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Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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March 12, 2004

The Neurobiology of Creativity

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Yesterday's Redwood Neuroscience Institute's Stanford Theoretical Neuroscience Lecture featured William Calvin from the University of Washington.

The general theme of his talk was creativity. "How you do something you’ve never done exactly that way before, yet get it right the first time?"

His answer: You can have competitions between categories, between movement programs, between relations, between analogies. That’s what a Darwin Machine in neocortex could buy you: a general process for quality creativity at various levels.

Some of the most interesting work on the neurobiology of creativity is being conducted by Dr. Rosa-Aurora Chavez from the National Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico City. To determine if there was a genetic component to creativity, she took blood samples from 100 recognized artists and scientists. Her findings showed that highly creative individuals had increased expression of specific serotonin transporter and dopamine receptor genes.

She then performed functional neuroimaging experiments on a dozen of these creative minds, concluding that creative individuals had significantly higher activation in the right and left cerebellum, frontal and temporal lobes, while they performed creative tasks.

Creativity research has important implications for business innovation and investment. While standard IQ tests and college entrance exams focus on convergent thinking, i.e. finding the right answer, creative individuals excel at divergent thinking, i.e. discovering multiple potential solutions. The typical behaviors of creative individuals, such as novelty seeking and harm avoidance, as well as, high emotional, sensual and physical over-excitability, often result in the abandonment of projects.

In today’s rushed corporate world focused on quenching the financial markets thirst for efficiency, there is little room for individuals who do not predictably meet deadlines. Further research might validate that sustained financial support of think tanks could produce more innovations. Imagine if the Medici family had not backed Michelangelo, a creative genius who is known to have left over half of his sculptures unfinished.

How many cures for diseases and market opportunities have been missed as a result of short-circuiting the creative process?

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neurosociety


1. Denny on March 12, 2004 2:59 PM writes...

Some thoughts... Yes, the frontal lobes would be essential for creativity, because what they do is associate (creativity = the making of novel associations). The right frontal associates all sorts of images that are sensed to be important (because of the emotional reaction to them). The right frontal associates data into categories that are deemed logically important. This association is, by its nature, a creative act. One might say THE creative act. Right-side and left-side coordination can upgrade the quality of the creativity--the right making creativity more imaginary aspects and the left making creativity more useful or relevant. An important note: the richest creativity depends on input, whether facts or images. So the ability of the back brain to provide this imagery or data for association is critical.

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2. Score Bard on March 12, 2004 5:34 PM writes...

I thought I heard Ms. Chavez say at the Neuroesthetic conference that creative people exhibited *lower* harm avoidance than average. Did I hear wrong?

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3. Hans Suter on March 13, 2004 12:07 AM writes...

"the Medici family backed Michelangelo" like "the Bulls backing Michael Jordan" ? Come on, there was fierce competition between courts for having a great talent aboard.
It also seems that you consider the "unfinished sculptures" a lost market opportunity.
Reminds me of Villa San Michele's slogan: Enjoy a Hotel designed by Michelangelo.

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4. Zack Lynch on March 19, 2004 9:22 AM writes...

Humbug, I believe you heard wrong. I've checked several sources and high harm avoidance is a characteristic creative individuals.

From Chavez's abstract:

Assessments of the creativity index, the temperament and character traits and the over-excitabilities profile were done in one hundred subjects. 40 of these were recognized artists and/or scientists with sustained achievement in their fields. We determined the genotypes of the serotonin transporter gene (5’SLC6A4) and the dopamine receptor gene (DRD4). There was a significant association between the short allele of the 5’SLC6A4 gene and harm-avoidance and novelty-seeking temperament traits, and the same genetic variant showed an association with high emotional over-excitability. We also observed a significant association between the variation of the DRD4 gene and the sensual over-excitability, and a modest significant association between the presence of allele 7 and the verbal creativity index.

To our knowledge this is the first research studying molecular genetic variations associated to creativity.

Cerebral Blood Flow measures were obtained in 12 of these individuals during the performance of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (verbal). Highly creative individuals had significantly higher activation in right and left cerebellum and in right and left frontal and temporal lobes, confirming inter-hemispheric interactions during the performance of creative tasks.

We found higher activation in structures that have an important role in emotional response, especially the the medio-frontal gyrus, which is involved in the representation of subjective emotional inner states. Creativity involves the conscious experience of emotion and the integration of cognition and emotion, affect and meaning.

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5. Hans Suter on March 23, 2004 3:40 AM writes...

The non-finito argument is a huge one. Here is an interesting piece about it:

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6. Philip Sugden, Prof. Fine Arts on October 25, 2004 3:04 PM writes...

Does anybody know if there is any discussion or articles linking "creativity" and the work being done by such people as Michael Persinger, Neuropsychologist or Andrew Newberg at the Univ. Penn.?

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