Tag Archives: creativity

When trying out creative ideas, go for your second choice, a new study finds

People aren’t very good at evaluating how creative an idea is — but they’re not terrible at it, either, so we can improve.

Image via Pixabay.

New research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business is looking into how people gauge the creativity of their ideas, and how we can improve. The findings suggest that in the very early stages of the creative process (when rough ideas are first pieced together), people have a rough understanding of which ideas are most promising — but it’s usually your second choice that ends up being the most creative.

Tortoise and hare

“Evaluating creativity is difficult,” says Justin M. Berg, an assistant professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business who studies creativity and innovation, and the study’s author.

“A lot of research suggests that people are not very good at it, that a number of biases and challenges get in the way.”

Berg carried out five experiments in which he asked participants to tackle a creative project, such as designing a new piece of fitness equipment or a way to keep people from falling asleep in self-driving cars. Participants were asked to come up with three ideas and rank them according to how promising they were from a creative standpoint. Afterwards, they were given some time to flesh out and finalize one of them.

Berg then asked a separate sample of experts and consumers to rate the creativity of the participants’ ideas.

Overall, he found that when participants only had a short time to work on their ideas, the way the experts and consumers rated them was consistent with the ranking they provided. However, when more time was afforded to work on the ideas, the one they ranked second-best tended to be rated as most creative. He explains that, just like in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the second-ranked idea started at a disadvantage but made it to the top in the long run. This pattern was strikingly regular, he explains.

“People’s most promising initial ideas were consistently ranked second,” Berg says. “People are not terrible at identifying their best initial idea, and they are not terrible in a non-random way, which means they can get better at it.”

Abstract it

Independent raters were also asked to judge how abstract each idea was. Berg found that the ideas initially ranked second in terms of creativity were also more abstract than the ideas ranked first. A concrete idea is necessarily more developed, he explains, so its virtues are more readily apparent. Abstract ideas, even if they’re very good, can be difficult to be seen as promising.

“People value concreteness too much and abstractness too little in their initial ideas. The best initial ideas likely won’t seem very creative at the beginning—there may not be enough substance to see their potential originality and usefulness,” he adds.

“Their abstractness is a barrier that prevents people from spotting their potential.”

Participants were then put in more abstract states of mind — with questions such as “Why is this a good idea?” as opposed to “How good is this idea?” — and asked to rate the creativity of their ideas again. In this step, participants were much better able to identify the most promising idea from the get-go.

Berg says that there are obvious limitations to the study. For starters, the result could shift if participants were asked to work with more ideas.

“When you have lots of initial ideas, your most promising idea might not be your second favorite,” he says. “Instead, it may be somewhere in the top half of your predicted rankings, below the idea ranked first but above the ideas you think are your worst.”

“We’re probably all killing a lot of our best ideas early in the creative process without knowing it.”

When developing new ideas, he recommends opting for the more concrete ones if you’re under time pressure (as these will reach their potential the fastest). However, if time isn’t an issue, try focusing on asking why (versus how) an idea is good, to get you into a more abstract mindset — and then select the most promising one. If time and resources permit, develop two ideas to maturity rather than a single one. Pick a surer bet and a riskier bet, but develop the riskier bet first so you don’t get anchored by the sure bet.

Finally, when working with more abstract ideas, don’t share them until you’ve worked on them to make them more concrete.

“You may recognize an idea’s potential before others can see it. If you need to win support for an idea, sharing late may be better than sharing too early.”

The paper “When Silver is Gold: Forecasting the Potential Creativity of Initial Ideas” has been published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The Psychology of Creativity

In the past, scientists thought that creativity came solely from the right hemisphere of the brain, but more recent discoveries have shown that many neural networks across the brain spark creativity and control our responses to various stimuli.

What makes a person creative?

Creativity is defined by noted psychologist John R. Hayes as, “the potential of persons to produce creative works whether or not they have produced any work as yet.”

In recent years, scientific evidence has revealed that mental cognition results from the dynamic interactions of distributed brain areas operating in what’s called large-scale neural networks.

In the past, scientists thought that creativity came solely from the right hemisphere of the brain, but more recent discoveries have shown that many neural networks across the brain spark creativity and control our responses to various stimuli.

When we tell a joke, a story, or even think about that awesome dinner we had last Saturday, our brains are taking input from the world around them, accessing memories and creating new thoughts — in short, cognition, the constant of our experience.

Here’s a look at three large-scale neural networks that contribute to the psychology of creativity.

Salience Network

The salience network is “an intrinsically connected large-scale network” located deep in the brain within the anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Studies have found that the salience network contributes to an array of complex brain functions, including social behavior, communication and self-awareness.

Stanford University neurologist Michael Greicius and a fellow scientist William Seeley described the salience network as the system that prepares the brain for action. Think of how the brain responds to “fight or flight” stimuli. One example of this is how a driver responds when he or she sees a pedestrian dart across a busy street, or when a person attempts to recall facts quickly during a quiz or trivia game.

In order to make a situation salient, it requires significance to the individual involved. The stimuli for the salient network can come internally, such as feelings of hunger and pain, or from external sources, such as a police siren. As something becomes discernable – as a police car with its sirens blaring becomes louder – the brain is directed to respond. If the stimuli remained far away, we may have been less likely to respond.

