Creative people's brains work differently

April 3, 2022

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Creative people's brains work differently

A new study shows that highly creative people’s brains appear to work differently, using an atypical approach that enables them to make distant connections more quickly, bypassing the “hubs” seen in less-creative brains.

Exceptionally creative visual artists and scientists volunteered to undergo functional MRI brain imaging, giving researchers in psychiatry, behavioral sciences and psychology a look at how regions of the brain connected and interacted when called upon to perform tasks that put creative thinking to the test.

What the researchers say: “Our results showed that highly creative people had unique brain connectivity that tended to stay off the beaten path,” said the lead author of the study which was published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. “While non-creatives tended to follow the same routes across the brain, the highly creative people made their own roads.”

Although the concept of creativity has been studied for decades, little is known about its biological bases, and even less is understood about the brain mechanisms of exceptionally creative people, the researchers explained. This uniquely designed study used an IQ-matched comparison group to identify markers of creativity, not just intelligence. The researchers analyzed how connections were made between brain regions globally and locally.

“Exceptional creativity was associated with more random connectivity at the global scale – a pattern that is less ‘efficient’ but would appear helpful in linking distant brain nodes to each other,” they said. “The patterns in more local brain regions varied, depending on whether people were performing tasks. Surprisingly, the highly creative people had more efficient local processing at rest, but less efficient local connectivity when performing a task demanding ‘thinking outside the box.’”

Using airline route maps for comparison, the researchers said the creatives’ brain activity is akin to skipping flights to connecting hubs to get to a small city.

“In terms of brain connectivity, while everyone else is stuck in a three-hour layover at a major airport, the highly creatives take private planes directly to a distant destination,” they added. “This more random connectivity may be less efficient much of the time, but the architecture enables brain activity to ‘take a road less traveled’ and make novel connections.”

“The fact that creative types had more efficient local brain connectivity, but only under certain conditions, may relate to their expertise. Consistent with some of our prior findings, they may not need to work as hard as other smart people to perform certain creative tasks,” the lead author said.

So, what? The important finding from this study is that it confirms a lot of prior research. We knew, for example that certain kinds of creativity were inherited. If you had highly creative parents (or even grandparents) your brain would probably work differently to that of other people. Your upbringing would then determine the direction of that creativity.

We now know what is different in the creative’s brain and why these people may not be good at routine tasks or repetitive work—under certain circumstances they simply think too fast. As previous research has shown, this leads to them getting easily bored and frequently annoyed at people who don’t immediately see what to the creative brain is simply “obvious.”

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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