The Psychology of Creativity

Creativity is popularly considered—not entirely accurately—more of an impulse than a function. Often, creativity is tied to the notion of natural talent that only certain people possess. That assumption is also incorrect.
Just like analysis, memory, and communication, creativity is a complex function administered by several parts of the human brain. Researchers have spent myriad hours in lab environments trying to determine where creativity comes from and what parts of our anatomy control it. While they’ve made progress and come up with some firm determinations, perhaps the elusive nature of creativity has transformed its mystery into certain myths about the brain’s role.

The Left Brain/Right Brain Myth

This idea is certainly responsible in large part for perpetuating the notion that creativity is inborn. In the 1970s, neuropsychologist Roger Sperry worked on a study, the findings of which gave rise to the theory of the split brain. Sperry’s work suggested that the two hemispheres of the human brain control different realms of thinking: the left side handles logic and analysis, and the right side enables intuition and subjectivity.
When these findings were published in the media, casual readers seized on the dichotomy of “left-brain/right-brain” people. Scientific, mathematical, and practical people were thought to be dominated by their “left” brains, whereas creative, artistic, and imaginative people were controlled by the “right” side. This catchy contrast is impressed upon many of us as scientific fact.
But it’s a myth—or, more accurately, an overly simplistic explanation of how the brain actually functions. Sperry’s experiments involved animals and humans who had their corpus callosums severed. The corpus callosum is the thick bunch of fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain and serves as the conduit of information between the two sides. Some epilepsy patients had their corpus callosums surgically cut to lessen the effects of seizures—so only one side of their functioning would be impaired during a seizure.
So in someone with a severed corpus callosum, if the right eye (left brain) sees a table, the left brain says “table,” and everyone’s comfortable with the fact that the table has been correctly identified. But if the left eye (right brain) sees a table, the right brain says, well, probably something unintelligible. We’re not sure what.
Each side of the brain controls the opposite side of the body: the left brain controls the right eye and vice versa. Sperry discovered that when test subjects covered their left eye—controlled by the right brain—they were able to process and accurately name certain items their right eye saw. But when they covered their right eye—controlled by the left brain—they couldn’t remember any of the items they saw with their left eye.
Through his studies, Sperry isolated certain functions that the left and right brains performed and how they applied to language, math, drawing, interpretation, speech, and so forth. From these results came a very overgeneralized picture that the left brain is analytical and the right brain is creative. Even though Sperry himself cautioned against making that rash distinction, when it was discovered by popular culture, it was too catchy to resist.
From these results came the theory that the two sides of the brain handle entirely different kinds of processing. The left side deals with numbers, language, and reasoning. The right side oversees emotions, creativity, and intuition. If it sounds like a leap in logic, that’s because it is.
The truth about the brain is a little more complex, and Sperry himself insisted we remember that. Yes, the left and right sides of our brain handle different functions and collaborate with each other through the corpus callosum to get thinking done, but researchers found that both sides do roughly the same amount of activity in all people. A mathematician’s right brain doesn’t just “turn down” when they’re working, and a composer doesn’t simply suspend their left brain when they’re writing.
A great example of how the two halves of the brain work together is in learning a language. The left brain, analysis central, identifies the alphabet and pronunciation of certain words, but the right brain picks up on intonation, stress, and emotional content. The two sides collaborate to determine the whole meaning of a word or phrase in a certain language.
So you’re not a left-brain or right-brain person—no one is. Creativity engages all aspects of the brain and calls upon different functions in both sides. Understanding that could be the key to unlocking your creative possibilities. Creativity is indeed something learnable, and it doesn’t particularly matter how good you are at math.
Default Mode Network
As you might suspect and have experienced firsthand, the brain has multiple types of functioning modes. When you’re sleeping, for instance, the brain has a very specific focus and set of duties. When you’re trying to solve a difficult math problem, you activate what’s called the executive attention network. This mental mode helps your brain hyperfocus and accomplish a specific goal that requires concentration and ignoring potential distractions.
As you might also predict and hope, there is another type of mental mode that assists in creativity, abstract thinking, and the generation of ideas. It’s just not one that you can push yourself into. Rather, it’s the opposite—you must relax yourself into it.
If a solution is outside of your brain’s familiar experience—which is shaped by your beliefs, culture, and biases—your conscious mind will most likely never find it. The conscious mind deals too much in fact and the present, which stands in stark contrast to abstract thought and conceptual thinking. An analytical search for a solution can comb through the entire content of your mind’s “known,” but not outside of it. Novel answers reside outside of your mind’s known box, and the subconscious is the first place to look.
