Susan Greenfield 2011 keynote presentation at the “Mind and Its Potential” conference delved into “the neuroscience of creativity”.
Creativity is defined by Bronowski as “the ability to find unity in what appears to be diversity” or stated in another way, “finding the thread that unites” (Science and human values, New York: Harper and Row, 1972). As per Heilman K. M. creativity can be defined as “the new discovery or understanding, development, and expression of orderly relationships” (2005, Creativity and the brain. New York: Psychology Press; Division of Taylor and Frances Books).
Susan Adele Greenfield is an English scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords. Dr. Greenfield is a scientist best known for her research on neurodegenerative disorders and her efforts to popularize understanding of brain mechanisms through public appearances and writings.
Dr. Greenfield believes that our genes are important but they’re not the whole story and that environment plays a key role. Thus, every one of us has our own unique configuration of brain cell connections shaped by our individual experiences, which in turn are driven by mental processes. As per Susan Greenfield “The critical issue is not the contraction of the muscle, it’s the thought that has preceded it, that has left its mark on the brain.”
Her second point is that the more connections there are – our brain cells work harder and these connections multiply when we’re engaged in a stimulating enriched environment – the more “you can see one thing in terms of something else, then perhaps it has a significance to you. That’s what we mean by understanding. In this way, by virtue of our neuronal connections, we can navigate the world [and] start to understand what’s going on.”
She notes that digital technology is affecting cognition – the screen culture is leading to shorter attention spans and reduced empathy and recklessness.
Indeed, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has stated, “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information … is, in fact, affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that …”
While discussing the interplay of genetics and environment in creativity, Greenfield stressed the role of plasticity and multiplying neuronal connections as a way of understanding the world.
According to Greenfield, the creative process involves “deconstruct[ing] abstract sensations” and making “unusual associations”, resulting in something that is meaningful to yourself or others, whereas developing a sense of identity is a good way to build up creativity.
According to these authors most likely the brains of creative people “are capable of storing extensive specialized knowledge in their temporoparietal cortex, be capable of frontal mediated divergent thinking and have a special ability to modulate the frontal lobe-locus coeruleus (norepinephrine) system, such that during creative innovation cerebral levels of norepinephrine diminish, leading to the discovery of novel orderly relationships”.
As per Scott Barry Kaufman creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain. Instead, the entire creative process– from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification–– consists of many interacting cognitive processes and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.
Thus, when having a novel-creative thought, having discovered something new or produced a creative product, people often get feeling of deep joy and excitement, the “Ah Ha” or “Eureka!” experience.
Interestingly, according to Heilman – Cecil B. DeMille, a film producer as well as a director and one of the fathers of the Hollywood cinema, stated that “Creativity is a drug I cannot live without.” An alternate hypothesis is that the same brain network that produce a sense of bliss in response to some drugs also produces the deep joy and excitement during the “Eureka” experience.
Moreover, as per Kenneth M. Heilman, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) is the thread that may unite creativity with depression, resting or relaxing, and sleep-dreaming are the alterations in the level of this neurotransmitter. Thus, people appear to be more creative during the times they are in a relaxed state than during the times they are under much stress.
Along these lines, propranolol (non-selective beta-blocker), which blocks the influence of norepinephrine, is most likely able to enhance cognitive flexibility, and thereby allow a person taking this medication “to find the thread that unites”. Kenneth M. Heilman discusses experiments with normal participants’ ability to solve anagrams when treated with either ephedrine or propranolol. Their results revealed that these healthy participants performed better when they had taken propranolol before performing this task.
A 2018 review by Simeng Gu et al. introduce a novel model to explain the relationship between emotions and creativities: Three Primary Color model, which proposes that there are four major basic emotions; these basic emotions are subsided by three monoamines, just like the three primary colors: dopamine (DA)-joy, norepinephrine (NE)-stress (fear and anger), and serotonin-punishment.
Figure: Two features of creativity. Value and novelty are two basic quantities of arts, similar to hedonic value and arousal value of core affects, which are subsided by the release of two catecholamine neuromodulators (norepinephrine-stress, dopamine-reward). From: The neural mechanism underlying cognitive and emotional processes in creativity, by Simeng Gu et al., Front Psychol. 2018; 9: 1924.
This model, supported by recent findings from neuroscience and molecular genetics, suggested that the hyper-functions of neuromodulators (or hypo-function) confer the emotional pathology and also enhance creative ideation.
The mechanism of this model lies in that neuromodulators, including NE and DA, are the neural basis for both creativity and basic emotions, and their dysfunction can offer motivation and novelty seeking as well as hyper-connectivity for the brain. Structurally, values and novelty, determined by NE and DA, are key features for both creativity and basic emotions.