Cerebellum may be site of creativity

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Typically viewed as the body’s movement-coordination center, the cerebellum unexpectedly plays a role in creative problem solving, researchers from Stanford University report in a new study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Located in the back of the brain, the cerebellum had never been previously recognized as being involved in the creative process, the authors explained. Their research is the first to find direct evidence linking activity in this area of the brain to creativity.

Senior author Dr. Allan Reiss, a professor of radiology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine, said that the research represented “an advance in our knowledge of the brain-based physiology of creativity.” The study also suggests that turning on the brain’s higher-level control centers impairs creativity rather than enhancing it.

Turning to a classic family game for inspiration

The project began over three years ago, when a student at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design asked Dr. Reiss if it was possible to objectively measure creativity. That’s when he and his colleagues started trying to find a way to measure the neurophysiological processes involved in the creative process.

Dr. Manish Saggar, an instructor in psychiatry and a member of the teaching team at the Hasso Plattner Institute and lead author of the study, knew that any test had to be conducted in such a way to encourage creativity – a fun and relaxing environment in order to avoid anxiety. He came up with a test that was inspired by the drawing/guessing game Pictionary.

“We were in search of an experimental paradigm that could (1) implicitly test participants’ creativity, while they actively engage in problem solving; (2) engage participants in a fun/game like environment and (3) allow participants to relatively freely express their creative abilities (as compared to pressing buttons or ‘thinking’ creatively),” Dr. Saggar told redOrbit via email.

“After a lot of searching, I finally had an ‘Aha!’ moment when I was playing the game of Pictionary with my friends at home,” he added. “Instantly, I realized that a Pictionary-like experimental task would fit all the conditions we are looking for in the design. I guess my ‘implicit processing’ finally caught up!”

Searching for the “engine” behind cross-domain creativity

Dr. Saggar, Reiss and their fellow researchers selected action words such as “vote,” “exhaust” and “salute” and chose14 men and 16 women in an MRI chamber. They recorded activity in their brains using functional MRI scans as they either drew a word to exhibit creativity, or a zigzag line for the sake of comparison.

Each test lasted 30 seconds, which the authors said was long enough to conduct a decent-length MRI scan but not too long to cause the subjects to become bored. The drawings were captured using a special MRI-safe electronic tablet and sent to research team members for evaluation on how accurately they depicted the word and how original and elaborate it was.

Subjects were also asked to rate the relative difficulty of the words they had been asked to draw, and increasing subjective difficulty of drawing a word was associated with higher activity in the left prefrontal cortex. However, high creativity scores assigned by those reviewing the drawings were associated with higher activity in the cerebellum, not executive-function centers.

“The link between higher cerebellar engagement with higher creative content in the drawings could potentially lead us to finding the ‘engine’ behind cross-domain creativity,” Dr. Saggar told redOrbit. “While it is just speculation at this stage, and more research is needed to confirm these preliminary results, cerebral-cerebellar interactions might hold the key to understanding how we coordinate, manipulate, and synthesize ideas and representations to generate creative outcomes.”

The next phase of the study is already underway

Dr. Saggar also noted that he and his colleagues “are currently engaged in the second phase of this study that aims to examine the neural correlates of creative capacity enhancement. Using a randomized control design, we are comparing the effects of Creative Gym training (based on a course taught by Grace Hawthorne at Stanford’s design school) with that of language training.”

“We have also incorporated a crossover in this design, such that participants who received creative gym training received language training afterwards and vice versa,” he added. “Thus, we aim to examine what changes in the brain when creative capacity is enhanced and whether such enhancement is sustainable.”


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