There’s plenty we don’t know about our brain and its inner workings. We just, for example, found out that a specific protein within our brain – the Arc protein – acts a heck of a lot like a virus; in fact, we might owe our memory functions to a 400-million-year-old infection by a virus-like precursor.
Now, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the brains of creative people are wired quite differently to those of a less mentally acrobatic variety. Specifically, the team – led by Harvard University – “identified a brain network associated with creative ability comprised of regions within default, salience, and executive systems.”
The default system is associated with both spontaneous thought and ponderings that drift. The salience system, on the other hand, tries to filter through the information we’re bombarded with at every second in order to work out what should be prioritized. As explained by The Guardian, the executive system activates when we zero in on the minute of specific thoughts.
Each of these three systems can be found in various parts of the brain, and their ability to communicate in this regard has never been defined before, at least not in such detail. In fact, like many brain systems, these often don’t work cooperatively with each other, but actively try to outcompete each other, in a manner of speaking.
After all, you can’t have a wandering mind and a focused thought at the same time. Unless, of course, you’re particularly creative: this study concludes that “highly creative people are characterized by the ability to simultaneously engage these large-scale brain networks”, despite this conflict.
As ever, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were the key to the latest discovery. Tracking the flow of blood within the brains of 163 participants – which reveals what parts of the brain are most active at any one point in time – they observed how these systems lit up while creative tasks were undertaken.
The team was particularly interested in divergent thinking, which “measures people’s ability to generate solutions to open-ended problems.” This could involve repurposing a pre-existing object for a new task, like turning a paper clip into a lockpick.
These tasks appeared to activate the three aforementioned systems in the brains of the participants. The better the neural connections between these segments, the better the participants performed in the tasks.
So, it’s safe to say that creative people can use these systems in tandem better than anyone else. That’s not all: the team then used older MRI data on these systems to work backward. They found that, based on the connectivity alone, they could work out how “original” the ideas and behaviors of the people would be.
A previous study back in 2017 found that the brains of creative people are also better connected between hemispheres, which added to the insurmountable pile of evidence suggesting that the “right brain-left brain concept” is fairly nonsensical.
Using advanced MRI techniques, this separate group of researchers found that the connections between the left and right hemispheres of creative people were far more commonplace across the brain’s frontal lobe, a multipurpose segment that deals with language, problem solving, memory, communication, and more.
“People’s capacity to generate creative ideas is central to technological and cultural progress,” the authors of the new study point out.
With that in mind, this study, and other likes it, represent a welcome illumination of intellectual shadows; a step forward into understanding what drives us – and civilization – into the future.