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Brain research

Searching the brain for creativity

What is creativity and where can it be found in the human brain? When is a person creative, when are they mad? Questions that are easy to ask but extremely hard to answer.

Having a brilliant idea is not enough to call a person creative - far from it. Creativity is one of those human traits we are still struggling to understand. Not only is the search for a definition almost impossible, but understanding its origins in the human brain is just as hard.

Researchers define creativity as a special performance that is appropriate and new. As soon as creativity is seen as a concept rather than a trait, several factors have to be taken into account.

An ingenious idea, for instance, has to be put into action, or realized, so that it is visible and of use to other people. Only someone who does that can truly be called creative.

Evolution of a creative idea

It was in 1926 that the English sociologist and psychologist Graham Wallas first introduced the theory of how a creative process unravels. He postulated that it was made up of five steps.

Dr. Konrad Lehmann

Konrad Lehmann is a scientist and book author

First, a person could only have creative thoughts if they had studied and practiced a certain subject, such as painting or writing - a stage that Wallas called preparation.

Only a prepared mind would be able to traverse thenext stage. During incubation an idea silently forms inside a person's brain, and unnoticed by the conscious mind, it blossoms.

"A set of brain areas called the Default Mode Network (DMN) is responsible for the incubation of an idea," Dr Konrad Lehmann, a neuroscientist at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, explained. "The DMN is highly active when we do nothing. When we are relaxing or daydreaming, for instance."

The brain's illumination

Then, just as the person's mind is occupied with something else, the brainwave crashes onto the shores of their consciousness. This illumination is often preceded by a momentary feeling of anticipation.

"Researchers have discovered that the brain's right temporal lobe is highly active when an idea strikes," Lehmann said. "This is followed by activity on the left side of the brain when verification, the last stage of the creative process, takes place. The idea is put into practice and revealed to the outside world."

Although creativity is not only a genetic trait - it can also be acquired - certain personalities are associated with creativity more than others. Based on the five factor model of personality, psychologists and neuroscientists have identified "openness to experience" as a trait that is closely linked to a creative mind.

Symbolbild Denken Kopf Grafik Fragezeichen Birne Zahnrad

Do you worry that you're 'just not creative'? No reason to panic! Creativity can be learned.

People who are open to adventures are also generally more curios, have a lively imagination and question even the most certain facts.

But it's not only those curious personalities that have been linked to creativity. Madness and creativity, it is often said, go hand in hand. How much truth is in that statement?

Creativity and madness

"Studies have found that people who are related to someone with mental health problems are often quite creative," Lehmann said. "But you can't say that someone has either a sick or a healthy mental state. It's not black and white; it's more of a grey gradient. Somewhere in the middle of that gradient, one might find a person who is more creative and at the same time has a predisposition toward mental health issues."

The neuroscientist added that at some point, the mental health disorder takes over completely, at which point "the ability to formulate clear thoughts becomes impossible."

Robert Schumann als Jugendlicher

Researchers believe Schumann suffered from bipolar disorder

A mental disorder associated with creativity is bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression. Affected people experience periods of euphoria followed by phases of depression. Euphoric periods, known as mania, can last for months and are characterized by hyperactivity. During these phases, creative tasks can be performed in abundance, whereas the subsequent depression usually makes it harder for people to concentrate on creative activities.

"Robert Schumann, a German composer, was known to suffer from bipolar disorder. In his manic phases he composed much more than during depressive phases", Lehmann said. "Interestingly enough, the pieces he wrote when he was manic are not necessarily better than those composed during depression."

Of course, mental instability or a genetic predisposition aren't needed to be a creative person. "Everybody is creative to a certain extent, maybe not like Leonardo da Vinci, but being able to cook a good meal is a great start!"

What to do when writer's block strikes

Anyone who practices a creative profession knows the sudden dull and empty feeling triggered by a lack of ideas. There are two different approaches to getting your brain up and running again. One method states: just get started. Your trained brain regions will start their process of scanning and sorting information, which can trigger a cascade of activity that leads to a creative idea.

Another idea is based on the exact opposite: Collect the problem, try to do some research, find a few solutions, then let your notes sit and go for a walk or nap.

Said Lehmann: "Basically you are manipulating your brain in the hope of activating your default mode network and letting it do the work."

Konrad Lehman is a researcher and assistant professor at the Institute for General Zoology and Animal Physiology at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. He published a German-language book on creativity and the brain in fall 2017.

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