bases of creativity, there are several major questions that remain unanswered. For example, most of what we know about the neural basis of creativity—including its relationship with personality—comes from studies of everyday creativity involving samples derived from the general population,” Vartanian added.

“We know very little about the neural basis of exceptional creativity, the kind that people typically think about when they envision truly creative people at work. Similarly, we know little about the extent to which creativity in different domains, such as in the arts and sciences, draws on similar or different cognitive and emotional abilities. Additional research is needed to generate a more complete picture of how the brain contributes to the emergence of this amazing capacity.”

The study, “Structural correlates of Openness and Intellect: Implications for the contribution of personality to creativity“, was authored by Oshin Vartanian, Christopher J. Wertz, Ranee A. Flores, Erin L. Beatty, Ingrid Smith, Kristen Blackler, Quan Lam, and Rex E. Jung.