Quick, think of a new use for a baseball bat. If you thought of something that doesn’t involve a swinging action (e.g., smashing things), such as using it as a rolling pin, congratulations, you’re a person with excellent creativity. However, you may also have less of a brain “filter” than most. Since it’s officially Brain Awareness Week (March 11–17), an international project started by Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives to encourage discussion on brain science, let’s look at what might be going on inside your head to instigate something as abstract as creativity.
New research from the University of Pennsylvania, published in a recent issue of the journal Cognitive Neuroscience, showed that when the prefrontal cortex, your command center for cognitive control and a filter for your random thoughts that might interrupt your present tasks, is inhibited, your ability to tackle creative activities can be better. This is because your unfiltered thoughts actually offer an advantage. In other words, the less cognitive control, the better your creativity.
The University of Pennsylvania experiment had participants looking at images of common objects, and then asking them to think of something new to do with them. It turned out that the people who had their “filters” inhibited were better able to think of new uses for those objects. As Sharon Thompson-Schill, Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to PennNews: “The real takeaway is that when you give people a task for which they do not know the goal — such as showing them an object and asking, ‘What else can you do with this thing’ — anything that they would normally do to filter out irrelevant information about the object will hurt their ability to do the task.”
This study ties into previous research that shows that being able to rethink an idea or problem is a more readily available skill for more creative people. There’s also the numerous research projects on how daydreaming, or distracting your brain with irrelevant information, can help you think of creative solutions to a task. Just last year, Jonah Lehrer published a whole book, called Imagine: How Creativity Works, that explored in depth how random thoughts and distracting activities are often instigators for innovative creation. (It must be noted, though, that the book got more attention for its scandal, but it’s worth listing as another point of our continued interest in the mind and creativity.)
So how can this research impact your own creative work? Perhaps let your brain consider more extraneous information from your environment when examining a project. The research also raises interesting ideas as to whether innovative thought could ever be provoked from the brain, such as with deliberately inhibiting the “filter” to encourage creativity. ( Of course, brain inhibiting drugs have long been of interest to artists and other creatives.) What makes artists better able to turn our pre-existing ideas about the world on their heads is something that we still only see in a mirror dimly, but these mysterious workings of the brain are gradually being brought to light.