Creativity as a State (Neuro-cognitive Dynamics)

No ability is more valued in the modern innovation-fueled economy than thinking creatively on demand, and the ability to consciously engage a heightened state of creative thinking (i.e., to try and succeed at thinking more creatively) is important for education and a rich mental life. While brain-based creativity research has focused on static individual differences in trait creativity, little is known about how changes in brain function support a state of heightened creative thinking when creativity is required. In addition, it is largely unknown whether a person can consciously engage and disengage a heightened creative state dynamically across short durations of time. This is particularly surprising because mechanisms that make creativity dynamic within an individual are likely to be critical for enabling current efforts in science, education, and industry to improve creative thinking and augment creative output.

An area of focus for our research is creative relational reasoning, using semantic distance to enable a quantitative approach to measuring creative performance in reasoning. Our work on creative solution generation via relational reasoning demonstrated that frontopolar activity increases to support increasing semantic distance when participants generate solutions to creative reasoning problems (Green, Kraemer et al., 2012). In a separate set of studies, we are investigating the ability of individuals to augment their creative thinking on demand (i.e., state creativity augmentation). We found the somewhat surprising result that simply instructing participants to “think creatively” during analogical reasoning resulted in more creative analogies as measured by semantic distance, without negatively impacting accuracy (Green, Cohen et al., 2012; Weinberger et al., 2016). To identify the neural basis of augmented state creativity, we have developed a “thin slices of creativity” paradigm that is suitable for the fMRI environment, and have extensively validated this measure of creativity in relation to standard creativity measures (Prabhakaran et al., 2013).

Extending this work to identify underlying neural dynamics, we found that the phenomenon of temporarily heightened state creativity is strongly related to short-duration increases in frontopolar cortex activity, and alterations in this brain region’s connectivity with other prefrontal brain regions (Green et al., 2015). Notably, we found that differences between people in the amount they increased frontopolar activity predicted differences in the amount they increased their creative performance.

Current projects in this area include:

  • Pushing creative performance higher through repeated augmentation of creative state. We are exploring the boundary conditions of heightened creative performance as a state variable (i.e., what are the limits for heightening state creative performance?). We are testing the hypothesis that repeatedly engaging a heightened creative state leads to larger and larger increases in creative performance over time.

  • Identifying individual and interpersonal factors that support creative idea generation and problem solving in groups.

  • Building a “creativity classroom” to identify interventions that effectively augment creativity in classroom/group instruction contexts.

  • Developing new measures of creative relational reasoning. We are developing new measures that use signal-detection theory to differentiate the highest performing individuals on creative relational reasoning, even among high-talent cohorts (Cortes et al., 2019).