New research is peering under the hood of highly-creative types, to see what makes their brains tick the way they do.
The brains of highly creative visual artists and scientists just work differently. According to a new study, their brains employ a faster, atypical pattern of connection where the “hubs” seen in non-creative brains are bypassed. Although this makes for more creative juices, it does seem to reduce the brain’s overall efficiency much of the time, the researchers explain.
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“Our results showed that highly creative people had unique brain connectivity that tended to stay off the beaten path,” said Ariana Anderson, a professor and statistician at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and lead author of the study.
Creativity is a much desired, but not easily-quantifiable trait. By its very nature, creativity works to find new or unexpected interpretations, meanings, and outcomes, so it stands to reason that the processes that generate creativity are, themselves, unexpected and different from the norm. A new study confirms that this assumption is pretty much spot-on.
While the brain activity of non-creatives tended to follow established routes through ‘hubs’ of processing, those of exceptionally visually-creative people tended to form atypical, distant connections more readily by bypassing these hubs. The results are based on functional MRI brain imaging of such individuals, often called “Big C” creative types, and give researchers fresh insight into how different brain areas connected and interacted to perform creative thinking tasks.
The study included highly creative people from the fields of visual arts and sciences, with an IQ-matched control group of everyday people. These participants were selected by a panel of experts, before receiving final validation based on a set of objective metrics. Members of the control group were recruited from participants of a previous UCLA study that had agreed to be contacted for future studies, alongside locals with graduate degrees recruited through advertisements in the community. The team made sure that the ages, sex, race, and ethnicity of participants were as comparable as possible between the two groups.
The goal was to see how differences in creativity were expressed biologically in the brain while minimizing the effects caused by any differences in sheer intelligence or other factors. During the study, the fMRI recordings were used to see how brain regions interacted on a local and brain-wide level.
“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,” Bilder said. “The patterns in more local brain regions varied, depending on whether people were performing tasks. Surprisingly, Big C creatives 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 as an analogy, the team explains that while most people are “stuck in a three-hour layover at a major airport”, Big C-types take private flights directly to their final destination. Although this brain architecture is less efficient overall, it does allow for unexpected connections between distant ideas or concepts to be formed more readily.
The fact that these participants showed more efficient local brain connectivity only under certain conditions is likely related to their expertise, Bilder adds. It suggests that the brains of creative types may need to expend less effort to perform certain creative tasks than the brains of other smart people, he explains.
The paper “Big-C creativity in artists and scientists is associated with more random global but less random local fMRI functional connectivity” has been published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.