Scientists have found a way to jumpstart creativity using electrical currents. To do so, they temporarily suppressed a part of the brain called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a region that plays a role in memory and reasoning, to help the participants think “out of the box". However, this came at a cost.
The team's findings suggest that by suppressing the area of the brain that deals with reasoning, cognitive control, the processing of memory, and learning, a person's creativity can be increased. The study by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Goldsmiths University of London was recently published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.
“We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process,” lead author Dr Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, said in a statement. “It works fine most of the time, but fails spectacularly when we encounter new problems which require a new style of thinking – our past experience can indeed block our creativity. To break this mental fixation, we need to loosen up our learned rules.”
To test this out, they passed a weak electrical current through saline-soaked electrodes placed onto the scalp in order to either excite or suppress the DLPFC, depending on the direction of the current flow. In the study, the researchers asked 60 participants to solve a “matchstick problem” to test their creative problem-solving skills before and after the DLPFC was either suppressed, activated, or not stimulated at all.
When the DLPFC was temporarily suppressed, people exceeded at the hard problems more than those whose DLPFC was activated or unstimulated. This means a key part of our cognitive skills may actually dampen our ability to “think outside the box” and that suppressing it may help the brain to work around previously learned thinking patterns and to "loosen up our learned rules.”
However, there were drawbacks. The participants with a suppressed DLPFC also got worse at problems associated with a high working memory, such as when many items needed to be remembered at once.
“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.”
"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.”