Recommended reading: Wired to Create

Reviewed by Marni Amsellem, Ph.D.

A great read for anyone who wants to understand the science behind creativity should check out Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire (2015, Perigee). In addition to delving into what it means to be creative, the book summarizes current research on creativity from multiple disciplines, including psychology and neuroscience. The authors make this converging research accessible while piquing curiosity into why creativity is actually quite complex and messy. The focus of this blog post will be how the book addresses where creativity arises from in the brain and how it comes to be. Here is some of what the authors feature about the creative process from this approach:

Creativity unfolds in an interactive process in the brain
Creativity is complex and involves multiple brain regions. The book describes changes in thinking over time, from creativity being considered to be a “right brain” role to it being a process that involves many systems, brain regions, and emotions which all work together.

There has been a shift in how science views a wandering mind
Much of the focus in cognitive neuroscience, for years, had been on what happens when the brain is actively involved in processing information and sensory experiences from the outside world. The “inner experience” had typically been conceptualized as being “noise”. It wasn’t until some outside-the-box scientists decided to investigate what happens when the mind wanders that the default network of the brain was discovered. This conceptual shift has opened up new thinking into what happens in our inner experience as well as how this is the core of what makes us all unique. These processes essentially shape our outlook and how we make sense of the world. This “imagination network”engages many brain regions in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes. This network “enables us to construct personal meaning from our experiences, remember the past, think about the future, imagine other perspectives and scenarios, comprehend stories, and reflect on mental and emotional states (our and others).”

Attention and planning also necessary for creativity
The regions of our brain which help us attend to stimuli work in conjunction with the imagination network to help us direct and focus our creative thoughts and filter out external distractions. Executive control and attention processes helping us plan future actions, monitor our use of strategy, and problem-solve.

How different regions work together
Both networks described above (the imagination and executive attention network) work together (think of what a “cognitive tango” might look like) to solve tasks such as evaluation, planning, and problem-solving. The authors report findings from brain imaging research of individuals conducted while engaged in a creative endeavor. At first, the scans suggest that the imagination network is highly active (the individual being in a state of absorption in the task). Over time, and as one interacts with others or new situations, the executive action network becomes more active. As the authors describe, “Creative people are particularly good at exercising flexibility in activating and deactivating the brain networks that in most people tend to be at odds with each other. In doing so, they’re able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought- cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous. Even on a neurological level, creativity is messy.”

Neurotransmitter involvement
The authors describe the likely role of dopamine in creativity. Essentially, dopamine facilitating our openness and our “psychological plasticity”, our tendency to be flexible in both thinking and action. When we are more open, we are better suited to exploring that which is unknown and could require novel approaches for engagement. Dopamine increases our desire to explore and seek reward in doing so.

Don’t chase creativity; rather, let the creativity flow
It can be counter-productive to try very hard to be creative. Like many things, creativity will strike when it strikes. The authors advise, “Learning to embrace and enjoy the creative process itself, with all its peaks and valleys, can yield immense personal and publicly recognized rewards.”

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