When you allow your brain to integrate new information with existing knowledge on a subconscious level, it can establish new connections and see patterns not obvious to your conscious mind. Creative solutions and ideas are more likely to bubble up from a brain that applies unconscious thought to a problem, rather than going at it in a deliberate approach with your frontal lobe. When your thinking brain is inundated with information and analysis, it doesn’t have the opportunity to connect concepts or make creative leaps.
Science shows that your brain’s resting state, called the default mode network (DMN)—which is activated when you stop thinking about something specific and just veg out—is the best place to park a problem. In the DMN, your brain does some of its best, wisest, and most creative work. Research from Raichle and Snyder in 2007 demonstrates a predictable pattern of neurological activity that’s your brain’s go-to state when it’s at rest, not focused on anything in particular, or actively engaging with its environment. It’s associated with experiential thinking, mind-wandering, emotions, past encounters, and intuition. The imagination network is used in situations like brainstorming, painting, daydreaming, or devising a new recipe. Yes, this is where you might consider most creative thinking to occur, while execution and analysis occur in the other mental networks.
This mental state is also where ruminating and worrying take place. Hey, no one said that it wasn’t going to have its downsides. The harder and more cognitively demanding a particular task is, the less the DMN is activated. We’ll discuss later on how to use this DMN to your advantage.
Creatives: Crazy or Genius?
When some of us think of legendarily creative people, we occasionally make the very dubious observation that many of them were, to some degree, crazy. The meaning of creativity infers the ability to invent something out of nothing, to call into existence something that wasn’t there just a second ago. That involves going outside the info-processing boundaries of the brain and just making things up—which some people might consider “crazy.”
To be sure, there have been some artists and creators who suffered from a variety of emotional disorders. Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, and Leo Tolstoy all dealt with clinical depression at some point, according to certain studies (which were, it should be noted, highly contested by some). Researchers also determined that many—but not all—creatives endured difficult life experiences like losing their parents, social rejection, or physical handicaps.
But no evidence has conclusively proven that mental illness is a contributor to a creative person’s productivity. A study of over a million Swedish citizens, conducted over a span of four decades and completed in 2012, found that artists were not likelier to have psychiatric ailments. They were, however, found to have an unusually high number of relatives who suffered conditions like autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or anorexia nervosa.
Artists themselves typically had more highly developed schizotypal traits. Despite the name, having these traits isn’t quite the same as having a schizophrenic disorder. In fact, almost everybody on earth has these characteristics.
Schizotypal traits are mainly positive. Generally speaking, they involve what motivational speakers would call “thinking outside the box”: unique perspectives and experiences, nonconformance, maybe even a fanciful belief in magic. There are some unseemly schizotypal traits as well—cognitive disarray and difficulty feeling pleasure—but by and large, the schizotype reflects the positive aspects over the negative.
A 2008 study by British scientists Mark Batey and Adrian Furnham found that positive schizotypes were associated with character traits like confidence, insight, resourcefulness, diverse interests, and even sexiness. They were also oriented toward doing at least one creative thing every day.
Then, of course, there’s the precuneus.
The precuneus is a part of the superior parietal lobule, located between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. There’s still some mystery about how it actually functions in relation to other parts of the brain, but it’s known to have several very complex jobs: memory retrieval and processing, environmental analysis, cue processing, organizing mental images, and pain reaction.
How the precuneus relates to creative people is that they can’t turn the darned thing off. Neuroscientist Hikaru Takeuchi found in 2011 that creative types could not suppress their precuneus. They were unable to filter out inessential brain activity. While this might sound like Takeuchi said creatives were cluttered with meaningless thoughts, what he actually meant was that they had more access to creative stimuli and could put ideas from different networks together. And in 2013, Austrian researcher Andreas Fink found that there was a direct link between the inability to suppress the precuneus and higher generation of original ideas.
What this all means is that the key to creative thinking is to let as much information into one’s brain as possible in order to make connections and associations between different elements. Even if that cognitive process results in strange, outlandish, weird, or—say it together—“crazy” associations, those connections often produce the most creative ideas. This can be great for generating hundreds of ideas at once if properly harnessed, or result in mental chatter you can’t escape that completely drowns out coherent thoughts. It can be a double-edged sword.
I don’t want to speculate on whether da Vinci was crazy—but we do know that he came up with blueprints for the airplane, the parachute, the bicycle, the guided missile, and even the snorkel multiple centuries before they were physically invented. He could only generate those ideas by letting his precuneus run wild and thinking as creatively as anybody ever could. If that’s crazy, then I’ll have more crazy. Just know that the side effects for such heights may be more than you bargained for.

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Rapid Idea Generation: Practical Everyday Creativity for Idea Generation, New Perspectives, and Innovative Thinking By Peter Hollins
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.
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