In a recent study, Greicius found strong direct evidence that the salience network plays a key role in “motivation and a readiness to act.” Interestingly, some individuals with more activity than normal in the salience network have been linked with autism, and some individuals with damage to key areas of the salience network have been diagnosed with a type of dementia.

Tests on lab animals have shown that when the salience network is blocked or interfered with, the animals gave up more easily when trying to find food through a maze than those whose salience network wasn’t inhibited.

In all, the salience network helps our brain take in and monitor information from internal or external sources while being flexible enough to give us different stimuli on how to respond to the situations, allowing for creativity in a stressful situation.

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Default Mode Network

Even when the brain isn’t focused on a particular activity, parts of the brain are functioning at a high level.

Over the past few decades, scientists have been studying the default mode network, a large-scale network of multiple areas of the brain that light up while we are in our resting state, or default mode.

Some of the activities people may be doing when the default mode network is firing through its synapses include daydreaming, recalling memories, and just overall thinking about different subjects. According to Randy Buckner, the default mode network is involved with “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.” The default mode network is also involved in social cognition.

Studies have shown that disruption to the default mode network has been linked with natural aging and brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

It should be noted that some in the psychology community disagree that there is a default mode network, as it is difficult to define exactly what is resting state compared to others.

Executive Attention Network

The executive attention network is a large-scale network that monitors and resolves conflict between thoughts, feelings and responses.

Executive attention is the ability for the mind to focus on one thing and block out the distractions, which is an important skill for children to learn. The executive attention network lights up when concentrating on a difficult test, or engaging in a challenging problem-solving activity. The network is located “across the lateral (outer) regions of the prefrontal cortex and areas toward the back (posterior) of the parietal lobe.”

The executive attention network deals with working memory (short-term and application of long-term memory to the present) and the following tasks of thought: planning, switching and inhibition.

Psychology of Creativity

Psychologists, concerned with behavior, benefit from an understanding of neurology, cognition and emotion.

In mental health practice, psychology and neurology can be interrelated. The field of neuropsychology studies brain activity and correlates it with diagnosed mental health issues. Therapists treating mental health disorders use this understanding of the complexities of our brain functions to help clients recover.

You can learn more about the psychology of creativity and other topics with Lesley University’s online BA in Psychology. You’ll learn the skills employers are looking for, and an internship will help give you the experience necessary to enter the field of psychology. You can take advantage of our flexible online format, allowing you to balance studies with your daily life.

This article was originally published on the website of Lesley University and was re-published with permission. 


Creativity hinges on churning as many ideas out as possible — then taking a break

Being creative is as simple as letting yourself come up with ideas — and then walking away for a while.


Image credits Pixabay.

New research from The University of Texas (UT) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) says that employers looking for more creative employees should encourage them to produce a wealth of ideas — even mediocre ones — and then have them take an “incubation period.”

Take a breather

“Creativity is not instantaneous, but if incentives promote enough ideas as seeds for thought, creativity eventually emerges,” said Steven Kachelmeier, the Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting at Texas McCombs and co-author of the study in the Accounting Review.

When people are rewarded for simply producing ideas, no matter if they’re good or bad, they end up producing more and more creative ideas, the paper reports. If your end goal is to foster creativity, then this is a much better approach than paying people based on the quality of their ideas (or not giving out any pay incentives at all). Another important requirement is to give these ideas time to grow, the team adds. All the participants involved in this study stepped away from the brainstorming part of the task for a while and returned to it at a later date. This approach — combining mass idea generation with a rest period — results in much more creative productivity than when either of the two strategies is used in the study.

The research consisted of two experiments. In the first phase, participants were asked to create rebus puzzles — riddles where words, phrases or sayings are represented using a combination of images and letters. Some participants were offered pay based on the number of ideas they generated; others, only for ideas that met a certain standard for creativity. Finally, the control group was paid a fixed wage of $25, regardless of the quantity or quality of the puzzle ideas they generated.

In the early stages of the study, both incentivized groups actually performed worse than the control (in measures of creativity as judged by an independent panel). However, in a subsequent return to this task (10 days after the first one), those in the pay-per-idea group had “a distinct creativity advantage,” the team reports, and outperformed the other participants in both quality and quantity of ideas produced.

The group with a combination of mass idea generation with a rest period outperformed either of the other two groups using these strategies in isolation. The striking surge in efficiency exhibited by the first group suggests that having an incubation period after an initial brainstorming step is key to improving creativity, the researchers said.

Exactly how much time this rest period should take was the focus point of the second experiment. Here, the team paid half the participants a fixed amount (these were the controls) and half for the number of ideas they produced. As before, the pay-for-quantity participants yielded more, but not better, initial ideas than the fixed-pay group. However, after a quiet, 20-minute walk around campus, they produced more and better quality puzzles than the control group.

“You need to rest, take a break and detach yourself — even if that detachment is just 20 minutes,” Kachelmeier said.

“The recipe for creativity is try — and get frustrated because it’s not going to happen. Relax, sit back, and then it happens.”

The paper “Incentivizing the Creative Process: From Initial Quantity to Eventual Creativity” has been published in the journal Accounting Review.

Classical music.

If you want to be creative, turn the music off, new research reveals

The popular view that music enhances creativity has it all backwards, according to an international team of researchers.

Classical music.

Image via Pixabay.

Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Gävle in Sweden, and Lancaster University investigated the impact of background music on creative performance and let me tell you — the results aren’t encouraging if you like music.

