Creative Innovation: Possible Brain MechanismsShare
Creative thought involves communication between regions of the brain that are usually not strongly connected.
Being one of the true geniuses of the modern era, Albert Einstein recognized that a useful method for understanding the brain’s role in creativity was to study the brains of highly creative people. He also realized that there would be a great deal of interest in examining his own brain after his death, so he willed that his brain be removed before cremation. However, nearly all of the 240 blocks into which Einstein’s brain was dissected were lost and never analyzed.
Thirty years later, the Brodmann’s area 39 portion of Einstein’s brain was analyzed histologically by Marian C. Diamond, PhD, and colleagues. They reported that this area of Einstein’s brain contained a higher proportion of glial cells versus neurons, compared with the brains of control subjects. Assuming that the paucity of cortical neurons was not the result of aging (the control subjects were significantly younger than Einstein at the time of his death), how did the loss of neurons relate to Einstein’s creative genius?
When Einstein was about age 3, his parents brought him to a pediatrician because he was not yet talking. Researchers have learned that Einstein had developmental dyslexia. More than a century ago, it was found that lesions of the left angular gyrus—ie, Brodmann’s area 39—induce acquired alexia. Therefore, it is possible that people with developmental dyslexia may also have abnormalities in this region, Kenneth M. Heilman, MD, suggested in his lecture at the 17th Annual Meeting of the American Neuropsychiatric Association. In his view, however, the high ratio of glial cells to neurons that was reported by Diamond et al was less a sign of Einstein’s dyslexia than an indication of the high degree of what Dr. Heilman refers to as "connectivity."
After viewing photographs taken of Einstein’s brain before its dissection in 1955, Witelson and colleagues noted that Einstein had an enlarged left inferior and—unlike most human beings—undivided parietal lobe, suggesting that this bigger and more highly connected supramodal cortex gave Einstein an advantage in doing mathematics and spatial computations. In 1985, Geschwind and Galaburda posited that delay in the development of the left hemisphere of the brain may allow the right hemisphere, which mediates spatial computations, to become highly specialized. It was Einstein’s view that his own creativity was heavily dependent on spatial reasoning. Thus, the abnormal development of his left hemisphere may have led to the right hemisphere becoming highly specialized for spatial computations, Dr. Heilman theorized.
"If you have something going on in one side of the brain, [could] that ‘disinhibit’ the other side of the brain [into] developing even greater ability?" Dr. Heilman asked. "Could Einstein’s dyslexia and lack of development of his left hemisphere have allowed his right hemisphere to grow and be well connected and to have excellent modules?... People who have tremendous creativity also have tremendous connectivity."
FINDING THE THREAD THAT UNITES
According to Dr. Heilman, who is the James E. Rooks, Jr, Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Health Psychology at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine in Gainesville, connectivity is a key component of "creative innovation," a concept that combines two of the four stages of creativity—incubation and illumination (the others are preparation and verification)—identified by Hermann Helmholtz in 1826.
In an article titled "Creative Innovation: Possible Brain Mechanisms" appearing in Neurocase in 2003, Dr. Heilman and his colleagues, Stephen E. Nadeau, MD, and David O. Beversdorf, MD, defined creative innovation as "the ability to understand and express novel orderly relationships." A high level of general intelligence, domain-specific knowledge, and special skills are necessary for creative innovation, but even when they coincide, these three components are not sufficient for creative innovation. One further crucial component is the ability to develop alternative solutions—otherwise known as "divergent thinking"—yet, even the coexistence of specialized knowledge and divergent thinking is not enough to enable an individual to find the thread that unites the two.
"Finding this thread might require the binding of different forms of knowledge, stored in separate cortical modules that have not been previously associated," the authors wrote. "Thus, creative innovation might require the coactivation and communication between regions of the brain that ordinarily are not strongly connected."
Based on the findings of anatomic studies, it appears that creative individuals such as Einstein may have alterations of specific regions of the brain’s posterior neocortical region. At the same time, it has been observed that creative innovation frequently takes place during times of diminished arousal (eg, sleep) and that many well-known creative people have experienced depression, suggesting that alterations of such neurotransmitters as norepinephrine might play a critical role in creativity. In the view of Dr. Heilman and his coauthors, highly creative individuals "may be endowed with brains that are capable of storing extensive specialized knowledge in their temporoparietal cortex, be capable of frontal mediated divergent thinking, and have a special ability to modulate the frontal lobe-locus coeruleus (norepinephrine) system, such that during creative innovation cerebral levels of norepinephrine diminish, leading to the discovery of novel orderly relationships."
