Friday, December 6, 2013

The creative brain

Everybody knows that the left hemisphere of the brain is realistic, analytical, organized and logical, and the right hemisphere is creative, emotional, and intuitive. But in reality there is no such thing. These are only myths. In the early days of neuroscience some people claim that there are specific centers for creativity in the brain - like the temporal lobe, while other voices said is critical the interconnectivity between the two hemispheres made by the corpus callosum. But there are more speculations than scientific data. So, is there a place in the brain for creativity? And why should I be interested in the answer of these questions?

The latest findings from neuroscience suggest that the right brain/left brain distinction is not correct when it comes to understanding how creativity works in the brain. Creativity does not involve a single brain region or a single side of the brain. The entire creative process from preparation to incubation to illumination and verification consists of many interacting cognitive processes and emotions. Creation is a multi-step process not “an insight”. It takes time, sometimes weeks or even months, and depends by many factors, starting with your experiences and ending with the environment where you create. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you are actually trying to create, different brain networks are recruited to handle the task. Furthermore, many of these brain networks play as a team to get the job done, and recruit brain structures from both the left and right hemisphere.
And now I will be more specific. Let’s talk about some brain networks. Converging research do suggest that creativity recruits brain regions that are involved in many stuff like daydreaming, imagining the future, remembering personal memories, making meaning, and social cognition. It is known that all these processes are implemented by a specific neural network called Default network distributed on vast areas within the prefrontal, parietal and temporal lobes (see the picture bellow with yellow the Default network). Different studies documented that this network is responsible for constructing mental simulations based on personal experiences, thinking about the future, and generally when imaging alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present. It’s interesting that this Default network is associated with everything that the subjective Self entails. Hence, it is involved in introspection – when people are asked to describe their personality traits or present emotional state (disgust, fear, sadness, fury, happiness), to recall a past personal experience or to talk about their attitudes or preferences. This network is emotional by excellence, being implicated in the evaluation of objects described as positive/desirable or negative/undesirable, and the evaluation of emotionally-charged movie sequences. Also it is involved in social cognition. Studies revealed that one common element between the processes occurring within the Default network is the analysis of complex interactions between humans perceived as social, interactive and emotional in the same way as we perceive ourselves to be. It is involved in deducing the mental states of other people and is active when people make attributions regarding another person’s behavior, when they form a first impression about someone or when playing competitive games against another person (but not against a computer).
Well, imagistic studies (using fMRI) made on jazz musicians and rappers engaging in creative improvisation revealed that this Default network is highly active. When you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities is good to increase activation in this network. So, let’s called this Default network the Imagination network.


Now I introduce to you another brain network - the Attentional Control network (see the picture above with blue). It is recruited when a task requires that the spotlight of attention is focused like a laser beam. This network is active when you’re concentrating on something challenging, or engaging in complex problem solving and reasoning that puts heavy demands on your working memory. This network is like a highway facilitating communication between frontal cortex and the posterior part of the brain. During the creative process is good to reduce activation of the Attentional Control network – or the inner critic – but, as we will see, not completely.
And here is the interesting part. Usually when you try to fix something, to solve a problem your Default network is OFF and the Attentional Control network is ON. But studies using fMRI revealed that creative people when attempting to solve a problem are able to activate both networks simultaneously, screening the environment and also letting open the door to the inner Self. This duality is critical. Why? Because an hyperactive Default network provides maximum flexibility in thinking and leads to creativity but is also a hallmark of mental illness such as manic-depression and schizophrenia. If you didn’t know, many of the artists were suffering by these diseases, especially by the first one. An hyperactive Default network gives you wings but also destroys you. In order to be really fruitful, the creative process has to be anchored in reality. You must be able to critically analyze the results of the creative process and to judge their relevance. But also to protect yourself, or in other words, to remain connected with this world. And this is done by the Attentional Control network which acts like a film critic.
            The good news is that both networks can be developed. The Default network actually grows if you exposed yourself to new experiences, but also can be trained by some meditation techniques like mindfulness. Attentional Control network can also be trained by using specific cognitive exercises like focused attention and working memory tasks. Knowing how your brain works gives you the advantage of choosing the wright path of personal development.

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