When we think of creativity, the first thing that comes to our mind is art. Everyone agrees that writers, painters and actors are creative. This is what psychologists refer to as Big-Y creativity: Community-recognizable, professional-level performance. But what about creativity on a smaller scale? Researchers call this little-y creativity. This is creativity that we all have and show in our daily lives. We can find examples ranging from coming up with a new recipe to coming up with clever jokes to entertain the kids.

One of the methods psychologists use to measure creative thinking is to ask for unusual uses for ordinary objects such as cups and boxes. Responses can be analyzed with different dimensions such as fluency (total number of ideas) and originality. Surprisingly, many people struggle with this seemingly simple task and only suggest things close to typical uses of the object. The same thing happens with other tests that ask for ideas that go beyond what we already know. Such innovative tasks assess only one dimension of creativity. Many new tests have been developed to measure other creative skills. They provide different metrics, from the visuospatial skills required for design to the scientific skills needed for innovation and discovery.

Where do good but creative ideas come from and what makes some people more creative than others? While romantic views postulate that creativity is spontaneous, growing evidence from the fields of psychology and neuroscience suggests that creativity requires mental effort. Part of this effort is about getting rid of the distractions and stickiness of prior knowledge. The findings show that general creative thinking is a dynamic interaction between the memory and control systems of the brain. Without memory, our minds would be like a blank slate. Creativity is dependent on knowledge and experience. Without mental control, we cannot direct our thoughts into new areas and avoid getting stuck on what we already know.

Default Creativity

Creative thinking is supported in part by our ability to imagine the future, that is, to visualize experiences we have not yet experienced. From planning dinner to imagining the upcoming vacation, we routinely rely on our ability to predict what the future will look like. Interestingly, the part of the brain that allows to imagine the future is also active in remembering the past. This area is the hippocampus.type. This region of the brain, which is likened to a sea horse, is embedded in the temporal lobe. It plays an important role in bringing together different parts of experiences such as person, place, object, action. Scientific studies with patients with amnesia have revealed the role of the hippocampus in remembering and dreaming. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies are a frequently used tool in scientific studies aimed at understanding how the brain remembers and imagines.

Certain areas of the brain are activated when remembering past experiences and imagining future experiences. Among these, the cortical regions called the default network are important. In the first neuroimaging studies, it was seen that this network connects the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, bilateral inferior parietal lobes and medial temporal lobes. These areas are called the default network because they are activated by “default” when people do not do any work in the brain scanner and just try to relax. Left to ourselves, we dive into a wide variety of spontaneous thoughts. These include remembering the past and imagining the future. The responsibility of the hippocampus and the putative network in memory and imagination is consistent with the popular theory of episodic memory. This is the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis. Accordingly, both memory and imagination involve reassembling episodic details such as the people, places, and events we encounter.

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Remembering past experience requires, in a way, the reconstruction of that experience. For this, parts of the related people, places and objects that make up the event must be brought together. This is not as simple as pressing the play button of a video recorder. Similarly, imagining the future requires building new experiences on what happened in the past. The flexible nature of the episodic system is particularly helpful for creative thinking. In creative thinking, new and meaningful connections should be established between information. Remembering past experience requires, in a way, the reconstruction of that experience. For this, parts of the related people, places and objects that make up the event must be brought together. This is not as simple as pressing the play button of a video recorder. Similarly, imagining the future requires building new experiences on what happened in the past. The flexible nature of the episodic system is particularly helpful for creative thinking. In creative thinking, new and meaningful connections should be established between information. Remembering past experience requires, in a way, the reconstruction of that experience.

For this, parts of the related people, places and objects that make up the event must be brought together. This is not as simple as pressing the play button of a video recorder. Similarly, imagining the future requires building new experiences on what happened in the past. The flexible nature of the episodic system is particularly helpful for creative thinking. In creative thinking, new and meaningful connections should be established between information. Similarly, imagining the future requires building new experiences on what happened in the past. The flexible nature of the episodic system is particularly helpful for creative thinking. In creative thinking, new and meaningful connections should be established between information. Similarly, imagining the future requires building new experiences on what happened in the past. The flexible nature of the episodic system is particularly helpful for creative thinking. In creative thinking, new and meaningful connections should be established between information.

But could the parts of the brain that support memory and imagination also be important for creative thinking? In an experiment to investigate this, participants were given a series of clue words. They were asked to use the word 1) to remember a personal experience from the past, 2) to imagine a possible future, and 3) to think about the creative use of the thing. In this study, both hippocampus were found to be activated in all of memory, imagination and creative thinking.

