The #Neuroscience (and #Psychology) of #Creativity

Who’s not interested in becoming more creative? I certainly am so last week I attended a talk given by Prof Vincent Walsh @vinwalsh on The #Neuroscience of #Creativity organised by @FunzingUK London. Prof Walsh is Professor of Human Brain research @UCL where he heads up the Applied Cognitive Neuroscience (ACN) group. His talk was informative, insightful and entertaining so for some #MondayMotivation, read about the talk here and find out how you can enhance your creativity.

 “Creativity isn’t limited to what we think of as smart. It is more than simply having an idea. Ideas are easy. Having the courage to see them through is a bigger deal. Creativity demands dedication and determination.”

The first example described the famous world heavyweight championship between the undefeated champion, George Foreman and Mohammed Ali, held in Zaire in 1974, now known as the Rumble in the Jungle. The younger and heavier Foreman was the favourite, but Mohammed Ali’s creativity enabled him to beat his opponent.  Ali reasoned about factors that could influence the outcome other than the obvious, strength and age. He knew the climate in Zaire was humid and that humidity made the ropes around the boxing ring stretch. Using this knowledge during the fight, he goaded Foreman to punch him more while staying close to the ropes. The stretched ropes meant Foreman had to work harder to reach Ali. In the 8th round, when Foreman was showing signs of exhaustion, Ali took advantage and produced a knockout blow, making him the world champion.

“Creativity is a combination of skills and concepts assembled in a new, unexpected (and useful) way”.

Creativity is not about being a prodigy! Young prodigies are often ‘one-hit-wonders’ who do quite badly later in life when compared with people who work harder. Typically, prodigies fail to surpass their initial achievements. Walsh referred to the work of William Hazlitt, a 19th century essayist, who argued for similar reasons, that science is progressive, but art is not. Accordingly, each discipline of the arts reaches its summit soon after each is conceived. As a result, subsequent artists can never reach the early peak of perfection. But there may be another reason for this.

“The less we care about what other people think of us, the more creative we become.”

Consider Edward Muybridge, a pioneer in photographic studies of motion and early work in motion-picture projection, whose behaviour changed following injuries to the orbitofrontal cortex he sustained in a stagecoach accident. The orbitofrontal cortex is considered our ‘social brain’ as it has been found to be involved when we react to what we think other people think about us. Muybridge’s injuries left him with less activation in this area, but he became more creative. This observation has led neuroscientists to test this in the lab and reason that there is a correlation between less activity in these areas and greater creativity. Damage to the frontal lobe results in less inhibition and caring less about making mistakes.

“Ideas come when we’re doing nothing”

We need to allow time for ideas to emerge. Creativity requires long-range neural connections which can only happen when we are relaxed.

“Learn the rules, then forgot them” (Charlie Parker)

As a lover of jazz and an amateur saxophonist, I am fascinated how accomplished jazz musicians improvise. It turns out that different brain areas are more highly activated when jazz musicians are asked to play prepared music as opposed to being asked to improvise along with backing track. Playing music engages the prefrontal cortex which is associated with higher level cognitive processing such as thinking, planning, decision-making, reasoning and parietal areas associated with language and egocentric spatial processing. When jazz musicians improvise, the prefrontal cortex is deactivated relative to playing a practiced piece and there are differences between novices and experts. Novices find it harder to let go of the rules so it is more difficult for them to improvise. Prof Walsh extended these findings to rap, and poetry.

Another myth worth busting is that creativity declines with age. Walsh gave examples of many literary figures, artists, scientists, and musicians who are creative into later age: Iris Murdoch, Sting, Tom Waites, Picasso, Miles Davis and Francis Crick. Of course, there are many more. Findings from neuroscience confirm that despite losing brain cells throughout life, connectivity (neural plasticity) carries on for most of our life.

When we work at a skill, it’s hard at first, but becomes easier as we improve. When we practice, we develop new connections. Once formed, these connections enable us to perform the practiced skill easily because it requires little or no cognitive effort.  The outcome is that we can use our limited cognitive effort to solve more complex tasks and therefore be more creative.

Here are a few tips from Prof Walsh for those wishing to hone their creativity:

  • Have a brain (a modest one will do)
  • Be a little crazy
  • Do less and sleep more
  • Be prepared…know your stuff
  • Dare to be simple
  • Experiment and improvise
  • Have a method
  • Be beautifully wrong

It was a privilege to attend Prof Walsh’s insightful and informative talk. I learned a great deal. My take home message is that creativity is extremely valuable and fortunately, we can be creative at any age. The ability to generate creative solutions is increasingly important given the complex and changing world in which we live. However, education systems often suppress creativity, preferring conformity. Organisations and work systems are frequently so rule-driven and time-demanding that there is little scope to be creative. To facilitate greater creativity in more people we need to change the education system so it values and nurtures creativity and develop organisations which facilitate, sustain and reward creative thinking.

I’m very excited about my own @FunzingUK event, Between Psychology and Fashion on 25th April. Find out more and book here.