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Right Brain Smarts: Creative People’s Brains Function Differently


A new study has ended the controversy (or perhaps just stirred up more) by demonstrating that creative people do think in a fundamentally different way than everyone else. The study showed that non-creative types versus creative types do indeed exhibit quite different patterns of brain activity while going about solving problems, and even just while daydreaming.

Scientists have wondered for some time if people who think “creatively” are able to somehow think differently from those who seem to think in a more methodical fashion. However, many researchers have argued that what we call “creative thought” and “noncreative thought” are really not two different things. If that were true, then people who are thought of as “creative” would not actually think in a fundamentally different way from those who are thought of as uncreative.

However, other researchers have argued that creative thought is fundamentally different than other forms of thought. If this camp is right, then those who tend to think creatively really are somehow neurologically different than everyone else.

The new study led by John Kounios, professor of psychology at Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University compared the physiological brain activity of creative versus noncreative problem solvers. The study published in the journal Neuropsychologia, reveals a distinct pattern of brain activity, even at rest, in people who tend to solve problems with sudden creative insights, which are commonly referred to as “Aha! Moments”, that differed distinctly from people who tend to solve problems, and think in a methodical fashion.

During the study, participants relaxed quietly for seven minutes while their electroencephalograms (EEGs) were recorded to show their brain activity. The participants were not given any task to perform and told they could think about whatever they wanted. Later, they were asked to solve a series of anagrams – scrambled letters that can be rearranged to form words [XMPAELE = EXAMPLE]. These can be solved by deliberately and methodically trying out different letter combinations, or they can be solved with a sudden insight or “Aha!” in which the solution pops into awareness.

One of the several differences discovered was that the creative solvers exhibited greater activity in several regions of the right hemisphere. Previous research has indicated that the right hemisphere of the brain plays a special role in solving problems with creative insight, likely due to right-hemisphere involvement in the processing of loose or “remote” associations between the elements of a problem, which is understood to be an important component of creative thought.

The study also showed that greater right-hemisphere activity occurs even during a “resting” state in those with a tendency to solve problems by creative insight. This finding suggests that even the spontaneous thought of creative individuals, such as in their daydreams, contains more remote associations.

Second, creative and methodical solvers exhibited different activity in areas of the brain that process visual information. The pattern of “alpha” and “beta” brainwaves in creative solvers was consistent with diffuse rather than focused visual attention. This may allow creative individuals to broadly sample the environment for experiences that can trigger remote associations to produce an Aha! Moment.

Thus, the new study shows that basic differences in brain activity between creative and methodical problem solvers exist and are evident even when these individuals are not working on a problem. According to Kounios, “Problem solving, whether creative or methodical, doesn’t begin from scratch when a person starts to work on a problem. His or her pre-existing brain-state biases a person to use a creative or a methodical strategy.”

In addition to contributing to current knowledge about where creativity comes from, this study suggests the possible development of new brain imaging techniques for assessing potential for creative thought, (so you can not get that job for being such a dullard) and for assessing the effectiveness of methods for training individuals to think more creatively.