JUL 20, 2017 6:29 AM PDT

Can Brain Stimulation Boost Creativity?

There is a common theory that suggests different regions of the brain are responsible for different abilities. Those who are more creative are said to be more "Right brained, " and those who are more logic and science oriented are believed to have a dominant left brain hemisphere. Of course, many people have abilities in both areas. Artists can be logical, and scientists can be creative, but recent research has suggested that creativity can be enhanced in anyone via electrical brain stimulation.

Researchers at Queen Mary University London (QMUL) and Goldsmiths, University of London have published work involving brain stimulation that suggests it's possible to temporarily shut off the more logical part of the brain, to let the creativity come to the fore. 

Dr. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, the first author of the work, is a professor at QMUL's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and her work involved electrical stimulation that was able to suppress activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is involved in much of our objective thinking and reasoning. She explained, "We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process. It works fine most of the time, but fails spectacularly when we encounter new problems, which require a new style of thinking - our past experience can indeed block our creativity. To break this mental fixation, we need to loosen up our learned rules." In a sense, it's a way of electrically forcing the brain to think "outside the box."

The researchers used transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which is an area of neuroscience in which a lot of new work is being done. It requires that a low-level of electrical current is passed through certain areas of the brain. It's done with electrodes placed strategically on the scalp over targeted brain regions. This current, which is very weak, did not cause any harm or pain to study volunteers but was enough to impact the electrical activity of the DLPFC. 

The study involved 60 willing volunteers who underwent testing on their creative problem solving both before and after different attempts to influence the activity of the DLPFC. Three situations were created: one where the activity in DLPFC was suppressed with electrodes, one where it was deliberately stimulated, also with electrodes and one where there was neither stimulation or suppression, but participants did have electrodes attached. The participants were asked to figure out mathematical "matchstick problems" which require that the normal rules of math and algebra must be suspended to find the answer. 

When the electrical impulses in the DLPFC were temporarily silenced, participants were more likely to solve the difficult problems than in the situations where stimulation was created or where no electrical stimulation, either way, was taken. These results suggest that the silencing of neuron activity in this part of the brain can impact the ability to be more creative. 

It wasn't all positive, however. There was a neurological cost to silencing this region of the brain. Participants who showed more creativity during DLPFC suppression were less able to solve problems that required a higher level of working memory. The creativity needed to solve the matchstick problems (where matchsticks are arranged in a certain pattern of shapes, and the participant is asked to arrange them differently by only moving a limited number of sticks to achieve the desired result) demands that a series of attempts be carried in working memory, and this ability was diminished in those participants who underwent suppression of the DLPFC region of the brain. 


Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya who is the senior author on the study and leads the Brain and Cognition Research Cluster at Goldsmiths cautioned, "Of course creativity is very complex and has many facets, and our results suggest that it may be possible to temporarily boost people's ability to ‘think outside the box', a key aspect of creative problem solving. However, don't rush out to buy a cheap brain stimulation kit hoping for a quick gain on your creativity. Not only will such devices not yield the targeted effect but they can even lead to poorer performance on other demanding tasks as shown by our study." Take a look at the video below to learn more about this research. 

Sources: Goldsmiths, Healthline, Scientific Reports 

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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