In his lecture and in a follow-up interview with NeuroPsychiatry Reviews, Dr. Heilman focused on the importance of divergent thinking in creative innovation, how our understanding of its neurobiologic underpinnings has evolved over the past two centuries, and the clinical implications of depression and other brain disorders for future neuropharmacologic treatments.
"To be creative, people need to break away from what they have been taught to believe, and thus divergent thinking is a critical element of creativity," he said. "Patients who have their frontal lobe[s] removed or injured cannot perform divergent thinking…. The major hypothesis of this talk is that creativity is dependent upon the ability to diverge and then form innovative solutions.
"The development of innovative solutions is dependent on the ability to coactivate anatomically distinct representational networks that store different forms of knowledge. This simultaneous distributed activation … may allow people to develop alternative innovative solutions, thereby finding the thread that unites."
ENCOURAGING CREATIVITY BY FOSTERING INDEPENDENT THINKING
Dr. Heilman cited several items that are important for clinicians to know to get a handle on current research into creativity and the brain. Besides the importance of both divergent and "convergent" thinking, he observed that "many people who are very creative have a higher incidence of mood and addiction disorders [and that while] many neurologic disorders can reduce creativity … there are some that might enhance creativity."
As an example of the latter, he cited the work of Miller and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, describing a series of patients with frontotemporal dementia who acquired new artistic abilities despite evidence of deterioration in the left anterior temporal lobe (see NeuroPsychiatry Reviews, June 2003, page 1). "These are people who had no history of artistic production," Dr. Heilman said. "They actually became creative—perhaps because the deterioration on the left side ‘disinhibited’ their right side, and the right side got creative doing artistic things."
Regarding mood and addiction disorders, Dr. Heilman explored the links among creativity and sleep, dreaming, rest and relaxation, and depression, and observed that one thread uniting them all is changes in neurotransmitter systems. Two components indispensable to divergent thinking appear to be disengagement and the ability to develop alternative solutions. To arrive at a creative solution to a persistently unsolvable problem, an individual must often change the method by which he or she has already attempted to solve the problem—in other words, think outside the box. Observations on problem solving have included William James’ view, expressed in 1890, that the ability to switch strategies is integral to divergent thinking and Charles Spearman’s suggestion in 1931 that creativity results from bringing together two or more ideas that previously have been isolated. One way to solve a persistent problem, then, would be to see it in a "new light" by combining different forms of knowledge and cognitive strategies mediated by the two hemispheres of the brain.
Dr. Heilman cited as examples a number of scientists who reported solving a difficult scientific problem while asleep or when falling asleep or awakening from sleep. He also pointed to the association between creativity and novelty seeking and the high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, bipolar depression, and monodepression among such creative types as writers, composers, musicians, and fine artists. Based on what is known from existing evidence, such associations raise more questions than answers, according to Dr. Heilman. "For example, does treatment of depression and bipolar disorder influence creativity, and what are the effects of different treatments?" he asked.
PROMOTING CREATIVE THINKING
Can creativity in individuals be encouraged regardless of the makeup of their brain, or are we limited by such factors as the number of glial cells and amount of white matter? "I believe creativity can be ‘encouraged,’" Dr. Heilman responded. "We have known for decades that when young rodents are put in a stimulating environment, they have a much richer neural network than their sibs who were not raised in this environment. Thus, bringing up children in an enriched environment and making certain that they receive a good education is critical for their brain development.
"The frontal lobes appear to be the part of the cortex that is most important for creativity, in that they are critical for divergent thinking and might modulate the coactivation of diverse cognitive networks so important in innovation. The means by which family and friends might be able to encourage the development of the frontal lobes is to encourage independent and divergent thinking."
Apart from such sociocultural interventions, Dr. Heilman believes that there is a limit to the extent to which neuropsychiatry and neuroscience can enhance creativity, particularly with regard to the development of new neuropharmacologic treatments. "It is possible that certain drugs taken by people might enhance creativity and others inhibit creativity," he said, citing an editorial titled "Cosmetic Neurology," written by one of his former fellows, Anjan Chatterjee. "But physicians have learned that ‘when it is not broke, do not attempt to fix it.’ In other words, if you alter a person’s homeostasis, there might be a price paid."