Here's the Science - Harvard.

Here's the Science - Harvard.

Creative thinking and the brain 

(Excerpts from an interview with Shelly Carson. Author of Your Creative Brain)

What exactly is creativity?

The accepted definition in the field is that for something to be creative it has to be novel or original and be useful or adaptive to some portion of the population.

For something to be creative, it must be useful?

That part of the definition helps draw a distinction between originality and creativity. Many things are original that aren't particularly creative. The jumbled "word salad" speech of a person with schizophrenia — it may be highly original but it doesn't appear to have any utility, even to the person who is uttering the words.

It's surprising that creativity can be studied.

In 1950, the famous American psychologist J.P. Guilford said, "Please, let's start studying creativity." There are several academic journals devoted to creativity. And starting [early in the 2000s], neuroscientists have become very interested in the subject. I think creativity is as important an aspect of cognition as memory, attention, or perception. But when I first proposed teaching a course about it, there was some real pushback. It was viewed as so nebulous and touchy-feely.

Where in the brain does creative thinking occur?

The old model was that the left brain was for analytical and sequential thinking and the right brain was for more holistic thinking. Then there was a move toward a front brain–back brain division, with the front brain being the gatekeeper and controlling the input from the back brain. Now we think it's much more complicated than either of those models and that it depends which stage of the creative process you are in.

Does being creative have a direct effect on the brain?

You may have heard of flow — people become completely unconscious of self, lose track of time, and get totally absorbed in what they are doing. When people are in the flow state, they are meeting challenges as they create, and every time they're successful, the reward center in the brain is activated and they get a little burst of dopamine. Sometimes they're not even aware of being happy, but the reward center and the dopamine are influencing them and driving them forward in their behavior.

Aren't some people just more creative than others?

I'm not saying that there isn't a genetic predisposition to being creative. We know there are certain genetic polymorphisms associated with novelty seeking, for instance, and novelty seeking is a feature of creativity. Studies of cognitive behavior have shown that you can change brain activation states, alter neurotransmitter levels and the receptors for those neurotransmitters and receptors. The premise of my book is that if we have the ability to change our brains with cognitive behavior therapy, why not use that power to become more novelty-seeking and therefore more creative?

Is creativity good for your health?

There's some literature that suggests that creativity reduces stress, and stress is related to heart problems and other health problems. But a study showing a direct correlation between creativity and health hasn't been done. There has, however, been research showing that creative activity in older people is associated with reduced dementia and increased longevity.

Published: December, 2010

Editor's Note: Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychologist, has written Your Creative Brain, a book about the psychology and neuroscience of creativity, and steps you can take to become more creative. The book is co-published by Harvard Health Publications. Here are some excerpts from an interview with Carson.