Creatively uncreative

The team pitted participants against verbal insight tasks that require creativity to solve. All in all, they report, background music “significantly impaired” people’s ability to perform these tasks. Background noise (the team used library noises) or silence didn’t have the same effect on creativity, the team notes.

“We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” says first author Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University.

As an example, one of the tasks involved showing a participant three words (e.g. dress, dial, flower) and asking them to find a single associated word that can be combined with the three to make a common word or phrase (for example, “sun” to make sundress, sundial, and sunflower).

Each task was performed in three different settings: in the first, music with foreign or unfamiliar lyrics was played in the background. In the second setting, instrumental music (no lyrics) was played in the background. The third setting involved music with familiar lyrics being played in the background. Control groups performed the same task either in a silent environment or with a background of library noises.

All participants in settings with background music showed “strong evidence of impaired performance” in comparison to quiet background conditions, McLatchie says. The team suggests this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory.

The third experiment in particular (music with familiar lyrics) impaired creativity regardless of whether it also induced a positive mood, whether participants liked it or not, or if they usually study or work with music in the background. This effect was less pronounced when background music was instrumental with no lyrics, but still present.

“To conclude, the findings here challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, and instead demonstrate that music, regardless of the presence of semantic content (no lyrics, familiar lyrics or unfamiliar lyrics), consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problem solving.”

However, there was no significant difference in performance on verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions. The team says this is because library noise is a “steady state” environment which is not as disruptive as music.

So it may be best for your productivity to close that YouTube tab when trying to study or work. Can’t say that I’m thrilled about the findings but hey — science is science!

The paper “Background music stints creativity: Evidence from compound remote associate tasks” has been published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Think Big.

Creative fields have a lot to benefit from people with ADHD, new study says

In creative fields, ADHD isn’t a liability — it’s a strength.

Think Big.

Image credits Silvia & Frank / Pixabay.

It’s widely held belief that kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD for short, will have a hard time finding employment later on in life. Well, concerned parents of the world, fret not: a new study from the University of Michigan found that adults with ADHD actually have a unique edge they bring to creative tasks.

Not all those who wander are lost

“Creative products of individuals with ADHD may be more innovative, relative to creations of non-ADHD peers,” said study author Holly White, a researcher in the U-M Department of Psychology.

ADHD is commonly diagnosed during childhood. Its best-known facets are that kids with ADHD have a hard time focusing on a single task or object for extended periods of time, and that they can’t ‘sit still’. However, that’s a pretty narrow take on the disorder. Children with ADHD actually have very good attention spans — but only for tasks, they find interesting. This is a particularly important distinction to make since people with ADHD also tend to resist conformity and ignore typical information — i.e. telling them what they should do isn’t very effective, and most things we do are simply boring to them.

Perhaps not the best cloth from which to tailor an engineer, but these traits may be solid assets in fields that value innovative and non-traditional approaches, such as marketing, product design, technology, and computer engineering, White explains. She and her team worked with a group of college students, with and without ADHD, and pitted them in lab challenges of creativity.

For the first (the imagination) task, each participant had to invent a new example of a common category that is different from all existing examples. Participants had to (among others) compete in an “alien fruit” invention task, where they were asked to create an example of a fruit that might exist on another planet but is different from a fruit known to exist on Earth.

Non-ADHD participants tended to model their creations after specific common fruits, such as apples or strawberries, the team reports. While not bad, these creations were less innovative than those of the second group. This group, formed out of participants with ADHD, created fruits that differed more from typical fruits, and were more original — i.e. they resembled rarer fruits and shared fewer similarities with these compared with the first group’s creations. The second task had the participants invent labels for three categories of new products without copying the examples provided. The ADHD group again created labels that were more creative and differed the most from the examples provided.

Overall, the results suggest that people with ADHD rely less on previous knowledge or examples when dealing with a task, allowing them more flexibility when being creative. Individuals with ADHD may be less prone to design fixation, which is the tendency to stick closely to the beaten path when creating a new product, White said.

“As a result, the creative products of individuals with ADHD may be more innovative, relative to creations of non-ADHD peers,” she adds.

“This has implications for creative design and problem solving in the real world, when the goal is to create or invent something new without being overly constrained by old models or ways of doing things”.

The paper “Thinking “Outside the Box”: Unconstrained Creative Generation in Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” has been published in The Journal of Creative Behavior.

Michale Jackson was verbally and physically abused as a child by his father. Jackson went into detail on several occasions, including in the famous BBC special with Martin Bashir. Credit: CoS.

Performing artists with a history of childhood adversity have more intense creative experiences

Michale Jackson was verbally and physically abused as a child by his father. Jackson went into detail on several occasions, including in the famous BBC special with Martin Bashir. Credit: CoS.

Michale Jackson was verbally and physically abused as a child by his father. Jackson went into detail on several occasions, including in the famous BBC special with Martin Bashir. Credit: CoS.

It’s no secret that many people going through a rough time or with a history of traumatizing experiences often interact with some kind of creative outlet. This catharsis makes helps us cope with adversity, providing an escape from the harsh realities of life.

There seems to be evidence of a strong connection between childhood adversity and seeking out artistic solace, according to a new study which found performing artists with such a history have more intense creative experiences.

The study was conducted by Paula Thompson and Victoria Jaque, two psychologists at the California State University and York University, Toronto, respectively. Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the pair describes childhood adversity as “any exposure to abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), neglect (emotional, physical), and/or family dysfunction (parental separation/divorce, family member with mental illness and/or substance abuse, domestic violence, and family member imprisoned).”

