Where exactly does creativity exist within the brain?

Where does creativity exist within the brain?

If you’re like most people, you probably grew up being taught that the right hemisphere of the brain is where creativity and subjects like art primarily reside.

This is a common fallacy, one which is important to understand if we’re to better understand how we can be more creative (or what might be blocking us from doing so).

The common fallacy of creativity being a predominantly right-brained activity originally stemmed from historical studies of the brain’s anatomy and how different parts of the brain control different, distinct physical reactions.

Writing is primarily believed to be a left-brain activity, whereas music awareness is believed to be managed by the right side of the brain. Damage critical parts of the left side of your brain and you’ll not only be unable to control your right hand, you’ll have difficulty trying to write anything at all. Or damage the right side of your brain and you’ll struggle to use your left hand, as well as to comprehend the various sounds and melodies that make up music.

Because intuition and imagination are believed to be primarily managed by the right hemisphere of the brain, a common misconception has shaped around that theory: we believe that creativity itself resides in the right side of the brain.

And yet, asking whether or not creativity belongs to the left or right side of the brain is like asking what flavor yellow is. Or how long short is. Or why the sky isn’t a sound.

Creativity doesn’t belong to any single part or region of the brain. It’s not an act or trait that can be associated with any particular part or region, and it’s certainly not an artistic endeavor to begin with.

Instead, creativity is the result of different sections of the brain interacting with one another in order to generate novel patterns through the use of existing ideas or concepts.

As Bradley Voytek, cognitive scientists at the University of California, San Diego, puts it:

“Imagine asking ‘where is video located in my computer?’ That doesn’t make any sense. Your monitor is required to see the video. Your graphics card is required to render the video. The software is required to generate the code for the video. But the 'video’ isn’t located anywhere in the computer.”

The same concept goes for creativity.

Creativity doesn’t exist in any one place of your brain, but instead exists as a function or many different parts of your brain working together to develop understanding or to create new concepts.

Everything from our short-term memory and the types of memory encodings our frontal lobes, temporal lobe, and thalamus deal with, to the way we interpret and emotionally respond to stimulation and memories in the amygdala, then mash it all together in various parts of the cortex and the hippocampus. There is a science to creativity in the brain, but it’s a complex one to say the least.

What we can be sure of is that creativity—the mental capacity to generate novel and useful ideas—doesn’t belong to any one part or region of the brain, nor does any set of networks within the brain belong to a creative process.

The reality is that creativity is the result of many different parts of our brain working together to shape and understand mental constructs as they relate to the real world.

Doodling or writing in a notebook might utilize many of the parts of your brain that reside in the left hemisphere, but trying to figure out how you might draw or write your way out of a complex, creative puzzle is going to also require logical thinking, short-term memory, and even subsets of mathematical skills.

Why does this matter? Because not only does creativity exists as a result of interactions within the brain, but also within your entire body.

The neural networks that make up you reach all the way from the top of your brain, down to your fingers and toes. It’s through this vast neural network that we, of course, shape our experiences, knowledge, and beliefs.

Therefore, the sensation of touch, sight, smell, sound, or hearing something can spark new ideas just as much as sitting and trying to think of them can.

Creativity exists within the experiences we have and the way we interpret and seek to understand them. If you want to find ways to be more creative, experience things that will activate different parts of your mind or body. Like writing about how the color blue tastes, traveling to the end of sound, or simply trying something new and different.

Multiplying what’s possible to imagine

In a regular deck of 52 playing cards there are 8.06e+67 possible combinations.

More than 80,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000,000, 000,000 possible ways to shuffle the deck.

If every human since the beginning of time were to shuffle a deck of cards at random, every hour of every day, the odds of any two people ever getting the same hand is astronomically close to impossible.

And that’s just 52 nodes of connection.

Your brain has billions of nodes. Multiply the possible hands of a deck of cards by just one billion and the number is unfathomable. Yet there it is, sitting between our ears.

This is the power of factorials.

When we add just one thing to the connections in our brain, it multiplies what ideas are possible to conceive. Of course the process isn’t as straight forward as we’d like, there still needs to be some level of understanding and incubation for ideas to connect, but a little information can go a long way when it comes to ideas.

One new book you read, one piece of artwork you stumble on, one previously unheard song, one minute of journaling, each seems subtle and unimportant yet each can have tremendous impact.

Particularly if those one things occur more often than once.

We don’t have to seek out the most captivating or life-changing inspiration. All we need is one small, new bit of information (another card in the deck) and suddenly what’s possible to imagine multiples.

Why we sometimes can’t recall things we know we know

Do you ever find yourself unable to think of a word you know you know? You feel as though the word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember it, no matter how hard you concentrate?

