Have you ever wondered how an artist is able to create such beautiful imagery, a writer is able to turn such an eloquent phrase, or a musician is able to synthesize such harmonious sounds? Or why some people are awesome creative problem-solvers? Well, there just may be a biological reason why some people are more “creative” than others…
What makes us creative?
In the research study “Biochemical Support for the “Threshold” Theory of Creativity: A Magnetic Resonance Creativity Study” published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers attempted to better understand the neurobiological basis for creativity. To do so, they focused on answering 2 questions:
- Whether N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA) concentrations are related to creativity in healthy individuals;
- If biochemical relationships conformed to the threshold hypothesis of the relationship between intelligence and creativity.
Historically, the neurobiological basis for creativity is not well understood, and until recently, not much progress has been made since the late 20th century. Creativity is a complex process, occurring within the most complex organ within our bodies. Many cognitive skills are necessary to produce something creative, as defined by something both novel and useful (Dietrich, 2004). Therefore, one of the challenges in any study on creativity is to avoid the urge to oversimplify, and instead, use the tools available to us to meaningfully link behavior to brain activity. Another challenge is whether creativity should be considered as an aspect of intelligence, or a unique ability unrelated to intelligence (Gray and Thompson, 2004; Jung and Haier, 2007).
In terms of background literature, the researchers relied heavily on studies that suggest creative achievers tend to be prolific, divergent thinkers (DT) that produce multiple solutions to solve problems (Simonton, 2003; Dietrich, 2007), as well as research by Sternberg (2005) that indicates up to an IQ of 120, creativity and intelligence are correlated. Other studies cited by the researchers include:
- Creative individuals show lower levels of mental activity when engaged in creative problem-solving tasks (Jausovec, 2000; Dietrich, 2003);
- Creative individuals show increased brain wave coherence (harmony) when at rest (Jausovec and Jausovec, 2000);
- Creative individuals show strong stronger centroparietal synchronization (Fink and Neubauer, 2006);
- Functional neuroimaging studies show negative and positive activations associated with creative tasks in a variety of brain regions (Carlsson et al., 2000; Bechtereva et al., 2004; Howard-Jones et al., 2005; Asari et al., 2008).
Because previous research is so limited, any additional studies focused on the neurobiological basis for creativity, and how it is related to intelligence, will improve upon and expand our current understanding of how the structures and functions of our brain produce useful and novel ideas, products and services, etc.
[More about creative approaches to problem-solving.]
Methods used to study the neurological basis of creativity
The sample for this study consisted of 56 adult male and female participants with above average intelligence, and ranging in age from 18 to 39. Significant measures were taken to ensure that all participants were both mentally and physically healthy, as well as well-matched based on major demographic and psychometric factors like sex, handness and IQ. Participants for the study were solicited through postings at the University of New Mexico.
In addition, a sample of independent judges was recruited to create the “Composite Creativity Index” (CCI) based on the consensual assessment technique (Amabile, 1982) and rank the participants score on specific tasks.
To perform the study, researchers had the participants perform three divergent thinking tasks that were evaluated by the judges based on the CCI. They also measured how well participants performed on the Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT), Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI) and NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI).
The researchers measured the variables of interest using H-MRS imaging to monitor the levels of NAA concentration in eight specific brain regions of interest (see Figure 2) while tasks were performed.
Because there were only a limited number of participants (58 total), and the age range (18 to 39) was limited, the sample size does not appear to be representative of the general population. Because one of the intentions of the study was to clarify the relationship between intelligence and creativity, the selectivity of the participants in this regards seems warranted. No information was provided in terms of geographic location, education, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, which are additional factors which may or may not affect the outcome of the study, and be interesting to have considered in terms of the accuracy of the study.
Results of the creativity study
The results of the study found a weak correlation between FSIQ to the CCI. In addition, CCI was positively correlated to openness to experience, as previously reported by a study by Sternberg in 2005, but not to other personality factors of the NEO-FFI. Other results of the study include:
- Fluency while performing measures of the CCI was weakly correlated to openness of experience;
- A model including lower right anterior gray matter NAA and higher left anterior gray matter predicted CCI;
- CCI was strongly correlated with FSIA in the sample below the 120 IQ threshold, but not in the sample above;
- CCI was related to VIQ, but not performance IQ, which caused a shift in the analysis of the relationships between intelligence, NAA and CCI;
- Depending on which VIQ group the participant was in, different results were seen in terms of NAA levels in the various brain regions (Figure 3).
Discussion around the neurobiology of creativity
In general, the researchers concluded that NAA levels in various regions of the brain did predict creativity, proving this part of the hypothesis correct. Specifically, higher creative potential was present with higher right hemisphere gray matter NAA and lower right hemisphere NAA, suggesting that the threshold theory of the relationship between intelligence and creativity is also correct, and has a neurobiological basis.
In terms of implications of this study, it is not only the first to assess creativity in healthy participants, but also the first to demonstrate that neurometabolite levels predict DT, and that creativity is supported by different biochemical organization in people with higher versus lower levels of verbal intelligence. NAA is linked to intelligence, memory and attention as related to health and disease; therefore, this study, and others conducted in the future to support and expand upon it, could have much larger implication in terms of improving higher cognitive functioning when it comes to treating degenerative disorders that affect the brain, advances in learning (education) and even organizational innovation.
The primary limitations of the study were a lack of fine-grained spectroscopic resolution, and inadequate distribution of intellectual capacity below the average range of functioning. Again, this latter factor is somewhat justified based upon the goals of the study. In addition, the reliance on DT as a measure of creativity is an on-going weakness, but one that is common to the field.
Personal thoughts about the study, and what makes us creative
Other than concerns about the sample size and its representation of the general population, this study is quite informative, especially in an area of research that has been somewhat overlooked. Given the current huge need in the Unites States for innovation at an organizational level, and the educational support systems necessary to encourage it, any information that can help us better understand creativity, and how to enhance it, is welcome.
I would be interested in further research to determine how NAA levels, creativity and intelligence are linked from that nature versus nurture perspective. For example, does creativity run in a family? Are certain groups of people, based on geographic or race/ethnicity, more or less creative than others? How do environmental factors influence NAA levels and creativity? And finally, how are we able to manipulate these factors, using things like pharmacology (drugs), to improve creativeness and innovation in our population.
The study was quite complex. While I do not feel that the researchers should have done anything differently, I would like to see the study validated by additional research, and performed on a larger sample size more representative of the general population, and maybe even across different cultures, thereby giving us a better understanding of how we compare and can compete with other communities on both a local, regional and global level.