Creative Brains Are Wired Differently…But What Does The Wiring?

The Conversation recently had an article about a study that purports to show why some people are more creative than others.

The study performed fMRI scans on people while asking them to undergo a test of divergent thinking and then compared the scan results against the scores on the divergent thinking test.  The test basically asks people to come up with different uses for mundane objects.

Some ideas were more creative than others. For the sock, one participant suggested using it to warm your feet – the common use for a sock – while another participant suggested using it as a water filtration system.

Importantly, we found that people who did better on this task also tended to report having more creative hobbies and achievements, which is consistent with previous studies showing that the task measures general creative thinking ability.

My first thought upon reading this was, wouldn’t this sort of test have a bias toward people who have had an opportunity for a greater range of experiences, opportunities and exposure? For example, I would have been likely to suggest a sock as a filtration system based on a blog post I wrote 8 years ago about groups using song and dance to teach people to fold a cloth eight times and use it as a water filter.

To my chagrin, I realized I might have just proved their point by citing my creative hobby in an attempt to refute them. Not to mention, the fact that I needed to recall that article 8 years later might prove some type of neurological factor at work as well.

To paraphrase their findings, they discovered the brain regions within the “high-creative” network belonged to three specific brain systems: the default, (daydreaming, imagining); executive, (control, evaluation, revision); and salience (switching mechanism between default and executive).

An interesting feature of these three networks is that they typically don’t get activated at the same time…Our results suggest that creative people are better able to co-activate brain networks that usually work separately.

Our findings indicate that the creative brain is “wired” differently and that creative people are better able to engage brain systems that don’t typically work together.

Is that ability to engage different brain systems one that can be applied consciously? Does that ability allow you to make novel connections between seemingly dissimilar concepts? Or is it that neural pathways exist that facilitate engaging different brain systems and those brain systems working in tandem result in the novel connections between the dissimilar? I suspect it is the latter.

Getting back to my original concern about whether opportunity plays a significant role in creativity, the last paragraphs of the article note that while Creative brains are wired differently, it isn’t clear whether this wiring is inborn or can be developed.

Future research is needed to determine whether these networks are malleable or relatively fixed. For example, does taking drawing classes lead to greater connectivity within these brain networks? Is it possible to boost general creative thinking ability by modifying network connections?

The degree to which creativity can be taught may have implications on people’s capacity to be taught problem solving both in technical and sociopolitical applications.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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