“If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’” Said psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi after more than 30 years of observing creative people.
The right brain myth
Many forward thinking neuroscientists have investigating what actually happens in the brain during the creative process. What they have found out through their studies and observations is that the right brain/left brain distinction is somewhat outdated; moreover, it does not provide a complete picture of how creativity comes to be.
Creativity does not require the involvement of one brain region or one side of the brain. Rather it requires the interaction of many cognitive (conscious and unconscious) and emotional processes. The creative process starts with preparation, moves on to incubation, then illumination and through to verification.
In the 1960s, psychologist and creativity researcher Frank X. Barron conducted a serious of experiments to try and find out what causes creative genius. Barron gathered a group of high-profile creative people, including; writers, architects, scientists, entrepreneurs and mathematicians and invited them to spend several days living at the Berkely campus of the University of California.
Barron discovered that intelligence played a small role in creative thinking and that IQ alone did not explain the creative spark. Through his study Barron found that creativity was informed by intellectual, emotional, motivations and moral characteristics.
Barron isolated certain traits that were common to various individuals from different disciplines. These traits included:
“an openness to one’s inner life; a preference for complexity and ambiguity; an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray; the ability to extract order from chaos; independence; unconventionality; and a willingness to take risks.”
Based on these findings Barron wrote that creative genius was “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.”
The three networks
The creative process can be said to involve three networks: the imagination network; the executive attention network; and the salience network. As Carolyn Cregorie Scott and Barry Kaufman explain in their article:
“The creative brain is particularly good at flexibly activating and deactivating these brain networks, which in most people are at odds with each other. In doing so, they are able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought – cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous. This allows them to draw on a wide range of strengths, characteristics and thinking styles in their work.”
Let us take a closer look at how each of these networks work.
The imagination network
Neuroscientist Randy Buckner and his colleagues state that the imagination network (also known as the default network) is involved in: “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.”
This network is also involved in social cognition. If, for example, we are trying to imagine what someone else it thinking, or put another way, see things from their perspective, we activate this network. It is also used to reflect on our own emotional state as well as the emotional state of others.
The imagination network was first identified by neurologist Marcus Raichle in 2001; it engages many regions on the medial (inside) surface of the brain in the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes.
The executive network
The brain’s executive network is in charge of controlling our attention and working memory. It enables us to focus our imagination and direct our attention to our inner experience without getting distracted by external stimuli.
This network is called into action when a task requires intense and accurate attention. This network is activated when, for example we are trying to understand a complicated lecture, or attempting to solve an involved problem. The areas of the brain that make up this network are the lateral (outer) regions of the prefrontal cortex and areas toward the back (posterior) of the parietal lobe.
The salience network
The salience network monitors external events and the internal stream of consciousness. The regions of the brain involved in this network are the dorsal anterior cingulate cortices [dACC] and anterior insular [AI]. The salience network is important for dynamic changing between networks.
Various stages of the creative process require different patterns of neural activations and deactivations. Sometimes it is useful for the networks to work in unison, aiding one another, however at other times it is best if the networks do it alone. What is important, however is to do away with the outdated right/left brain model of creativity and to seek to gather a more complex understanding of the intricate dance that the various networks do alone and together.