Published on: December 10, 2018
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Creativity is a broad concept that is often characterized by the ability to perceive the world in novel ways, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate innovative and useful solutions. While creativity was once thought to reside in the right hemisphere of the brain, we now know that the entire brain is involved in the creative process, says Dr. Sarah McKay, an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist and the author of The Women’s Brain Book: The Neuroscience of Health, Hormones and Happiness.
Scientists have started to identify the specific thinking processes and brain regions involved with creativity. Recent research conducted by Dr. Roger Beaty and his colleagues, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in early 2018, found that the brains of highly creative individuals were “wired” differently than the brains of less creative thinkers. In particular, individuals with more-creative brains were better able to co-activate brain networks that typically work separately, compared with those with less-creative brains.
In this study, Dr. Beaty and his research team sought to determine what makes some individuals more creative than others. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, the researchers measured changes in blood flow in various areas of the brain while participants were engaged in a divergent-thinking test called the “alternate uses task” (which involves coming up with inventive ways to use everyday objects, such as a gum wrapper or a sock). The researchers then ranked the participants’ ideas for originality – common uses received lower scores (for instance, using a sock to warm your feet), while uncommon uses received higher scores (for instance, using a sock as a water filtration system).
The researchers found that those participants who were more innovative had strong connections between three brain systems: the default, executive, and salience networks. The default network is a set of brain regions that activate when people are engaged in spontaneous thinking, such as mind-wandering, daydreaming, and imagining. The executive control network is a set of regions that activate when people need to focus or control their thought processes.
The salience network is a set of regions that acts as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks.
These three networks usually do not get activated simultaneously. For instance, when the executive network is activated, the default network is generally deactivated. Interestingly enough, the more creative participants were capable of activating these three networks in tandem. “It’s the synchrony between these systems that seems to be important for creativity,” Dr. Beaty says. “People who think more flexibly and come up with more creative ideas are better able to engage these networks that don’t typically work together and bring these systems online.”
Based on their findings, Dr. Beaty and his colleagues developed a predictive model and tested against brain scan data collected from previously-published studies on creativity. “[W]e wanted to see whether someone with weak connectivity in [these networks] has less-creative ideas than someone with stronger connectivity,” Dr. Beaty notes. “And that’s what we found across three data sets.” According to Dr. Beaty, more research is needed in order to determine whether these brain systems are malleable or relatively fixed. “Creativity is complex, and we’re only scratching the surface here, so there’s much more work that’s needed.”
CREATIVITY AND MENTAL HEALTH
A growing body of research suggests that engaging in creative practices can help to alleviate depression and anxiety, while enhancing quality of life and significantly reducing stress. Below are some highlights from recent studies that have explored the link between creativity and mental health:
A 2012 study, published in Art Therapy, examined the psychological effects of art-making in a sample of nearly 60 undergraduate students during examination time. Participants were randomly assigned to either an art-making group (engaging in activities such as painting, colouring pre-designed mandalas, making collages, and modeling with clay) or a control group. The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (routinely used in the medical sciences to determine the level of situational and long-term characteristics of a person’s anxiety) was administered to both groups of participants before and after art-making. The researchers found that a brief period of art-making can significantly reduce a person’s state of anxiety.
According to a study published in 2016 in ecancermedicalscience, singing in a choir for one hour boosts levels of immune proteins in individuals affected by cancer, reduces stress, and improves mood, which in turn could have a positive impact on overall health. The researchers examined nearly 200 members of five different choirs before and after their singing practices. They found that positive affect was increased (being happy, relaxed, and feeling connected), negative affect decreased (feeling anxious, sad, tense, tired), and cortisol – the stress hormone – decreased. The researchers also found that those with the lowest levels of mental wellbeing and highest levels of depression experienced greatest mood improvement, associated with lower levels of inflammation in the body.
Numerous studies have suggested that writing can calm mental agitation. One recent study from Michigan State University, published in Psychophysiology in 2017, found that chronically worried people who engage in “expressive writing” (i.e. writing about their feelings) performed better on an upcoming stressful task than those who did not engage in expressive writing beforehand. “Worrying takes up cognitive resources,” says the study’s lead author Hans Schroder, a Michigan State University doctoral student in psychology and a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital. “Our findings show that if you get these worries out of your head through expressive writing, those cognitive resources are freed up to work toward the task you’re completing and you become more efficient.”
An article published in Perspectives in Public Health in January 2018 examined whether engaging in art-making could improve overall mental wellbeing. Participants were artists who completed questionnaires about art-making, mood, cognition, and state of consciousness. The study found that art-making was significantly associated with positive affect rather than negative affect, both in the present moment and in long-term contexts. Participants were also found to be in the “state of flow” when they created art. Flow is all about “being immersed in a task,” according to Dr. McKay, and is “incredibly motivating and has positive impacts on mood.”
ART THERAPY AND ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Art therapy provides an avenue for non-verbal self-expression, which represents a unique means of intervention for people with limited verbal skills due to a physical, psychological, or neurological incapacity. Art projects can create a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
A wealth of research has suggested that art therapy is particularly positive for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. “[B]eing involved in creative endeavours for their own sake is satisfying, and experiencing positive emotions is so important for overall health,” says Dr. McKay. Watercolours, oil painting, making collages or pottery, and enjoying music are just a few of the creative therapies that are available to people living with cognitive disorders.
“It is not just about finding a cure, it’s about improving the lives of those living with dementia today,” says Nalini Sen, Director of Research for the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada.
ART THERAPY SHOWS GREAT PROMISE FOR BOOSTING THE QUALITY OF LIFE OF THOSE LIVING WITH COGNITIVE DISORDERS.
Art therapy consists of a “non-directive approach centred on the person, which encourages free and spontaneous expression,” says Sen.
When participating in art therapy, patients with Alzheimer’s disease are stimulated cognitively, emotionally, and through their senses, and “they experience improvement in feelings of wellbeing and mood.” Anxiety levels can decrease, and art-making or participatory practices can help to validate personal experiences and histories, says Sen. The social interaction involved in art therapies is another significant piece of the puzzle as well. “[E]specially for individuals with dementia, it can reduce the risk of increased decline within the disease,” says Sen, as various studies have now demonstrated. While it will not eliminate the disease, the creativity and happiness that art therapy brings can make all the difference in the life of a loved one who has been progressively in decline.
AMPLIFY YOUR CREATIVE SIDE
According to Dr. Sarah McKay, we all have the ability to maximize our creativity. The following is a list of some of her top tips on how to amplify your creative side:
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