Creativity in the Brain

What is creativity and can we actually study its underpinnings in the brain? It’s no simple challenge but doing so may yield key insights into what makes us human.

Creativity is generally understood as the generation of novel and useful ideas. But “creativity” as a scientific term is complicated since it is not a single process but encompasses many different cognitive processes such as idea generation, problem-solving, artistic improvisation and more. What’s more, a wide variety of methodological approaches are being used to study these different types of creative thinking, many of which require a subjective interpretation of the ‘creativity’ of the result. This has resulted in wide and varied results with respect to brain activity and there is still no real consensus as to whether there actually are any core regions or effects that underpin “creativity” as a whole, or if it even makes sense to look for them.

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A Changing Brain is a Normal Brain

A normal brain is not a particular network pattern but one that can reconfigure itself with experience.

Scientists have recognized for decades that children’s brains change as they develop and learn. Neurons or the nerve cells that make up our brains, receive stimulus from the world through the senses and are constantly growing out long extensions or cables in search of one another to form connections. These connections, called synapses, largely arise or strengthen when the neurons are sharing information or are active during the same stimulus. Cells that carry related information, therefore, become more strongly connected than those that carry unrelated information. Children are born with many more neurons and synapses than adults, initially arranged in a loose and imprecise network.

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Linking Cognitive Science with Neuroscience

How can the theories of Cognitive Science developed from observations of human behavior be reconciled with Neuroscience or the behavior of the brain?

You’ve probably heard of multiple intelligences—such as verbal, spatial, abstract, analytic, emotional, musical, and physical (or others, depending on who you ask). There are also “the three learning styles,” (audio / visual / kinesthetic) and the Myers-Briggs classifications (I’m INTP, I think)—all different ways of modeling cognitive individuality. There is also “theory of mind,” growth mindset versus fixed mindset, autistic and schizotypal tendencies, and of course, individual preferences and desires. All these complex aspects of individuality are to some degree hypothetical. I mean, “theory of mind” for example definitely refers to abilities that people have to varying degrees, but what those abilities are made of—that remains hypothetical. Ditto for the rest of the above.

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Culture in the Brain

How does the culture you grow up in reflect in your brain?

We are all different. We each have a different genetic lineage, a different upbringing, We live in different geographies, speak different languages, observe different social codes. That is our cultural diversity. Our humanity.

But how easy is it to use techniques such as EEG to show these kinds of cross-cultural differences at the level of the brain? And can a relatively small number of self-selected participants recruited for these kinds of studies do justice to the diverse array of individuals that represent a particular culture?

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Human neuroscience – Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science, and Data-sharing

The future of human neuroscience lies in crowdsourcing, citizen science, and data sharing but it is not without its minefields.

A recent Scientific American article by Daniel Goodwin, “Why Neuroscience Needs Hackers,” makes the case that neuroscience, like many fields today, is drowning in data, begging for application of advances in computer science like machine learning. Neuroscientists are able to gather realms of neural data, but often without big data mechanisms and frameworks to synthesize them.

The SA article describes the work of Sebastian Seung, a Princeton neuroscientist, who recently mapped the neural connections of the human retina from an “overwhelming mass” of electron microscopy data using state of the art A.I. and massive crowd-sourcing. Seung incorporated the A.I. into a game called “Eyewire” where 1,000s of volunteers scored points while improving the neural map. Although the article’s title emphasizes advanced A.I., Dr. Seung’s experiment points even more to crowdsourcing and open science, avenues for improving research that have suddenly become easy and powerful with today’s internet. Eyewire perhaps epitomizes successful crowdsourcing — using an application that gathers, represents, and analyzes data uniformly according to researchers’ needs.

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The Impact of Modern Life on the Human Brain

We live in the Anthropocene age – the recent age of modern man. An age where humankind is now the dominant influence over our planet.

And although it might sometimes seem that modern life has managed to penetrate all corners of the globe, anyone who has taken the time to stray off the beaten track can tell you that the advancement of modern man has not been uniform. In fact you don’t have to travel that far to find people whose way of life has hardly changed for hundreds or even thousands of years. People who have somehow managed to remain impervious to a modern way of life that so many of us take for granted.

But how has this modernization imprinted itself on our brain? What is the neural impact of having increased access to a good education; of using novel devices and technologies which require a different way of thinking; of travelling across the country, and the globe, at increasingly faster speeds, seeking new sights and meeting new people?

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For Cognitive Flexibility, Forget the Past

Being flexible in our approach to the future often requires the ability to inhibit or forget the past.

In 1942, Abraham Luchins published a seminal experiment called the “Water Jug Problem”. In this experiment he asked his participants to answer a series of numerical problems where they had to define an equation based on the capacity of each jug that delivered the desired quantity. The problem could be solved using one solution, or sometimes both the first solution and an alternative simpler one. The experiment was designed in a particular way to explore how their experience of solving the initial problems using a specific formula, prevented them from realizing that the latter ones could be solved using a different, more efficient approach.

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Early Childhood Experience Defines Brain Development

Early childhood experience has a profound impact on structural and dynamical features of the brain and may shed light on precursors of brain dysfunction.

In the year 2000, 136 abandoned children in Bucharest were enrolled in a now famous study. The Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) was a longitudinal study examining the impact of institutionalization on young children. After completing a variety of bench-line assessments, half the participants were moved from the institutions to high-quality, study-organized foster homes.

Children were moved from the institutions between 6-months and 31-months of age, with 22-months being the average. All of the children – those raised in institutions and those raised in foster care – were assessed at regular intervals to evaluate how their home environments might be influencing their development. The results were sobering. All of the children exhibited “profound deficits in many domains examined.” Lower IQ, changes in how they experienced and processed rewards, and a tendency towards behavioral and psychological disorders were observed at alarming rates. Though placing children in high-quality foster care did improve their development outcomes, the earlier they were removed from institutional care the more recovery could be expected. Removal before the age of two was paramount to success.

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The Myth of the Average Brain

Imagine navigating any individual city based on an average map of several cities, it is not so different with the brain.

You don’t need me to tell you that the most unique aspect of you is your mind. How often have you wondered if anyone can truly understand you? Consider; we are relatively unsurprised at the existence of look-alikes, whether twins or not—amusing, but hardly miraculous. But what about someone who thinks and feels exactly like you? We don’t expect that even of clones (see the new television show Orphan Black for a cogent dramatization). Strangely though, we don’t tend to think of this individuality in terms of differences between brains—as if we’re still in the age of Descartes’ mind-body dualism and the incorporeal soul. If you have a problem with your heart you’ll directly consult a heart-specialist, but if you have a problem with how you think or feel, you’ll see a psychiatrist long before you consult a neuroscientist!

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Neural networks plasticity help the integration of new information

The human brain has a region of cells responsible for linking sensory cues to actions and behaviors and cataloging the link as a memory. Cells that form these links have been deemed highly stable and fixed.

Now, the findings of a Harvard Medical School study challenge that model, revealing that the neurons responsible for such tasks may be less stable, yet more flexible than previously believed.

The results, published Aug. 17 in the journal Cell, cast doubt on the traditional notion that memory formation involves hardwiring information into the brain in a fixed and highly stable pattern.

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