What is creativity, and where does it come from?

What, then, is creativity? It is the innate quest for originality. The driving force is humanity’s instinctive love of novelty — the discovery of new entities and processes, the solving of old challenges and disclosure of new ones, the aesthetic surprise of unanticipated facts and theories, the pleasure of new faces, the thrill of new worlds.
            ——Edward O. Wilson, The Origins of Creativity

Until very recently, neuroscience has had literally no clue what creativity looks like in the brain. In one book I read, dated 2015, the author said neuroscience just hasn’t figured out what creativity is yet.

If you read our series on happiness (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3) or empathy (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4), you’ll know there are some things we have quite a bit of information on.

But our knowledge of the brain is constantly expanding, and now we finally do have some understanding of the parts of the brain involved in creativity — or innovation or creating novel things, whether they be cell phone designs, symphonies or programming languages, however you’d like to state it.

I’m going to attempt in the first part of this series to not simply write a book report on Elkhonon Goldberg’s Creativity: The Human Brain in the Age of Innovation, a 2018 book on just what I’d been hoping to learn.

But first, a reminder from Susan Reynolds:

You have the world’s greatest supercomputer, with over 20 billion brain cells (neurons) and the possibility of forming 100 trillion synapses (neuronal connections) at your disposal. And here’s the kicker: In many cases, the types of connections that form are up to you — they are guided by your experiences, your decisions, and your desires.

Yes, your brain is amazing, it can make more connections than you can count, and you can choose your own adventure, as it were.

We write out things like billion and trillion for the sake of clarity, but let’s write those numbers out, just for laughs, and see if we can put them in perspective.

You have over 20,000,000,000 brain cells.

You can form over 100,000,000,000,000 neuronal connections.

For perspective:
• A million seconds is 11 and a half days.
• A billion seconds is almost 32 years.
• 20 billion seconds is 634 years.
• 100 trillion seconds is 3,170,979 years.

Sure, some of those neuronal connections do things like help you zip your pants, get plugged up with television advertising jingles from your teen years, and bring you back to your childhood when you smell something your mother used to cook.

But you’ve got a couple left over to help you create something new.

How does that happen?

It has to do with two parts of the brain that have only been given their just due in the past half-century or so.

While Goldberg argues that the whole brain is required for creativity — there doesn’t appear to be a distinct neural pathway creativity follows like that we saw with James Fallon in our empathy series — the primary parts of the brain linked with creativity are the prefrontal cortex and the right hemisphere.

Goldberg says these two areas have been treated like “Cinderellas” by psychology and neuroscience until very recently. We only stopped doing frontal lobotomies in the 1960s (this procedure severed the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain), and shock therapy was applied to the right hemisphere way more than to the left, which deals with language.

Let’s back up a second and take a look at the concepts we’re dealing with (you know by now I’m a fan of definitions and etymology).

Creativity. Here’s a definition, slightly modified to take the word create out of the definition:

the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to make meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination:

The word dates back to about 1800, so it hasn’t been in use very long.

Innovation. Meaning “the act of introducing new things or methods,” we’ve been using the word innovation in this way since the 1540s.

Novelty. This is admittedly different from the other two. Creativity and innovation are types of human output; novelty really is a type of input. It means “the state or quality of being new, or unique; newness,” and dates all the way back to the late 1300s.

So really what we’re getting at is making something new.

There are three commonly studied brain networks, Goldberg writes:

• The Central Executive Network (CEN)
• The Default Mode Network (DMN) — you’ll remember this is the brain’s chatterbox
• The Salience Network (SN)

The CEN and DMN, you might remember, work antagonistically — that is, when one is working, the other is off.

The CEN is what’s at work when we tackle a complicated task.

The DMN is what’s at work when we have no task, or we’re on “autopilot” (but not in flow). Consider, for example, when you have a repetitive task that you’ve done a lot and don’t need to concentrate on, like cooking eggs or driving. If something goes wrong, your CEN takes over.

The SN was discovered more recently and has been studied much less, but it seems to operate as a one-way switch to turn off the DMN and turn on the CEN. For example, if you’re coasting along on the highway, letting your mind wander, your DMN is at work. Let’s say there’s a sudden downpour and visibility goes down and cars start slowing and suddenly you need to pay attention; your SN will knock your CEN into drive. Your DMN may take back over later when everything clears up, but your SN doesn’t flip that switch, only the other way.

And it’s salience that’s important here, it seems. Something that is salient is leaping out at you right now.

In setting up neuroscience experiments, Goldberg asserts, scientists have been generally concerned with what is correct — press a button when the light is red, or is this picture the same as the last picture — instead of what is salient — that is, what I’m thinking about now (relevant). Creativity, innovation, etc., is more about salience, which is only just starting to be studied.

We’re going to talk a lot more about how our brains process information — and novelty, in particular, given our quickly-changing digital world — over the next couple of parts of this series, but we should start with a basic understanding of how our brains process the world.

Our brains work fundamentally on pattern recognition, Goldberg writes. It’s why we know a person we’ve never met is a person and why we know a tree we’ve never seen before is a tree. It’s the same with complex ideas — we just need to take the patterns and put them all together.

When we fail to recognize a pattern, however, such as an object we’ve never seen before, or a doctor who’s never seen a set of symptoms, “the brain has encountered a novel challenge. A subjective feeling of being confronted by novelty is mostly the result of the left hemisphere’s failure to find a solution by failure of the incoming information to resonate with any of the previously formed attractor networks.” (Goldberg, 25)

And that’s where creative problem solving steps in.

Let’s also discuss metacognition, since that will come up again.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for metacognition, which is to say that it takes all the things the other parts of the brain are doing and ties them together into something a little more cohesive. Goldberg likens this to building with a Lego set. If all the bits of information we have stored in our brains are Lego pieces, he writes, the prefrontal cortex — which doesn’t fully mature until our early-to-mid-30s — is responsible for shuffling the pieces around, assembling, dissembling and reorganizing everything.

The ability to combine the elements of old ideas into new configurations is essential for generating new ideas and new concepts, which in turn is essential to creativity. This is how the figments of human imagination like mermaids and unicorns came into being, and this is how many important scientific ideas, technological inventions, and artistic creations have been born. (Goldberg, 47-48)

A lot of this work we do when we’re asleep or otherwise in silence.

In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker writes that “Sleep provides a nighttime theater in which your brain tests out and builds connections between vast stores of information. … In ways your waking brain would never attempt, the sleeping brain fuses together disparate sets of knowledge that foster impressive problem-solving abilities” (p. 132).

In other words, when you go to sleep and shut off that conscious brain, your dreaming brain will go buck wild.

REM sleep, he notes, offers the “benefit of fusing and blending those elemental ingredients together, in abstract and novel ways. During the dreaming sleep state, your brain will cogitate vast swaths of acquired knowledge and then extract overarching rules and commonalities — ‘the gist.’ We awake with a revised ‘Mind Wide Web’ that is capable of divining solutions to previously impenetrable problems” (p. 219).

We’ll get to more prescriptive measures in the fourth (and final) part of this series, but if you’re trying to piece together some new stuff you took in during the day, sleep on it.

Next up: An argument for creativity.


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