Byline: Karen Weintraub
Scientists have long wanted to understand exactly how our brain allows us to be creative.
Although there is still a lot to learn, one thing has become clear in recent years: Creativity doesn't live in one single spot.
There are sites in the brain dedicated to recognizing faces, moving your left index finger and recoiling from a snake. But having original ideas is a process, not a place.
"There is a very high level of cooperation between different parts, different systems of the brain so that they orchestrate this process," says Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.
Damasio led a panel Saturday on creativity and the brain to launch the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in San Diego.
There are differences, of course, between creating a painting and creating a business strategy, writing a symphony and coming up with new ways to comfort a distraught child. But Damasio says they all share the same underpinnings.
Imagination is the cornerstone of creativity: "It's pretty hard to conceive that anyone could be creative without a rich imagination," he says.
Yet imagination depends on memory. Imagining what a new piece of music might sound like requires you to play with bits of music that you carry in your head, to have an understanding of and memory for music so that you can manipulate notes to create something new.
Memory is also required to recognize when something is original, which is an essential, and particularly rewarding, part of creativity.
Emotions are intimately involved in creativity, too, Damasio says. And if the creativity involves finding a new way to get the football across the field or recite a monologue, then many areas of the brain that move the muscles are activated, too.
"All those are different aspects of creativity," he says.
Some people are inherently more creative than others. Very large studies have shown that people with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and their close relatives are more likely to be creative than the general population, says Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was also one of the speakers on Damasio's panel.
"I'd be very reluctant to romanticize" mental illness, she says, but "it has this very interesting relationship to creativity."
People have long sought creativity in drugs and alcohol, but there's no indication that mood-altering substances can promote creativity, , Jamison says.
Some aspects of creativity can be taught or at least exercised, though.
"The brain is a creativity machine. You just need to know how to manipulate your software to make it work for you," says Shelley Carson, a researcher and lecturer in psychology at Harvard University and author of Your Creative Brain.
Schools often get blamed for drumming the creativity out of kids. Sometimes that blame is deserved, Carson says, particularly in places where rote memorization is crucial to success. But sometimes kids give up on imagination themselves, around grades three to five, when they naturally become more interested in rules. The trick to keeping creativity going, she says, is helping kids see that rules and imagination are not at odds.
When composer and musician Bruce Adolphe visits schools, he says he often tells children to start a story with an ordinary moment from their everyday lives -- and then add a twist that has never happened before. They'll write about brushing their teeth, perhaps, and then a dragon will squeeze out of the toothpaste tube, and the drama takes off from there.
Testing can shut down this creative process, while engaging methods of teaching can spark it, says Adolphe, another member of the panel and composer-in-residence at Damasio's Brain and Creativity Institute. The more we understand about the neuroscience of creativity, the better we will be able to teach people to be more creative, Damasio says.
"I think people are getting more and more aware that creativity can be strengthened, fostered and encouraged."
TO BOOST CREATIVITY:
Exercise your imagination with "what-if" games, imagining some difference in the world -- like grass turning red -- and the consequences.
Give yourself time every day to think, daydream and turn off the critical, self-censoring parts of your brain -- especially by turning off electronic devices. This allows the brain time to digest and synthesize what you've seen and experienced and to process your thoughts.
Cultivate your ability to be in a dreamlike state. To write a piece
of music, for instance, you need to think
"in" the music, composer Bruce Adolphe says, rather than about it.
Get enough sleep. Studies show that creativity
declines with lack of sleep.
Sources: Shelley Carson, Harvard University; musician and composer Bruce Adolphe
photo USA TODAY