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Episodic specificity induction is a procedure in which participants are trained to recall episodic memories at a high level of detail. Experiments on this subject show that episodic specificity induction can improve creative divergent thinking. After being asked to recall in detail a video they watched recently, the participants had significantly more and different ideas. In the fMRI study, it was observed that the episodic induction process increased the left anterior hippocampus activity. This is evidence linking creative performance to the brain region associated with episodic memory. Ultimately, the findings support the role of the hippocampus, part of the medial temporal lobe, which is a subsystem of the putative network, in generating creative ideas.

Directing Creative Thinking

One of the controversial issues addressed by research on creativity is the phenomenon of cognitive control. This refers to our capacity to organize the content of our minds. Does creative thinking happen spontaneously or do we consciously direct this process? On the one hand, unwinding our brain’s filter allows our minds to wander. This can lead to ideas that we would not otherwise think of. On the other hand, coincidence and spontaneity alone do not guarantee novelty or usefulness. We often have to divert our thoughts from what we already know and ponder whether our ideas will actually work. This highlights two key elements of the creative thought process: idea generation and idea evaluation.

Cognitive neuroscience has begun to provide insights for these two areas of creativity. For example, in an fMRI study, visual artists were given a short written description and asked to generate and evaluate book cover ideas. During idea generation, the activity of the hippocampus and the putative network increased. This probably reflects the involvement of the episodic system. During the evaluation of ideas, the artists were asked to criticize their drawings. Meanwhile, the hippocampal and putative areas are again activated; concomitantly, frontal brain areas including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which are associated with cognitive control, are activated. It was suggested in the analysis that the increase in communication (functional connectivity) during opinion evaluation among these domains indicates the cooperation between the spontaneous/generative aspects of the putative network and the conscious/evaluative aspects of the control network. Conversely, when we focus our attention on a given task, we need the control network to work efficiently. We should stay away from the mind wandering of the default network. Research with artists suggests that these brain networks, which often operate separately, communicate with each other during creative thought.

Could the difference in the brain’s connectivity patterns help us understand the cause of individual differences in creative thinking? Why are some people more creative than others? Perhaps creative people can more easily activate default and control networks together when solving problems. In a study where subjects were asked to develop creative ideas during fMRI scanning, it was examined whether there was a connection between brain patterns and the quality of ideas. There is a huge difference between individuals in terms of creativity. Some people may cite examples close to the common use of objects, while others may find more innovative answers. In this study, connectome-based predictive modeling (CPM) was used to analyze the data. With CPM, individual differences in behavioral traits such as character and intelligence can be characterized. After the models are built, these features can be predicted using CPM over the functional connections in the brains of new participants. In the study we mentioned, CPM was used to predict the creative abilities of individuals according to the connection patterns of the brain.

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The analyzes showed stronger functional connections between the default, control, and salience networks (a network associated with oscillations between the default and control networks) in creative individuals. The brain’s connectivity pattern can reliably predict the creativity score.

Increasing Creativity

Psychology and neuroscience help us understand the way the creative brain works. As we summarized above, creative thinking is related to the interaction between the brain’s default and executive control networks. These connections allow for the spontaneous generation and subsequent critical evaluation of ideas. The memory system also contributes to this. Networks that enable us to remember the past and imagine the future are the same as networks that enable us to think creatively.

A few important questions still remain to be answered. Can creativity be increased, how can it be increased? The knowledge so far has shown that the ability to think creatively can be predicted through the connections of the brain. We don’t know yet if these connections can be strengthened to improve creative thinking. For this, studies in which participants are observed for a long time are needed. Although we do not yet know whether creativity can be increased in the long run, we do know that some strategies increase creativity in the short run. A short-term increase in creativity can be achieved by using the flexible and productive potential of the default network. For example, when we get stuck solving a problem, sometimes taking a break and letting the ideas fly freely in our minds helps us find a creative solution. Another strategy is the preparation of the episodic system. We have already mentioned the episodic induction process. In this, the past experience is tried to be remembered as detailed as possible. With episodic induction, the ideas produced by the person in the creative thinking task are temporarily increased.

Engaging in a creative hobby, such as painting or learning to play a musical instrument, can sustainably foster creativity to a moderate degree. For example, students who are taught how to make music increase their musical creativity over time. However, it is not clear whether these gains make people more creative in general. This is one of the areas where cognitive brain training programs fall short. People become better at the specific tasks for which they are trained, but this cannot be generalized to other tasks. Until neuroscience research shows how to increase creativity in general, we can use the above strategies.

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