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The Creative Brain


As Muhammed Ali entered the ring to face George Foreman before their epic 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" fight, he noticed that the humid Zaire air had slightly loosened the tension in the ropes around the boxing ring. In that instant Ali came up with a plan with which to defeat the younger, stronger and much favoured heavyweight world champion. 

His plan was simple. He would lean back on the ropes and let Foreman hit him. For seven long rounds he endured a beast-like pounding from his opponent. By the 8th round, the champion was exhausted, whilst Ali had managed to disperse much of the impact of the blows into the dew-dampened ropes. He emerged relatively fresh and with a quick combination of punches floored Foreman and won the fight.

For Professor Vincent Walsh, who led this summer's Creative Brain event at The School of Life, this story ticks all the boxes as a prototypical example of creativity. 

How, I hear you cry, can getting punched repeatedly be thought of as creative? For Walsh, one of the UK's most respected cognitive neuroscientists, it is simple: Ali solved a real world problem in a new way; his plan required courage; and, importantly, Ali was an expert in his field. He had built up his intuition through many years of hard graft.  As he approached the ring this immense background knowledge allowed a moment of insight to bubble up into his consciousness giving him the chance to win the match.

So what was happening in Ali's brain during that moment of creative insight? And can this information help the rest of us to be more creative? Are there similar patterns of brain activity engaged when other creative acts take place: a mathematician comes up with an elegant new proof; a dancer interprets a new piece of music; a toddler scrawls her first ever drawing? In short, can scientists ever hope to pin down the neural signatures of creativity? 

Walsh is quick to point out that although an increasing number of scientists are considering this field, we are still a long way from finding a blueprint for creative thought, if indeed such a thing exists. A huge obstacle for scientists is how to capture and study creativity in the lab. We can't put the mathematician or the dancer or the artistic toddler into the brain scanner whilst they are being creative. And even if we could, the thundering belly of the machine and the sterile lab environment are likely to interrupt their creative flow. Instead scientists are usually reduced to using pared down puzzles and word games as a simulacrum of real-world creativity, since these can be done inside the scanner and do generate a (minor) moment of insight when the problem is solved. 

Whilst creativity in its entirety is still too hard a problem, too loosely defined, for neuroscientists to make any really useful headway, such experiments do demonstrate some interesting and relevant findings. 

For example it is clear that moments of insight call on multiple different brain regions in parallel: there is no single key brain region that generates creative insights. These experiments also show us that the unconscious parts of our brain solve problems well before our conscious brain is aware of the answer. Professor Joydeep Battacharya a neuroscientist at London's Goldsmiths University has been able to find a pattern of brain activity that predicts who will solve a word puzzle up to 8 seconds before the experimental participant reports that they know the answer! Further compelling research echoes what most of us have probably experienced ourselves: if we are left to sleep on a problem, then we are much more likely to solve it in a creative way. Sometimes turning off is the best way to make progress.

Interesting as this is, it stops well short of a full and useful neuroscientific account of the creative process. Creativity remains a slippery concept. It is extremely hard to define and very difficult to measure objectively. If we want to understand it better, or indeed improve our own creativity, we must break the process down into its component parts- the preparatory grind; the off-line incubation; the instinct required to choose a good problem; the ability to capitalize on the moment of insight and so on. Once these distinct processes are better understood in isolation, we can all set about acquiring the skills we lack and sharpening the ones that we already possess.

Dr Ben Martynoga is a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Medical Research. He hosts our regular special event series 'Grey Matters' in which he talks with key scientists working at the cutting edge of neuroscience, exploring the key advances and what they mean for how we live and make sense of the complex worlds we inhabit. New dates to be announced shortly.

[We have currently been unable to find copyright conditions for the image ‘ali vs foreman: un cadeau du président mobutu poster’ in Tom Hartley’s The Rumble in the Jungle: Mobutu’s Knockout Blow. The image is used to illustrate an article on the fight in question and is not intended to infringe on the posters’ original intentions.]

Posted by Dr Ben Martynoga on 26 September 2013

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