New study confirms some of the neurophysiological predictors of creativity

Two brain networks appear to play a key role in creativity, according to new research published in the journal NeuroImage. The findings confirm past research that suggested increased cooperation between brain regions linked to both cognitive control and spontaneous processes is associated with heightened creative ability.

“My lab is interested in how the anterior hippocampus might contribute ‘gist-like’ memories that make practical contributions to behaviour. We imagined these might also contribute to creative processes, although we did not find evidence for this,” explained study author Jordan Poppenk, the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroimaging at Queen’s University and director of the POPMEM lab.

“I was seeing a talented artist at the time, and we often enjoyed stimulating conversations about creativity. What’s different about the brain of a person who is constantly dreaming up unusual ways of looking at the world? Intuitively, this thinking style is so different that it seems it must be manifest in the structure or activity patterns of our brains.”

To better understand the neurophysiological basis of creativity, the researchers had 66 healthy participants complete three tests of creativity along with a test of general intelligence. Poppenk and his colleagues then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the participants’ brain structure and functional connectivity.

“Many studies have explored markers of creativity, but have used different approaches to measuring it, and have often turned up different results. We aimed to consolidate past discoveries by registering our predictions and then measuring both creativity and the brain in several ways at once,” Poppenk told PsyPost.

“We replicated many, but not all past effects, which in future studies will help researchers focus on especially promising hypotheses and neural contributions. Perhaps most notably, we found support for the theory that default mode and executive brain networks work together during creative ideation.”

The default mode network is associated with spontaneous mental processes and inward-focused thinking, while the executive control network is associated with focusing attention and making decisions.

“According to this idea, creativity involves not only chaotic generation of ideas made possible by the default mode network, but also the capacity to steer this idea generation in a productive direction by constraining it in certain ways with the executive network,” Poppenk explained.

The findings are mostly in line with a previous neuroimaging study, which also found that the default mode network and executive control network were associated with creative ability.

“We were able to help narrow down which creativity biomarkers are among the most reliable. But, although each of these markers is statistically reliable, these relationships were not definitive enough for us to guess with any useful level of certainty, just based on brain scans, whether a particular person would be creative,” Poppenk noted.

“This might eventually be possible if we can learn how to combine the markers for greater certainty. Learning to do this, however, will require fresh data that we have not already used to identify our markers, and isn’t something we attempted to do in the current study.”

The study, “Neuroimaging predictors of creativity in healthy adults“, was authored by Adam Sunavsky and Jordan Poppenk.