You are all creative because neuroscience says so

By Henri Skinner


What comes to mind when you hear the word creative?

Growing up, children learn to express themselves through fairytale stories, finger paint crafts, and circle time dedicated for asking unusual questions. Everything they are told to be is NEW and ACCESSIBLE.

No child has ever doubted their ability to think new thoughts.

The sad reality is that as people grow older they are less likely to define themselves as creative. This in part may be because of the professions they fall into that aren’t labelled as creative. Creativity becomes a mystical gift that only some lucky people have inherited and keep locked up in art museums and music halls. Whatever the cause, neuroscience argues that creativity is greater than careers, but that it is an integral part of our physiology, of ourselves!

A common way to describe creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel and appropriate.

Neuroscientists use this definition in order to ask questions such as
“Is there such a thing as creative an non-creative people?”
“What about creative and non creative tasks?”

PSA on creativity research

Let’s get real folks. Creativity has a bit of a branding problem in the realm of a laboratory setting. The main problem is the fact that testing for creativity usually involved testing a pool of “creative people” and “non-creative people” as a control. These distinctions are usually decided by the career choices of people which IS SO BAD. It implies that,

1. There are certain careers that do not necessitate creative thought
2. People are holistically defined by their careers

The research I will focus on instead use “creative” and “non-creative” tasks in order to create a basis for comparison. Cool? Cool. Here we go.

Background Information

The brain is split up into four different sections called “lobes” that all have their own purposes. The temporal. occipital, and parietal lobe all are key in memory and perception. They are the lobes that compile all kinds of sensory information such as your sight, your experiences, your sense of hearing, etc. They are basically the data source for your frontal lobe.

Your frontal lobe is basically the boss of higher cognitive thinking. It takes all the information from the other three lobes and integrates them into complex processing like emotional thoughts, decision making, and creativity. Because of this unique job of the frontal lobe, the rest of the information I’ll be sharing will be about specific experiments on it’s activity.

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 7.15.44 PM.pngTesting the Frontal Lobe

sweet so we have the tool! now how do we use it?

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Image from Thirteen of Clubs

Anna Abraham discusses how hard it could be to contextualize creativity and along with conclusions made by neuroscientists Kroger and Rutter, created tests that highlight creativities definition of producing information that is both “unusual” and “appropriate”

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Their fMRI studies on “conceptual expansion” found that there were specific places in the brain that were the most active when trying to complete creative tasks. These area regions are the inferior frontal context, the temporopolar cortex and the frontopolar cortex (FPC). Neat! We found them! What is even more neat is that these ares of the brain are NOT just exclusive to creative thought. In Abraham’s paper she quotes that “the lateral FPC is not specifically limited to semantic aspects of information processing” and that “both this brain region and the anterior IFG are sensitive to the degree of associate strength between concepts with greater brain activity elicited by wider semantic distance.” AKA, these creative processes are defined as choosing and using the right kind of knowledge in our brain databases in order to create new ideas. The results of these different research avenues show activity in these brain regions is not limited to the “artist” but are actually a part of everyday thinking.

Conclusion

Abraham restates that there is no “qualitative distinctiveness” between creative and normative aspects of cognition in the brain. In a greater understanding, we cannot truly put creativity in a special box for special people, but understand it as a mechanism integral to any profession, any person. So the next time someone tells you they simply aren’t creative, you can argue that if they have functioning brain, they have every capacity to be creative.


Cited Sources

Abraham, Anna. “Creative Thinking as Orchestrated by Semantic Processing vs. Cognitive Control Brain Networks.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (2014): 95. PMC. Web. 27 May 2017.

Kröger, S., Rutter, B., Stark, R., Windmann, S., Hermann, C., and Abraham, A. (2012). Using a shoe as a plant pot: neural correlates of passive conceptual expansion. Brain Res. 1430, 52–61. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.10.031

Rutter, B., Kröger, S., Stark, R., Schweckendiek, J., Windmann, S., Hermann, C., et al. (2012b). Can clouds dance? Neural correlates of passive conceptual expansion using a metaphor processing task: implications for creative cognition. Brain Cogn. 78, 114–122. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2011.11.002

Rutter, B., Kröger, S., Hill, H., Windmann, S., Hermann, C., and Abraham, A. (2012a). Can clouds dance? Part 2, An ERP investigation of passive conceptual expansion. Brain Cogn. 80, 301–310. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.08.003

Kröger, S., Rutter, B., Stark, R., Windmann, S., Hermann, C., and Abraham, A. (2012). Using a shoe as a plant pot: neural correlates of passive conceptual expansion. Brain Res. 1430, 52–61. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2011.10.031


Featured Image from DrOONeil

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Multitasking: Smart or Not?