According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, at least 40 million children are abused each year around the world. Such studies provide useful trends about child abuse in the general population, but there have been limited studies focusing on performing artist samples.

Previously, childhood adversity and past trauma have been linked with intrusive emotional mental imagery, which may compromise general performance levels and increase anxiety.

In the new study, researchers interviewed 83 actors, directors, and designers, 129 dancers, along with 20 musicians and opera singers regarding the adversity they faced in childhood but also about their creative process. An example of a question from the survey is “Did a parent or other adult in the household often…Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? Yes/No.” 

At the beginning of the study, the researchers hypothesized that more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) “would be related to increased psychological difficulties (anxiety, shame, exposure to adult traumatic events) and decreased positive creative and performance flow experiences.”

The results indeed indicate that more ACEs are associated with experiencing more fantasy proneness, shame, and anxiety. Performing artists also experienced significantly higher rates of emotional abuse and neglect than people with ACEs from a previous study. However, the participants also tended to report more intense creative and existential experiences.

“Significant differences were found for the following factors: distinct experience, absorption, and transformation, with the high exposed performers endorsing more creative intensity compared to performers with minimal or no childhood adversity,” wrote the authors of the new study.

The findings suggest that performing artists with four or more types of ACEs are more aware of the creative process. In other words, thanks to negative emotional history, and not despite it, performing artists seem to be more able to recognize and value the creative process. For instance, the performers in the high ACE group were “more aware of a loss of a sense of self, a greater sense of contact with a force beyond themselves, greater emotional intensity that coexisted with emotional stability, a heightened awareness of technical and expressive abilities, and increased spiritual awareness during the creative process,” according to the researchers.

This heightened creative focus is an important spiritual and healing component in the performer’s life, giving them a sense of purpose.

“Engaging in the creative process offers meaning and a deeper sense of a connected self despite experiencing childhood adversity. The need to encourage creative activities in educational and work settings offers a powerful antidote to potential devastating physical and psychological effects associated with childhood adversity,” Thomson told PsyPost.

“We are saddened by the number of participants in our study who have suffered multiple forms of childhood adversity as well as adult assaults (both sexual and non-sexual). So many participants in our sample have experienced poly-traumatization and yet they also embrace their passion for performance and creativity. They are embracing ways to express all that is human.”

In the future, the researchers plan to investigate if there’s any association between a history of trauma and the physical health of artists.

Will AI start to take over writing? How will we manage it?

Could robots be taking over writing? Photo taken in the ZKM Medienmuseum, Karlsruhe, Germany.

As artificial intelligence (AI) spreads its wings more and more, it also threatening more and more jobs. In an economic report issued to the White House in 2016, researchers concluded that there’s an 83% chance automation will replace workers who earn 20$/hour or less. This echoes previous studies, which found that half of US jobs are threatened by robots, including up to 87% of jobs in Accommodation & Food Services. But some jobs are safer than others. Jobs which require human creativity are safe — or so we thought.

Take writing for instance. In all the Hollywood movies and in all our minds, human writing is… well, human, strictly restricted to our biological creativity. But that might not be the case. Last year, an AI was surprisingly successful in writing horror stories, featuring particularly creepy passages such as this:

#MIRROR: “‘I slowly moved my head away from the shower curtain, and saw the reflection of the face of a tall man who looked like he was looking in the mirror in my room. I still couldn’t see his face, but I could just see his reflection in the mirror. He moved toward me in the mirror, and he was taller than I had ever seen. His skin was pale, and he had a long beard. I stepped back, and he looked directly at my face, and I could tell that he was being held against my bed.”

It wasn’t an isolated achievement either. A Japanese AI wrote a full novel, and AI is already starting to have a noticeable effect on journalism. So just like video killed the radio star, are we set for a world where AI kills writing?

What does it take to be a writer? Is it something that’s necessarily restricted to a biological mind, or can that be expanded to an artificial algorithm?

Not really.

While AIs have had some impressive writing success, they’ve also been limited in scope, and they haven’t truly exhibited what you would call creativity. In order to do that, the first thing they need to do is pass the Turing test, in which a computer must be able to trick humans into thinking that it, too, is human, in order to pass. So far, that’s proven to be a difficult challenge, and that’s only the first step. While AI can process and analyze complex data, it still does not have much prowess in areas that involve abstract, nonlinear and creative thinking. There’s nothing to suggest that AIs will be able to adapt and actually start creating new content.

Algorithms, at least in their computational sense, don’t really support creativity. Basically, they work by transforming a set of discrete input parameters into a set of discrete output parameters. This fundamental limitation means that a computer cannot be creative, as one way or another, everything in its output is still in the input. This emphasizes that computational creativity is useful and may look like creativity, but it is not real creativity because it is not actually creating something, just transforming known parameters such as words and sentences.

But to dismiss AI as unable to write would simply be wrong. In advertising, AI copywriters are already being used, and they’re surprisingly versatile: they can draft hundreds of different ad campaigns with ease. It will be a long time before we’ll start seeing an AI essay writing service, but we might get there at one point. Google claimed that its AlphaGo algorithm is able to ‘create knowledge itself’ and it demonstrated that by winning over the world champion using a move which no one has ever seen before. So it not only learned from humans, but it built its own knowledge. Is that not a type of creativity in itself? Both technically and philosophically, there’s still a lot of questions to be answered.