In those moments of tip-of-the-tongue thinking, your brain has become stuck in an unhelpful loop.

Our brains recall information by “re-creating” them thanks to associations between working memory – what we’re trying to think about – and information from the past related to it. Neuroscientist Paul King explains:

“When attempting to recall something specific, like a name, we ‘trick’ the name into appearing in working memory by thinking about concepts related to it: the person’s identity, when we saw them last, what they look like. Normally this process automatically brings the information into working memory as a side-effect of filling in related facts.”

Unfortunately our relevant memories associated with the thing we’re trying to remember can occasionally get reconstructed or otherwise shifted around. The result? Our associated memories are successfully being recalled, but they’re not “completing” the association as we would like.

We end up feeling stuck because, no matter how hard we might try, our brains can’t make the right connection. In some instances the word we think we know doesn’t even exist, we’ve simply convinced ourselves that we think we know it.

This inability to relate information from our working memory with our longer-term memory can lead to thinking cycles (or loops) that lead us to getting even more stuck. We think about the context of the word we want to remember, which leads us to thinking: “the word should be right there,” which leads us to thinking of the same context of the word, etc. On and on the cycle goes, more often than not unsuccessfully.

To break free of the fruitless cycle we must force our mental processing to break away from it.

We can ask someone else to help us think of the word, in which case we use our remote associations (words we attribute to the word we are trying to think of) which helps the other person use their own associated memories in order to (hopefully) come up with the word we’re looking for.

There are other ways to spur our thinking however. This is applicable not only to memorizing words when they’re on the tip of your tongue, but also for thinking creatively in general.

One way to do this is by thinking of words that mean the opposite of the one you’re trying to remember. By thinking of opposite words your mind breaks free from the current mental loop in order to expand into other areas of memory and context, without moving too far from what it was you were trying to think of in the first place.

As a very basic example: if I am trying to remember the word “cold” I might try thinking of opposite words like heat and sun. Those words associate in my mind with summer and swimming pools, which I also associate with ice cream, which is likely to lead me to the word I was looking for: cold.

This mental trick works because the opposite words only function in contextual relation to their opposite, which helps connect ideas within the mind (e.g. it’s easier to think of something cold when you compare it, even subconsciously, to something hot…like a warm summer day).

The same mental trick works for creative thinking, for the same neurological reasons: We often get stuck in a mental loop – or a comfortable way of thinking – that inhibits our ability to think differently.

We solve problems the same way we always have, because we know those ways will work. We drive or walk to work or school the same way we always do, because we know those ways are efficient. We spend our time doing more or less the same things and think in patterns that align with the ones we always have.

It’s only by introducing small changes or thinking about opposites that we begin to think of what’s possible.

When a detour sends us a different route than we’re used to, for example, we discover a new coffee shop, park, or restaurant to try. When we explore a new way to create what we’ve always created, we stumble on either a new solution or a new way of working. And when we decide to do the opposite of what we usually do when we encounter a problem, we are apt to discover either new solutions or new ways of working.

The next time you feel stuck – either coming up with a word you know is on the tip of your tongue, or while encountering a creative problem or situation – try thinking of opposites or doing something different/unexpected.

If you were to do something the opposite of what you usually do right now, what might happen? Only one way to find out.

Photo by Joyce Kaes.

What we talk about when we talk about ideas

What happens in the brain when we have an “idea” exactly?

While we are inclined to believe that ideas are simple and concrete things, in reality the notion of an “idea” is vastly complex; much more complex than anyone outside the fields of neuroscience can possibly fathom.

However, understanding even a fraction of what occurs in the brain when we talk about what it means to have ideas can help us to better understand creative potential and how “original thoughts” occur in the brain.

I write original thought in quotation marks because the truth is that original thoughts are permutations of ideas and processes that already exist within our minds.

Let me explain.

How ideas work

Ideas which we believe to be original are actually subtle (though they can be sometimes complex) changes to existing ideas already occurring in our brains. These changes can either be strengthening connections between formerly unconnected areas of thinking, or introducing new stimulus.

To truly think creatively we must find ways to manipulate the things we already know.

Let’s go back to what we say when we talk about the word: “ideas.”

In their work titled “Theory of Mind: How brains think about thoughts”, MIT researchers Rebecca Saxe and Liane Young describe how your brain is reading the words on this page:

“First, the pattern of light and dark on the page reaches your eyes, and then your visual cortex. Here the brain begins to recognize shapes, and to test hypotheses about which letters and words are on the page.”