By Namphuong Nguyen


Everyday, we happen to be multitasking, even when we are not aware of it. From texting and talking to a friend, to even attempting to study for two classes at once. This unawareness is simple, mainly because we are so used to incorporating two tasks at once. Unfortunately, multitasking is not useful to any individual. Multitasking is thought of as an important step to productivity, however that thought was found to be wrong.

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This is definitely a shock, but studies have shown our brains are not designed for multitasking! Although we keep thinking we can, we actually – can’t. Our brain are designed to solely focus on one task, and when we multitask, our brain is scattered on thoughts of trying to do Task A and B simultaneously. There are executive control process in our brain which allows us to control of what we are doing. Our prefrontal cortex in our brain is primarily responsible for most of our concentration. There are two phases that occur: Goal Shifting Phase and Rule Activation Phase. Goal Shifting Phase is pretty much when we concentration on doing Task A instead of Task B, while Rule Activation Phase is when our brain focuses on turning off the rules it needs for the first task and turning on the rules on the next one. The duration of time it takes to go through the Rule Activation Phase gradually increases as we steadily believe that multitasking is beneficial. This is quite possibly the reason why going back and forth from one subject to the next seems increasingly difficult over the years because our brains were not designed for this process.

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Additionally, although there are short delays when it comes to the Rule Activation Phase, it can become dangerous at times. For example, when one is driving, a tenth of a second of using your phone can make the difference between life and death.

In an experiment of analyzing multitaskers, research has shown that multitaskers happened to have more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, the portion of the brain that is in charge of decision making and impulse control. Although this experiment did try to attempt the minimize the amounts of variables in this experiment, it is possible that not only just multitasking led to this increase in gray matter.

One reason we love to multitask is because our body releases the neurotransmitter dopamine every time we complete something, regardless of how large or small the accomplishment is. This encourages us to keep multitasking as this dopamine release makes us feel good.

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All in all, multitasking is evil and bad! Don’t do it, especially if you can avoid it! Try eliminating the possibilities that can cause you to multitask, and in the end your brain will be maximized to its fullest volume potential!

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Language learning and brain connectivity

By Ana Palma [original research by Chai, Berken, Barbeau, Soles, Callahan, Chen, & Klein, 2016]

Learning a second language is a task that comes more easily to some than others. Some may struggle to read and write while others may have a hard time speaking the new language. Whether it was learned in a classroom, online, or in an immersive environment, there is definitely variability among second language learners that makes the learning process different for each person. What accounts for these individual differences in learning a new language?

This is the question that was asked in a study done at McGill University, where the goal was to investigate the relationship between specific brain parts and the ability to learn a second language. Participants completed 12 weeks of intensive French immersion training and researchers found large individual differences in how much the native English-speaking participants improved their French skills.

The training was done in a classroom setting with instruction in French, conversation partners, and frequent contact with native speakers in Montreal, Quebec. If you’re trying to learn a second language quickly, this is definitely the kind of immersive environment you want. Participants were tested both before and after the training course for their language proficiency in English and French. Instead of using a traditional grading system, participants were assessed using spontaneous speech samples (having them talk about a day at the park or any random topic) and reading samples in both English and French before and after the course.

As predicted, some participants were more successful than others in learning a second language. Experimenters found that differences in brain connectivity (or brain anatomy) played a big factor. Using resting-state fMRI (a technique that measures brain activity while you are awake, but not doing a task), experimenters scanned the brains of the native English speakers before and after the French immersion course. By analyzing the brain in a resting state, they discovered that differences in improvement of reading and speaking were related to pre-existing differences in brain connectivity.

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Image: Center for Brain Health UT Dallas

Reading and speaking depended on different regions of the brain. Participants who showed greater improvement in their French speaking skills showed stronger connectivity in the medial inferior frontal gyrus. Participants who showed stronger reading skills had stronger connectivity between the visual word form area and a cluster in the left mid-superior temporal gyrus. Reading and speaking depended on different functional connections, but both skills followed the same principal: greater connectivity between specific areas of the brain before training was associated with better proficiency when learning a second language.

These results suggest that our ability to learn a second language can be predicted by the connectivity in language related regions of the brain. This is very significant for scientists and educators as they could potentially use these findings to determine who will be more successful in learning a second language. Or perhaps, neuroscientists could find a way to facilitate these connections, making the learning process smoother.


Featured Image:  http://www.sas.ac.uk/favicon.ico