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Biology, Learning, Uncategorized

Thinking creatively requires suppressing your brain – sort of

At the work Christmas party yesterday, we were all attempting to come up with the names of specific Christmas carols based on different images. Things like a weigh scale sitting in a manger to represent “Away in a manger”. There was one in particular that I knew I didn’t have correct but I couldn’t stop my brain from thinking of the incorrect song. Our brains make these connections because it makes sense to have a quick answer. For example, if I’m walking in the woods and I only catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye, survival instinct says that I need to very quickly decide whether the thing I saw is neutral, dangerous, or a benefit. This isn’t the time to think creatively, according to my brain. As a consequence, we are designed to make associations and then stick to those associations. If I need a container to hold something to drink it makes sense that I use a glass because my brain knows that is what a glass is for.

At the same time, having the ability to think outside of the box can have advantages as well. A glass may be ideal for holding liquid but it can do a lot of other things as well. It can hold a small portion of treats so that I am less likely to overeat during the holidays. It can serve as a circle template for a craft I might make. It can help to amplify the speakers of my smartphone. The list could go on. The challenge is that making unusual connections requires that we suppress or inhibit the habitual thoughts.

A brain filled with a word cloud of words associated with what your brain does like feeling, habit, memory, belief, expectation, and story.
Our brains are pretty remarkable but sometimes it’s difficult to break old habits.
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Di Benardi Luft, et al (2018) conducted four different experiments with different subjects to see if they could identify how the brain suppresses the obvious connections allowing it to explore more creative connections. The brain uses different frequencies, one of which is called alpha. They used particular a technology, transcranial alternating current brain stimulation (tACS), a non-invasive procedure that has minimal to no side effects or sensation to test the differences between stimulating alpha waves from the right temporal lobe (located on the side of the brain), the left temporal lobe, and sham tACS (basically equivalent to placebo). Only the stimulation on the right temporal lobe improved the participants abilities to make less obvious connections, ie be more creative. They then confirmed this result with three additional experiments such as monitoring participants when coming up with unusual uses for particular objects, similar to my coming up with different ideas for how I could use a glass above. They found that these participants generated more right temporal alpha power compared to base levels.

So what are the implications for this research? It’s an interesting thought that we might be able to stimulate creativity, particularly in a time where the world really needs creative solutions to combatting complex issues like climate change. It also makes me wonder if there are innate and/or learned differences in how powerful an individual’s right temporal alpha waves are. Can you learn to be more creative? Are there natural situations that can help stimulate these waves or suppress them if needed?

So, just to take a second to go back to the title of the post “Thinking creatively requires suppressing your brain – sort of”. We aren’t actually suppressing our brain when we think creatively, we’re suppressing the habitual connections, the ones we are used to making. This allows our brains to make other connections that it isn’t used to making.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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