AI is here, and it’s here to stay. It will grow and change our lives, whether we want it or not, whether we realize it or not. What we need, especially in science and journalism, is a new paradigm of how humans and AI work together for better results. That might require some creative solutions in itself.

Credit: Flickr, Quinn Dombrowski.

Suppressing reasoning side of the brain with harmless electrical zaps enhances creativity

When scientists suppressed a region in the brain involved in planning and reasoning with electrical current, the volunteers’ ability to think in more creative ways was significantly enhanced. Doc Brown from Back to the Future was actually on to something all along. The drawback, however, was that this came at the cost of sacrificing working memory which is useful for other tasks.

Credit: Flickr, Quinn Dombrowski.

Credit: Flickr, Quinn Dombrowski.

Thinking outside the box

In 2011, Australian researchers reported how their study participants became three times more likely to complete puzzles than the control group after having their brain stimulated by small amounts of electricity. The technique is called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and involves sending apparently harmless, minuscule currents across the brain through conductive pads placed on the skull. This is an extremely powerful method that can be used to shape moodlearn faster, or even brain-to-brain communication. But in the aftermath of the 2011 study, it was never clear whether positive or negative stimulation — excitement or suppression — was what triggered the effect.

To get to the bottom of things, a team at Queen Mary University of London enlisted 60 volunteers who were tasked with completing various on-screen computer puzzles. The puzzles, which might be familiar to some of you, involve moving matchsticks around to produce solvable equations. For instance, in one problem the participants had to solve:

IV = III + III, whose solution is moving the leftmost to the right to produce VI = III + III.

There were four types of puzzles, from simple to hard. The hardest puzzles required the volunteers to seriously think outside the box and shed preconceived ideas and notions. For instance:

In III = III + III, participants had to move one of the two matchsticks that form the sign to make an sign like so:  III = III = III.

There were 12 such problems in all and after the participants finished their attempts, they were separated into three groups. One group had electrical activity briefly switched on and off, followed by 15 minutes of no stimulation; this was supposed to be the control or ‘sham’ setup. The other two groups received either a positive or negative stimulation to the left side of a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC).

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) is a region in the frontal lobes toward the top and side: hence dorso (top) and lateral (side). Credit: Quora.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) is a region in the frontal lobes toward the top and side: hence dorso (top) and lateral (side). Credit: Quora.

The dlIPFC serves a highly important executive role within the brain and subsequently, is the main site of cognitive control in both humans and monkeys. It is heavily interconnected with a variety of other cortical brain regions, sending and receiving inputs to and from most sensory brain regions, as well as subcortical brain regions like the basal ganglia. Working memory is also known to be dependent on the dlPFC.

After having the dlPFC stimulated or suppressed, participants had to tackle yet a new set of 12 puzzles. Those who had their dlPFCs suppressed were more likely to solve the toughest puzzles for the first time than the participants who received anodal or sham tDCS. Six times more people who had suppressed dlPFCs completed the puzzles compared to those that received a sham zap to the brain.

(A) An illustration of the placement of electrodes for the tDCS.(B) Simulation of the electric field. (C) An illustration of the experimental session. (D) An example of a type C matchstick problem. Credit: Nature.

(A) An illustration of the placement of electrodes for the tDCS.(B) Simulation of the electric field. (C) An illustration of the experimental session. (D) An example of a type C matchstick problem. Credit: Nature / Scientific Reports.

It’s thought that suppressing the dlPLFC freshens the brain by stimulating people to forgo experience when approaching a new task. For instance, mathematical thinking and rules can become deeply entrenched once established, typically when we’re school children, which is why it’s considered so difficult for people to think about turning a sign into an = one.

“We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process,” commented Dr Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, first author of the new study published in Scientific Reports, in a statement.

At the same time, however, suppression of this critical brain region caused poor performance in other matchstick puzzles that heavily relied on working memory. Win some, lose some.

These findings suggest that it’s possible — and indeed foreseeable — that sometime in the future people might employ devices based on transcranial direct current stimulation to augment their creativity. It wouldn’t be all that different from how some people already turn to alcohol or drugs for inspiration. And it might work too — as long as the task at hand doesn’t involve things like remembering phone numbers. Luft, however, cautions we’re still pretty far from seeing this happening despite what some companies might already market.

“These results are important because they show the potential of improving mental functions relevant for creativity by non-invasive brain stimulation methods,” commented Dr Luft.

“However, our results also suggest that potential applications of this technique will have to consider the target cognitive effects in more detail rather than just assuming tDCS can improve cognition as claimed by some companies which are starting to sell tDCS machines for home users,” she added.

“I would say that we are not yet in a position to wear an electrical hat and start stimulating our brain hoping for a blanket cognitive gain.”


Colorful Pebbles

Organized information may be creativity’s death knell, study found

Organized structures may boost productivity but also stifle creativity, according to a new study from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Colorful Pebbles

Image credits Sara / Pixabay.

Keeping things tidy has obvious advantages, and this holds true for information, too. Research has shown that humans generally coordinate their activities and understand what’s going on better when dealing with structured data. The idea is that a good information structure allows us to better manipulate data, cope with complex systems, boosting out overall efficiency. That is, unless what you’re aiming for is thinking outside the box.

Inspiration from chaos


“A hierarchically organized information structure may also have a dark side,” warns Yeun Joon Kim, a PhD student who co-authored the paper with Chen-Bo Zhong, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the Rotman School.

