Scientists Enhance Creativity Through Brain Stimulation

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Scientists have recently managed to achieve some pretty remarkable things by stimulating different bits of our brains. They have switched consciousness on and off, modified the learning process, boosted memory performance and even induced lucid dreaming. Now, scientists have demonstrated that it is possible to enhance creativity in healthy adults with this non-invasive technique.

Using a low dose of electrical current, scientists successfully enhanced a natural type of brain wave that is prominent during wakeful relaxation, such as daydreaming. This boosted creativity in participants by an average of more than 7%, as demonstrated by a well-established test.

Not only is this the first study to demonstrate that enhancing this specific pattern of waves triggers changes in a complex behavior, but it may also pave way for the development of novel treatments for individuals with certain psychiatric illnesses, like depression, where impairments in these waves are thought to play a role. The findings have been published in Cortex.

First discovered back in the 1920s by the inventor of the electroencephalogram, alpha waves are a specific type of neural oscillation—rhythmic patterns of electricity produced by neurons that propagate through the brain. These waves, which occur between frequencies of 8 to 12 Hertz, are prominent when we shut our eyes and decouple ourselves from the outside world, like when we meditate. As soon as we become alert, these waves disappear and others at higher frequencies begin to dominate.

These observations led scientists to speculate that alpha waves could be associated with creativity, so researchers at UNC School of Medicine decided to design a study to test out this idea. They started off by using computer simulations and various other experiments to identify the best way to enhance these oscillations, which indicated that 30 minutes of stimulation at 10-Hertz should be effective.

The team then enrolled 20 healthy adults into the study and placed three different electrodes on their scalps, one on each side and one at the back. For the first trial, they gave the volunteers sham stimulation that only lasted for 5 minutes. For the next 25 minutes the participants engaged in a comprehensive test of creativity called the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, in which participants were given a fraction of an illustration and asked to complete it however they wish.  

Next, participants did the same thing, but they were stimulated for the full 30 minutes, although they were unaware which was the control and which was the real stimulation. After comparing test scores, the scientists found that during the 30-minute stimulation, participants achieved scores that were an average of 7.4 percentage points higher than during the control stimulation, which is a significant difference in this particular test.

To ensure they were not simply exerting general effects on the brain, rather than specifically enhancing alpha oscillations, they repeated the experiment using 40-Hertz stimulation. This time, they observed no increase in creativity.

But the idea behind this research is not to develop a technique to boost creativity in everyday life; the scientists want to help people with mental conditions, such as depression and schizophrenia, since some lines of evidence hint that impaired alpha oscillations could play a role in these illnesses. 

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