Is that creative??

Bad artists copy. Great artists steal. ~Picasso

You know you’ve done something creative when you’ve produced something novel, meaningful, and useful. But when have I produced something truly novel?! meaningful?! or useful?! While it might be somewhat helpful, this common definition for creativity is still rather fuzzy.

Can we agree about whether or not something is novel? Well, what if you have an idea at the same time as someone else? Certainly, the idea is new for each of the creators but not for everyone else. After all, the one who tells the world about their idea first is generally considered the originator. As it turns out, having a creative thought that someone else shares is probably the norm rather than the exception. Ideas happen in people connected to a common world – having similar thoughts to someone else exposed to a similar environment shouldn’t seem all that surprising.

If we put the words ‘meaningful’ and ‘useful’ under the same microscope, many similar issues arise. What is useful to me is not necessarily useful to you. What is useful tomorrow is not necessarily useful today. Does that mean you weren’t creative when you thought up your great idea, but you were when it became widely recognized and started making money?

With all this fuzziness, how can we ever get a better handle on what creativity involves? For starters, many studies in psychology have already helped to point out some of the more important insights about creativity, such as having a solid knowledge base and being open to new experiences. In addition, recent studies in neuroscience, particularly those involving brain imaging, are helping us understand the underlying neurobiology of creative thinking – after all, the brain is the organ central to our shared experiences.

For instance, we know that the medial (midline) frontal cortex of the brain seems to be involved in cognitive control and divergent thinking. We know that the areas involved heavily in processing language are not necessary for visual arts, and that even being able to see or think in colour is not necessary for being an excellent painter. Amazingly, some people with advancing Alzheimer’s or dementia can actually become more drawn to visual arts – though it isn’t clear why. Following Harvard Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, she described a heightened sense of colour and visual creativity.

Some neuroscientists are even attempting to investigate the cellular and neurochemical underpinnings of creativity. For instance, a study by Manzano and colleagues used PET imaging to investigate the link between D2 dopamine receptor levels and creative thinking. They showed that psychological tests of divergent thinking (i.e. the ability to produce many novel and meaningful responses to open-ended questions, like coming up with as many different uses for a paper clip as possible) were negatively correlated to D2 receptors in the thalamus – an area in the center of the brain known to be a relay station for sensory information, but also believed to be involved in many other functions such as consciousness. Because D2 receptor activation inhibits cells, lower D2 receptors (less ability to inhibit cell signalling) may result in increased information flow and thus, an increased ability for divergent thinking.

While these findings in neuroscience are tremendously important, it’s important to remember that they are only the beginning of the picture. The importance of knowledge, openness to experiences, and learning to emotionally regulate (i.e. to control our inwardly felt and outwardly expressed emotional responses), for instance, still make up a better approach to being creative. For instance, individuals with more emotional control are often considered ‘wiser’ – contrary to our popular notion of the erratic artist – and may be considered more creative, in that they may have more insights, are less impulsive, and are generally better decision makers.

While dopamine is very likely involved in all of these aspects, it is probably premature to map this single neurotransmitter directly onto the psychological level. D2 receptors may be related to divergent thinking but there are many open questions. D2 receptor levels change over time, so am I more creative when they are low? Are thalamic D2 receptors key players in creativity as a whole? Many neurotransmitters/neurohormones, like serotonin, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and others are also likely involved. Instead of attempting to alter levels of a single brain chemical, it currently makes the most sense in our everyday lives to approach the issue of creativity from the neuropsychological level – using known practices and wisdom to broadly affect your brain and the world around you.

The brain sciences are providing insights every day to challenge and clarify the way we think about fuzzy concepts like creativity. In the end, the best overall approach to creativity is likely still expressed by Pasteur’s dictum – “Chance favours the prepared mind”.


Hennessey BA, & Amabile TM (2010). Creativity. Annual review of psychology, 61, 569-98 PMID: 19575609

de Manzano O, Cervenka S, Karabanov A, Farde L, & Ullén F (2010). Thinking outside a less intact box: thalamic dopamine D2 receptor densities are negatively related to psychometric creativity in healthy individuals. PloS one, 5 (5) PMID: 20498850

Meeks TW, & Jeste DV (2009). Neurobiology of wisdom: a literature overview. Archives of general psychiatry, 66 (4), 355-65 PMID: 19349305

Mell JC, Howard SM, & Miller BL (2003). Art and the brain: the influence of frontotemporal dementia on an accomplished artist. Neurology, 60 (10), 1707-10 PMID: 12771276

Miller BL, & Hou CE (2004). Portraits of artists: emergence of visual creativity in dementia. Archives of neurology, 61 (6), 842-4 PMID: 15210520

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Is our self nothing but reward?