The team ran three experiments to determine the relationship between information structure and creativity. In the first two, participants were given a group of nouns which were either organized into categories or left unarranged and asked to create as many sentences with them as possible. For the third, participants had to play with LEGOs. They were given either unorganized boxes of bricks or boxes with pieces organized by color and shape and asked to build an alien using the toys. Those who received organized bricks were not allowed to spill them on a table, to make sure their materials remained ‘organized’ throughout the experiment.

Participants in the organized groups showed less creativity and lower levels of cognitive flexibility compared to their peers, suggesting that highly organized or categorized systems (be they physical or informational) negatively impact these traits. They also spent less time on their task on average, suggesting “reduced persistence”, which the authors note is a key component of creativity.

These results could help managers better tailor working environments, especially for multi-disciplinary teams which tend to show inconsistent rates of innovation, the authors note. They believe this comes down to the fact that different team members may continue to organize ideas according to functional similarities, discipline, area of expertise, and other criteria.

“We suggest people put their ideas randomly on a white board and then think about some of their connections,” says Kim. “Our tendency to categorize information rather than efficiency itself is what those working in creative industries need to be most on guard about, the researchers say.”

The paper “Ideas rise from chaos: Information structure and creativity” has been published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Georgetown University team found you can literally zap creativity into your brain

Electrically stimulating the frontopolar cortex can enhance creativity, a new study from Georgetown University found.

Image credits aboutmodafinil.com (Creative Commons)

We tend to think of creativity as something you’re either born with or you’re not; that some people are just wired to be artists while others couldn’t paint to save their life. But this trait stems from your brain, and psychology professor Adam Green, Dr. Peter Turkeltaub from Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) and their team found that this organ can be coaxed into thinking more creatively.

“We found that the individuals who were most able to ramp up activity in a region at the far front of the brain, called the frontopolar cortex, were the ones most able to ramp up the creativity of the connections they formed,” Green explains. “Since ramping up activity in frontopolar cortex appeared to support a natural boost in creative thinking, we predicted that stimulating activity in this brain region would facilitate this boost, allowing people to reach higher creative heights.”

And it worked; by stimulating test subjects’ brains using tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) in combination with verbal cues, the participants could be made to think more creatively. Then the tDCS was focused on the frontopolar cortex, subjects formed more creative analogical connections between sets of words the researchers gave them to use. They also thought of more and more creative associations between these words.

“This work is a departure from traditional research that treats creativity as a static trait,” Green adds. “Instead, we focused on creativity as a dynamic state that can change quickly within an individual when they ‘put their thinking cap on.’ ”

“The findings of this study offer the new suggestion that giving individuals a “zap” of electrical stimulation can enhance the brain’s natural thinking cap boost in creativity,” he concludes.

The researchers write that their results offer “novel evidence” that tDCS can be used to enhance “conscious augmentation of creativity elicited by cognitive intervention” and extends the known boundaries of tDCS enhancement “to analogical reasoning, a form of creative intelligence that is a powerful engine for innovation.”

Dr. Turkletaub, a cognitive neurologist with the GMUC, hopes that their method of brain stimulation used in conjunction with verbal cues will one day be used to help people with brain disorders.

“People with speech and language difficulties often can’t find or produce the words they need,” he explains. “Enhancing creative analogical reasoning might allow them to find alternate ways of expressing their ideas using different words, gestures, or other approaches to convey a similar meaning.”

Electrical brain stimulation has also been shown to improve learning. Still, Turkeltaub and Green caution that while their results show promise, “it is important to be cautious about applications of tDCS.” This method’s full effects on brain function are still unknown, and experimental data gathered up to know needs further replication before researchers can safely apply it.

“Any effort to use electric current for stimulating the brain outside the laboratory or clinic could be dangerous and should be strongly discouraged,” Green cautioned.

The full paper, titled “Thinking Cap Plus Thinking Zap: tDCS of Frontopolar Cortex Improves Creative Analogical Reasoning and Facilitates Conscious Augmentation of State Creativity in Verb Generation” has been published online in the journal Cerebral Cortex and can be read here..

Creative thinking requires more checks and balances that you’d think

Creative thinking requires the simultaneous activation of two distinct networks in the brain, the associative and normative networks. Higher connectivity between these completely different systems of your brain leads to new, original and useful ideas, University of Haifa research concludes.

Creativity is our ability to think in new and original ways to solve problems. But not every new idea can be called “creative.” If it’s not fully applicable, an idea is just considered to be unreasonable. Looking into how our brain can turn out both of these types of ideas, Dr. Naama Mayseless concludes that  “creative thinking apparently requires ‘checks and balances’.”

Image via sciencedaily

The team hypothesized that for a new idea or concept to be produced, two different — and perhaps contradictory — brain networks must work together. So in order to verify this, they organized two tests; in the first one, respondents were give half a minute to come up with a new, original and unexpected idea for the use of different objects. Answers that were provided infrequently were given a high score for originality, while frequently-given ones scored low.

For the second part of the tests, the volunteers were asked to give the best characteristic and accepted description of the same objects. Just as the first test, they had half a minute to complete this task.

During these tests, all subjects’ brain activity was recorded with the use of an fMRI machine, to record how the brain behaved while it was working on the answers.