Young and Saxe describe here how visual cues excite neurons and clusters in the brain in order to determine what we’re seeing. Though the same process is true for other sensory inputs, such as touch, smell, sound, taste, and even memory. They continue:

“Soon, language brain regions are involved, helping to transform the representations from orthographic symbols to words and sentences that describe objects, events, and ideas - these representations are complex. As you build up a mental representation of all the elements [on the page], your working memory helps to hold and manipulate the elements, while executive control supports shifts between the competing components of the event.”

Being able to read the words on a page entails not only seeing the light and dark contrast between shapes, recognizing which shapes form letters and how those letters form words, but reading also requires much more from our brain.

It means our working memory (utilizing the left temporo-parietal junction within the brain) must keep track of what we’re seeing and forming it into sentences that logically make sense (which is a process itself, utilizing the executive functions within the brain and possibly the right temporo-parietal junction).

“In particular, executive control helps you keep track of [what you read]. As you begin to understand and represent the events of the story, specific aspects of the story become clear.”

Our concept of what makes a story “a story” involves many different areas of the brain activating and resting in order to make sense of what it is we’re reading or hearing.

A similar system of activity takes place in the brain for any idea we have.

When we have an idea: we must first acknowledge the stimulus of the idea (something specific such as the way it looks, tastes, feels, or is surrounded by) which activates clusters of neurons in different areas of the brain, which then check against other regions, which then activate related networks, all in an effort to make sense of the “thing” we are attempting to think of.

It’s no wonder merely thinking burns an average amount of 1.5 calories every minutes. All of that brain activity is more taxing than it appears.

Within the brain clusters tend to group near one another or tighter bonds to the neurons which are activated most often in order for ideas to be recalled faster. You know your name because the neurons in your brain that contain the recognition of those sounds or the distinct appearance of the shapes that make up your name have been activated enough to strengthen their bond.

It’s when we start to think of more complex things (like a complicated story arch or what you ate for dinner six months ago on the first Saturday of the month) where neural activity begins to slow or sway.

That’s not to say your brain doesn’t try to make sense of things that obviously don’t make sense.

There is some affordance within the clusters of neurons in your brain to activate even when you’re sure you don’t know the answer to a question. How could you know you don’t know the answer if your brain didn’t first attempt to find one?

This is the magic of creative thinking

Being able to create new connections or strengthen existing ones between segments of neurons in the brain.

To think creatively, to spur out some new ideas from us, we merely need to stimulate the parts of our brain that typically don’t play together.

We do this by experiencing new things (traveling and experience a different culture, for example), by exploring our curiosity (reading about how our brain burns enough glucose to equate to 1.5 calories a minute, as an example).

There are other ways of stimulating creative thoughts as well.

Like asking questions that don’t logically make sense and exploring their possible answers: what is the taste of yellow? How does language feel? What if time bounced noodle?

The more we feed the networks in our brain (by reading and writing, experiencing new things, traveling to explore the world, meditating, and so on), the more connections we create. It is from those connections that we can then spark original ideas, through traditional means (of simply thinking, and thinking about thinking) or more systematic means (such as asking silly questions, free writing, doodling, etc.).

Ideas are complex things, but that does not mean we can’t utilize some basic understanding of the process that forms them in order to stimulate new ideas within ourselves.

If you want to feel creatively inspired, you shouldn’t hold out hope for a sudden flash of inspiration or the blessing of a distant muse. Instead, excite the parts of your brain that haven’t been excited, introduce them to new and wondrous things. Ask questions, get some culture, experience something new (whether it’s a new flavor of something or a new part of town to explore).

Read this next: Why we doodle, journal, and sometimes think out loud

Photo of neuron by MR McGill.

What 60 seconds can do for your brain

The pressure is on. You have only seconds to make the right decision, to step onto the stage, to make the perfect mark, to give the right answer. What do you do?

It’s easy to get overwhelmed, absorbed in the moment, and fail to let your mind flow to the right/best/obvious action. Who has time for that anyway?

I think it’s normal to encounter situations where we have to make a decision or come up with an idea on the spot, where the pressure seems too much and we fail to step back (even for a minute) and just breathe.

But oh the power a few seconds hold!

Our brains are making nearly 20,000,000,000,000,000 calculations every second.*

One minute is certainly enough time to change so much about the actions we take at any given moment. To make new mental connections, to see alternatives, and to explore possibilities.

Sixty seconds equates to more than 1.2e+18 connections in the brain, some useless but some absolutely worthwhile.

We need just a minute more to breathe. In deep, out slow. Those 60 seconds of breathing create more time to think, which equals more time for connections to be made in the brain and more time for possible creative outcomes.

Give yourself one minute to just breathe and think. When the pressure is on, when you feel stuck, when you’re not sure about what to do: just sit and breathe for one minute.

Read this next: Making time to think about making time to think

*Number according to University of Alberta