In a new article entitled “Is our self nothing but reward?“, Georg Northoff and I discuss the potential relationship between reward and self. We explore these notoriously challenging concepts in an attempt to suggest ways in which brain researchers from each field might benefit by considering the other.


Northoff G, & Hayes DJ (2011). Is Our Self Nothing but Reward? Biological psychiatry PMID: 21276963

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Brains never rest

Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our own head.

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When William James, the preeminent psychologist and philosopher, wrote this he was largely referring to the notion that much of how we interpret the world depends on our prior knowledge and experiences. This suggests that we don’t perceive the world as it actually is, but rather as a dynamic sketch, approximating reality, which relies heavily on our conscious and/or unconscious personal histories.

When Marcus Raichle, neurologist and neuroscientist at Washington University, quoted James’ phrase in a recent article, he did so to draw a line from the psychological to the neuroscientific. It turns out that some of that stuff ‘coming out of our own head’ and impacting our perceptions might be related to intrinsic brain activity commonly referred to as the resting state. Of course all brain activity can be thought of as ‘intrinsic’ in its basic sense, but the notion behind intrinsic resting state activity is that there are areas of the brain that are most active when we’re not doing anything at all. In fact, although the brain is only 2% of your body weight, it uses around 20% of the energy you consume and most of that goes to resting state activity, like when you’re daydreaming or lying down – as opposed to stimulus-related activity.

What’s more, this resting state activity isn’t dispersed evenly throughout the brain, according mostly to brain imaging studies, but appears to show distinct patterns of activation. For instance, if you subtract the functional brain images taken of someone while they were performing a task from images of them taken when they’re asked to stare blankly ahead or when they close their eyes, you end up with a distinct pattern of activations (predominantly cortical and subcortical midline brain areas) known as the default-mode network.

If you take this same approach in some people with psychiatric disorders (like schizophrenia or major depression), you find that the resting state activity across the default-mode network is substantially altered. For instance, people with depression show higher resting state activity in many of these midline brain regions (e.g. perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial thalamus); the activity in the anterior cingulate, especially, may be related to the high degree of negative self-ruminations that many of these people experience. These same areas show increased activity in animal models as well, allowing for a more detailed understanding of the underlying neurobiology – although this line of research is just beginning (as, for instance, my colleagues and I discussed in a recent paper).

While understanding resting state activity has amazing potential implications for how we think about brain function and human behaviour, it’s far from clear what this all means. For example: Can we change our resting state activity, for example, through meditation? What would that mean at the psychological level in our everyday lives? Another issue is that although it may be important to further investigate resting state activity, the concept of a true resting state (i.e. the absence of any sensory information) seems to be methodologically impossible to achieve (e.g. it’s hard to get a sensory deprivation chamber into the MRI). Nonetheless, using multiple approaches to approximate the true resting state conditions, such as using imaging during eyes closed vs. eyes open while in a relaxed state etc., will allow neuroscientists to better understand its role – and could lead to many new insights into brain function.


Alcaro A, Panksepp J, Witczak J, Hayes DJ, Northoff G. 2010. Is subcortical-cortical midline activity in depression mediated by glutamate and GABA? A cross-species translational approach. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 34:592-605.

Grimm S, Ernst J, Boesiger P, Schuepbach D, Hell D, Boeker H, Northoff G. 2009. Increased self-focus in major depressive disorder is related to neural abnormalities in subcortical-cortical midline structures. Human Brain Mapping 30:2617-27.

Northoff G, Duncan NW, & Hayes DJ (2010). The brain and its resting state activity–experimental and methodological implications. Progress in neurobiology, 92 (4), 593-600 PMID: 20888388

Raichle ME. 2010. Two views of brain function. Trends in Cognitive Science. 14:180-90.

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Building better ideas

photo by erin e booth

Creativity: something everyone wants to achieve and be recognized for, regardless of profession, yet few can agree on exactly what it is.

Posing the question “What is creativity?” to others is like asking “What is art?” The variety of answers you’ll end up with, and the disagreements around all of the details in between those definitions, will likely overwhelm. As a neuroscientist and amateur drummer, I’ve sometimes wondered if I’ve ever been truly creative – especially since the standard definition for something that is creative – “a novel, meaningful, and useful creation” – is somewhat ambiguous. We’ve all had minor moments of creativity, but have you ever created something that was obviously new and meaningful? The chasm between me and, say, an Einstein or a Buddy Rich seems impossibly untraversable. But is it?

When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed people well known for their creative achievements for his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, many of them said that their creativity couldn’t be naturally explained while others outright refused to be interviewed on such a ridiculous topic. Those who did try to explain the source of their creativity often provided fuzzy analogies or head-scratching anecdotes. While it might be difficult to pin down the precise origin of a creative thought, there are many points to be gleamed from the brain sciences.