The researchers found increased brain activity in an “associative” region among participants whose originality was high. This region, which includes the anterior medial brain areas, mainly works in the background when a person is not concentrating, similar to daydreaming.

But this region doesn’t operate alone. For the answer to be original (i.e. not unreasonable) another brain network had to activate in collaboration with the associative region — the administrative control region. The authors describe it as a more “conservative” part of the brain, that handles social norms and rules. The researchers also found that the stronger the connection between these two areas when they activated — the greater the level of originality of the answer.

“On the one hand, there is surely a need for a region that tosses out innovative ideas, but on the other hand there is also the need for one that will know to evaluate how applicable and reasonable these ideas are. The ability of the brain to operate these two regions in parallel is what results in creativity. It is possible that the most sublime creations of humanity were produced by people who had an especially strong connection between the two regions,” the researchers concluded.

This research was conducted as part of Dr. Naama Mayseless’ doctoral disertation, and was supervised by Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory from the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa in collaboration with Dr. Ayelet Eran from the Rambam Medical Center.

Photo: flickr

Taking a walk encourages creativity more than sitting

Photo: flickr

Photo: flickr

If you’ve ever read the biographies of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, you may have noticed that one of their favorite pastimes was taking long and relaxing walks. For instance, Charles Darwin had a fixed schedule that demanded he begins his morning rituals with a walk upon waking at 7:00, and only after take breakfast. Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, Immanuel Kant, just to name a few. These were all great men that excelled in their creativity and problem solving, and though each may have left their mark on posterity in a different manner, they all share a common trait – no day went by without taking a walk.

Now, I’m not saying walking in parks all day is going to make you a champion, but according to a recent study  published by the American Psychological Association, when the task at hand requires some imagination, taking a walk may lead to more creative thinking than plain ol’ sitting.

“Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking,” said Marily Oppezzo, PhD, of Santa Clara University. “With this study, we finally may be taking a step or two toward discovering why.”

The power of a simple walk down the park

Previous studies showed that regular aerobic exercise may protect cognitive abilities, however Oppezzo and colleagues showed that even mild physical activity can have significant positive effects on cognition and creativity in particular. Multiple experiments were conducted involving 176 participants, who were divided into walkers and sitters.

They found that those who walked instead of sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair consistently gave more creative responses on tests commonly used to measure creative thinking, such as thinking of alternate uses for common objects and coming up with original analogies to capture complex ideas. When asked to solve problems with a single answer, however, the walkers fell slightly behind those who responded while sitting.

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What’s remarkable is how more creative the walkers were. Of the students tested for creativity while walking, 100 percent came up with more creative ideas in one experiment, while 95 percent, 88 percent and 81 percent of the walker groups in the other experiments had more creative responses compared with when they were sitting. Of course, stating a wacky idea didn’t get you points – all answers, though the questions called for originality, had to be feasible and respect certain imposed constraints.

The experiments were thought such that the participant’s creativity was engaged. For one experiment, the researchers put each of the 48 participants alone in a small room facing a blank wall – this ensured minimum external stimuli that might interfere with their creative process. They were then asked to think of as many alternative uses they could for a common object. For example, for the word “button,” a person might say “as a doorknob on a dollhouse.”

With a different group of 48 students, some sat for two different sets of the tests, some walked during two sets of the test and some walked and then sat for the tests.

“This confirmed that the effect of walking during the second test set was not due to practice,” Oppezzo said. “Participants came up with fewer novel ideas when they sat for the second test set after walking during the first. However, they did perform better than the participants who sat for both sets of tests, so there was a residual effect of walking on creativity when people sat down afterward. Walking before a meeting that requires innovation may still be nearly as useful as walking during the meeting.”

A novel idea is considered to be an idea that hadn’t been encountered in a response from any of the participants, regardless of the group. Students who walked in another experiment doubled their number of novel responses compared with when they were sitting.

[RELATED] Ourdoor activities enhance creativity and problem solving abilities

But is it exposure to nature or simply being outside that causes these cognitive benefits? To see if walking in itself, no matter the environment, leads to the observed benefits  the researchers devised  another experiment with 40 participants and compared responses of students walking outside or inside on a treadmill with the responses of students being pushed in a wheelchair outside and sitting inside. Again, the students who walked, whether indoors or outside, came up with more creative responses than those either sitting inside or being pushed in a wheelchair outdoors. “While being outdoors has many cognitive benefits, walking appears to have a very specific benefit of improving creativity,” said Oppezzo.

There you have it. Tomorrow, maybe you’d like to have your coffee with you outside.

The study was published in APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 

Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Musical training doesn’t make you smarter, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important

Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Playing an instrument comes with a wide range of benefits, especially for children. It teaches them discipline and how to focus on an important task at hand. It also fuels creativity. There’s a well constructed myth, however, that playing an instrument makes you smarter, as in it improves your cognitive abilities somehow. This idea is so entrenched that nearly 80% of American adults agree with this statement. Where did this notion come from and is true in the first place? A study from Harvard University performed a thorough analysis of currently published literature on the matter and after making a study of their own, they concluded that there’s no significant cognitive benefits following music lessons.

The “Mozart Effect”

It all started with a study published in 1993 in the journal Nature which concluded that listening to music improves temporal and spatial reasoning. The findings – which remained known under the label the ” Mozart effect” –  were then featured in the press all over the world, as confirmation of something everybody thought they already knew inside. Follow-up studies later debunked the 1993 study’s methodology, but somehow people hanged-on to this false notion. Nevertheless other researchers became interested in going further with this by studying whether taking music lessons can improve cognitive skills.

