Monday Mornings with Madison

Cultivating the Creative Spark – Part 1

Word Count: 1,332
Estimated Read Time: 5 min.

Great Minds.  Abundant Creativity.

Marie Curie.  Bill Gates.  Benjamin Franklin.  Barbara McClintock.  Pablo Picasso.  Leonardo DaVinci.  Georgia O’Keefe.  Orville and Wilbur Wright.  Ada Lovelace.  Alexander Graham Bell.  Walt Disney.   Florence Nightingale.  Louis Pasteur.  Hippocrates.  Sir Isaac Newton.  Amelia Earhart.  Michelangelo.  Thomas Alva Edison.  Steve Jobs.  Ludwig Beethoven.  Ada Yonath.  William Shakespeare.  Linda B. Buck.

What do all of these people have in common?  All of the names on this list are considered highly creative people who made great contributions to society.  And, this list of two dozen names is but a drop in the vast ocean of people deserving recognition for their creative gifts to humanity.   From inventors, scientists and scholars to musicians, artists and authors, people across a spectrum of disciplines have been using their imagination to elevate and innovate culture and society for thousands of years.

While other living creatures can build things and even exhibit the ability to learn and solve problems, like birds build a nest and ants construct elaborate networks of tunnels, only human beings have the capacity to fashion something new, totally original and highly valuable… things that solve problems, extend life and enhance the life experience.  The human mind has created everything from the circular saw, aquarium and liquid paper to the telescope, thermoelectric power generator, and computer algorithm.  Creativity is an inherent part of being human.  Of all the many billions of living creatures in the world, only human beings have sequenced genomes, invented telescopes and microscopes – to see what the naked eye cannot see — and composed uplifting arias and sonatas.  Yet, while most folks would agree that they have moments of ingenuity and sparks of imagination, few think of themselves as creative geniuses.   For many, creativity is considered a genetic gift bestowed only to certain people.

That begs the question:  are some people born with more “creativity”, just as some people are born with more hair?  Or, is creativity a skill that can be acquired and cultivated?  Or, is everyone apportioned an equal amount of creative ability?  Until recently, these questions were not answerable.  But, science has now begun to understand better how human creativity works and where within the brain it takes place.

The Good News:  Creativity is not Exclusive.

Here is the good news about creativity.  Not only is it something that is inherently human, but creativity exists in every human being.   You are creative.  I’m creative.  We are all creative!  According to an article in Time Magazine’s special edition on The Science of Creativity, “We’re all born with more or less the same brain, and we all use it in more or less the same way…. Somewhere in the 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections they form are the lines of neural code that gave us The Nutcracker, Huckleberry Finn, the Saturn V rock and every other bit of artistry or invention human beings have ever summoned up.”  Creativity is not an exclusive gift bestowed on some and not others.  Rather, it is ubiquitous, spurred just by moving matter around… a matter of clever rearranging of elements, concepts or ideas to find new approaches, angles or ways of putting them together.  The more people allow themselves to explore options, new avenues and ways of rearranging things, the more “aha moments” they have.

Where does Creativity Happen?

Scientists have been studying what happens when a person’s brain is creative and where in the brain that activity occurs.  Experimental Psychologist Mark Beeman at Northwestern University and John Kounios, the Director of the Ph.D. program in applied cognitive and brain sciences at Drexel University investigated the creative process.  The used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and high-density electroencephalography (EEG) to see inside the brain as it sorted through a problem that required creativity.

For the experiment, they used a simple remote association test in which they would give each test subject three words and ask what word could be paired with each to make another word.  For example, melon, spout and bottle.  All three words could be paired with “water”.  Watermelon.  Water spout.  Water bottle.  To reach that answer, a person could go about it analytically, testing out word after word to see which works with all three.  A different and far easier approach was for the person to just stare at the three words for a while and the word “water” would just come to mind intuitively.  It was an ‘aha’ moment.

Interestingly, when people came to the right word intuitively, there was a moment of surprise (Got it…) followed immediately by a sense of pleasure or satisfaction.  During the test, each subject was asked to press a button when they found the right pairing and then press another button to indicate if they found the right answer analytically or intuitively.  In all cases when the test subject found the answer intuitively, the EEG picked up a burst of gamma wave oscillations above the right ear about 1/3 of a second before they pressed the button.  The fMRI showed that activity was taking place in the right inferior-superior temporal gyrus.  That is one spot in the brain where creativity happens, and the creative spark takes only a moment.

However, it isn’t just the brain’s activity that plays a part in creativity.  The wiring of the brain also plays a big part in creativity.  Most people have about one million bundles of ‘wires” or pathways that run along similar routes within each hemisphere of the brain.  What is unique is that there are not as many connections that cross from one hemisphere of the brain to the other.  Those who have more of those cross-hemisphere connections are likely to be more creative.  Those connections bring more information from others parts of the brain to focus on solving a problem or rearranging information.  So, physiologically, some people are born with slightly more potential or propensity for creativity than others.  (By the way, this has nothing to do with intelligence.)

However, there is even more to how creativity occurs in the brain.  It doesn’t happen in just one part of the brain.  The brain has many redundant systems.  Other research indicates that creativity utilizes multiple parts of the brain during the imaginative process.  There are three separate cognitive networks that serve up creativity.

Stop 1 – Executive-attention Network – This is the main creative center, where studying, reading and practicing any skill such as language or music happens.  This is where poetry and songs are born and where sculptures are envisioned.  This network connects the prefrontal cortex (where info is gathered and absorbed) with the posterior parietal cortex (where data streams get integrated).

Stop 2 – Imagination Network – This is where the brain dreams up trying totally new things based on info coming from the Executive-attention Network.  At this point, the medial temporal region (which handles memory) and the posterior cingulate (which handles planning and daydreaming) kick in.

Stop 3 – Salience Network – This is where the brain toggles between the anterior insula (which monitors data from the surrounding world) and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (which helps shut out some of the input of the world in order to concentrate on what is needed).

But, the creative train doesn’t stop at all three locations each time it is generating insights.  It depends on what the creative activity is.  The parts of the brain activated when playing a rehearsed piece of music is very different than the parts of the brain used when the brain is improvising and trying out new pieces of music.  So creativity is a complex process utilizing various parts of the brain to generate new and interesting ideas.

Given that everyone’s brain is wired similarly and functions similarly, why are some people more creative than others?  Science has not answered that question yet.  But clearly everyone has the capacity to be creative in one way or another.   It is a matter of connecting old dots in a new way.   Stay tuned next week as we explore ways to boost our creative juices.

Quote of the Week

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” Steve Jobs


© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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