Some of these insights include:

  • Creative ideas are most likely to come to those who are open to new experiences, willing to take risks, and aren’t dissuaded and overly stressed by perceived failures.
  • If you want to vastly improve your chances of being highly creative, you should start by developing specialized knowledge – remember Louis Pasteur’s “chance favours the prepared mind”. You don’t need to go to any sort of school for this, but working or studying under someone who is considered creative gives you an extra advantage.
  • This openness and development of knowledge should be intrinsically motivated – so pursuing creative endeavours (e.g. painting, designing buildings, or doing scientific experiments) for external rewards (e.g. money or power) will likely not result in novel, meaningful, creations.
  • A creative person is not able to ‘tell’ you how they are creative, unless they have been trained to do so.
  • Get involved with others who are considered creative and who are working in creative environments that support their endeavours.
  • IQ, or measures of general intelligence, does not correlate well with creativity.
  • Maintaining a positive emotional state, which is helped by working in positive environments, improves the probability of creative thinking.
  • A certain level of stress, which seems to be specific for each person (e.g. having a deadline or engaging in group brain storming), also helps to foster creative thought – but spitting out ideas in groups where the members themselves are not overly creative will likely only lead to more mediocre ideas.

These points help to underscore why we should all be interested in understanding creativity. As opposed to being a mysterious process of the few, creativity is something that almost all of us can develop and utilize. While there are still many unknowns, it is clear that there are many aspects involved in defining creativity. Because of this complexity and a lack of conceptual clarity, however, even contemporary neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers have often disagreed about many of the details. The good news is that this leaves plenty of room for cross-disciplinary discussion and future exploration.

Some of the challenges of truly understanding the fuzzy concept ‘creativity’, particularly in neuroscience, are becoming more commonly discussed in the media (for instance, recently in the Globe & Mail). It might well be that this broader coverage is just what’s needed to get more people thinking about some creative solutions of their own.

Csikszentmihalyi M. 1996. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.
Hennessey BA, Amabile TM. 2010. Creativity. Ann Rev Psychol 61: 569-98.
Mumford MD. 2003. Where have we been, where are we going? Taking stock in creativity research. Creativity Research Journal 15: 107–120.

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Play science

The sheer volume of new knowledge continually flooding our senses makes good science education more important than ever before. (Though I’ve always found the notion of ‘science’ education, in isolation from other types of education, strange, given that the general goal of education should be to help us better understand ourselves and our world.) This was, no doubt, on the mind of Nobel Prize winning physicist Carl Wieman when he decided to move away from physics research in order to develop the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at the University of British Columbia in Canada. The goal of this 5 year, 12 million dollar, project was to dramatically improve undergraduate science education using an evidence-based approach. Simply, determine scientifically how and what students should learn and then implement effective strategies to facilitate the process. Some of the amazing work to date (found on the CWSEI site) underscores the value of actively constructing knowledge, peer-to-peer interactions, and strategic testing techniques which have proven invaluable to undergraduate learning and engagement. To read about “A new model for post-secondary education, the Optimized University” by Dr Wieman, go here.

While these strategies are effective for undergrad students, one important question remains: “What strategies are effective for younger students?” In general, the evidence to date suggests that the same factors are involved regardless of age. This is emphasized beautifully by a recent article published in the journal Biology Letters in which a group of 8 to 10 year old students designed and undertook (and wrote up!) experiments showing how bumble-bees use colour and spatial cues to decide from which flowers to forage – which they called the Blackawton Bees project. This approach, in which the children worked together, interacted with local experts (a teacher and a neuroscientist), actively discussed and tested ideas and hypotheses, and integrated information (via words and pictures – they actually drew the figures used in the paper themselves), parallels nicely the findings from the CWSEI regarding undergraduates.

In short, it appears that the best way to learn (and to produce a viable product) is to play. Motivating young students in this way may also prove to be an invaluable foundation for future learning – perhaps making Dr Wieman’s undergrads even better suited for the challenges ahead.

Blackawton PS, Airzee S, Allen A, Baker S, Berrow A, Blair C, Churchill M, Coles J, Cumming RF, Fraquelli L, Hackford C, Hinton Mellor A, Hutchcroft M, Ireland B, Jewsbury D, Littlejohns A, Littlejohns GM, Lotto M, McKeown J, O’Toole A, Richards H, Robbins-Davey L, Roblyn S, Rodwell-Lynn H, Schenck D, Springer J, Wishy A, Rodwell-Lynn T, Strudwick D, & Lotto RB (2011). Blackawton bees. Biology letters, 7 (2), 168-72 PMID: 21177694

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