Researchers Identify Unexpected Parts of Brain that Affect Creativity and Problem-Solving

Creativity is what drives us, yet how do we drive creativity? It affects our basic functioning, our intelligence, motivation, and personality, and is even used in some cases as a factor in mental health.

Psychologists have tried for years to discover just what gets our creative juices flowing, and there have been a few papers published on the topic, but little actual results. Recent research has identified a part of the brain that controls creativity. Previously thought to simply coordinate movement, the back of the brain also affects our creative, problem-solving abilities. It has also been determined that when the imaginative side of our brain is active, the more organized, functional side of our brain decreases in activity.

Investigators at Stanford University, collaborating between the School of Medicine and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, published their results on May 28 in Scientific Reports. Pictionary-based fMRI paradigm to study the neural correlates of spontaneous improvisation and figural creativity had 12 contributors who used the game of Pictionary in their research to determine the areas of the brain that are used in creative neural functions. According to lead author Dr. Allan Reiss, the research proves “that activation of the brain’s executive-control centers—the parts of the brain that enable you to plan, organize and manage your activities—is negatively associated with creative task performance.”

How was it done? Researchers found 30 individuals to sit for a test that involved both an MRI and a game. “Participants were engaged in the word-guessing game of Pictionary, using an MR-safe drawing tablet and no explicit instructions to be “creative.” Using the primary contrast of drawing a given word versus drawing a control word (zigzag), we observed increased engagement of cerebellum, thalamus, left parietal cortex, right superior frontal, left prefrontal and paracingulate/cingulate regions, such that activation in the cingulate and left prefrontal cortices negatively influenced task performance.”

Each participant (both men and women) was given 30 seconds to draw a “zigzag” and then another 30 seconds to draw each other word like “snore,” “vote,” “graduate,” and “salute” that necessitated greater creative thinking. Scans of the brain were taken at every step. These tests determined that the back of the brain was utilized when a person focused more on the harder words, the words that required some spontaneity and imagination to transform into picture form. The front of the brain was active more often when the participants were given simple words, especially “zigzag,” which simply requires basic organization and functioning skills.

The researchers made sure not to force creativity from their participants. Instead of saying “be creative,” they simply told participants to play the game as usual – simply draw the first thing that comes to mind when the word is seen. The 30 second time limit assisted in this assessment. It is understood that the more an individual thinks about something, and focuses on being creative, the less creative he ends up being. The point of the exercise was to discover how spontaneous creativity is shown within the brain, and the research done certainly accomplished that.