So far, there have been dozens of studies that explore whether and how music and cognitive skills might be connected.  Samuel Mehr, a Harvard Graduate School of Education(HGSE) doctoral student, looked at most of the scientific literature on the subject, but could only find five studies that used randomized trials – otherwise there’s a big chance causal relationships in cognitive behavior may become skewed. Of the five, only one showed an unambiguously positive effect, and it was so small — just a 2.7 point increase in IQ after a year of music lessons — that it was barely enough to be statistically significant.

“The experimental work on this question is very much in its infancy, but the few published studies on the topic show little evidence for ‘music makes you smarter,’” Mehr said.

Playing for the love of music, not for the love of brains

Mehr and colleagues decided they would make their own study on the subject and recruited 29 parents and 4-year-old children from the Cambridge area. Before starting, the children’s vocabulary skills as well as the parents’ musical aptitudes were evaluated. Then, each parent-child pair was assigned to one of two classes: either musical lessons or visual art lessons.

“We wanted to test the effects of the type of music education that actually happens in the real world, and we wanted to study the effect in young children, so we implemented a parent-child music enrichment program with preschoolers,” Mehr said. “The goal is to encourage musical play between parents and children in a classroom environment, which gives parents a strong repertoire of musical activities they can continue to use at home with their kids.”

Also, the researchers wanted to really look deeper into any effects musical lessons might have on cognition, so they looked for improvements in other specific areas of cognition, not just the standard IQ score.

“Instead of using something general, like an IQ test, we tested four specific domains of cognition,” Mehr said. “If there really is an effect of music training on children’s cognition, we should be able to better detect it here than in previous studies, because these tests are more sensitive than tests of general intelligence.”

The assessments showed that children who received music training performed slightly better at one spatial task, while those who received visual arts training performed better at the other. Still, only 29 children were involved in the study and since the effects were really slight, a statistical irrelevance resulted. So, the study was replicated with 45 parents and children, this time half of them received musical trained, while the other didn’t – not even visual art lessons.

Just as in the first study, Mehr said, there was no evidence that music training offered any cognitive benefit. Even when the results of both studies were pooled to allow researchers to compare the effect of music training, visual arts training, and no training, there was no sign that any group outperformed the others.

“There were slight differences in performance between the groups, but none were large enough to be statistically significant,” Mehr said. “Even when we used the finest-grained statistical analyses available to us, the effects just weren’t there.”

Music doesn’t make you smarter – but it’s no less important!

Parents who think of sending their kids to musical lessons just to make them smarter, should think again. If this is their only goal in mind, they’re wasting good money and time. However, listening or playing music isn’t about getting smarter. There’s much more to it – clearly there are benefits to learning to play an instrument. Playing an instrument improves self-confidence, social cohesion, discipline and nurtures the soul.

“There’s a compelling case to be made for teaching music that has nothing to do with extrinsic benefits,” he said. “We don’t teach kids Shakespeare because we think it will help them do better on the SATs. We do it because we believe Shakespeare is important.

“Music is an ancient, uniquely human activity. The oldest flutes that have been dug up are 40,000 years old, and human song long preceded that,” he said. “Every single culture in the world has music, including music for children. Music says something about what it means to be human, and it would be crazy not to teach this to our children.”

The findings were reported in a paper published in the journal PLoS One.




Measuring creativity through spontaneous single spoken words

creativityWhat is creativity? Although definitions vary, one might be inclined to say that creativity, ultimately, is anything that has to do with ideas – generating them, building them, transforming them into reality. There are a lot of tests that measure creativity and chances are if you’ve been to a job interview recently you might have actually been handed out such a test. Michigan State University neuroscientist  may have found the quickest test to measure a person’s creativity, while in the process of studying what sparks creativity and what brain processes are involved.

The researchers measured the effectiveness of “noun-verb” test, an experiment virtually anyone can do. For their work, the researchers asked 193 participants to quickly respond with a verb after a noun was shown. For the noun “chair,” for example, instead of answering with the standard verb “sit,” a participant might answer “stand,” as in to stand on a chair to change a light bulb. The verb needs to be related to the noun and non-nonsensical replies were not considered. The test only lasts two minutes.

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After the test, each participant was engaged in a more in-depth creative process  like story writing, drawing or recalling their creative achievements in real life.  Those who gave creative answers in the noun-verb test were indeed the most creative as measured by the more in-depth methods. This suggests the noun-verb test, or a future variation, could be successful by itself in measuring creativity.

“We want to understand what makes creativity tick, what the specific processes are in the brain,” said  MSU neuroscientist Jeremy Gray. “Innovation doesn’t just come for free — nobody learns their ABCs in kindergarten and suddenly writes a great novel or poem, for example. People need to master their craft before they can start to be creative in interesting ways.”

Next, the researchers plan on repeating the experiment with the participants in a MRI while brain activity is recorded. Hopefully parts of the brain or certain mechanics that come into play during the creative process might be identified. If anything, the findings as they are could help people from professors, to students, to entrepreneurs enhance their creative flow by making simple exercises such as the noun-verb test. Better tests, like the creativity tests at interviews, might also be devised based on the noun-verb experiment.

“Ultimately, this work could allow us to create better educational and training programs to help people foster their creativity,” Gray said.

Results were published in the journal Behavior Research Methods