Monday, March 23, 2009

The Biology of Creativity - Right Hemispheric Thinking, Problem Solving by Insight, and Diffuse Attention

A Northwestern research group has found that people that solve anagram puzzles by sudden insight rather than by conscious search or analytic strategies have an EEG resting state that prefers the right over the left hemisphere. What's different about this finding compared to a previous study is that this hemispheric difference exists even before problem solving begins.

Wouldn't it be preferable if teachers knew which problem solving style students they before they taught them? Couldn't mismatches between problem solving approaches (insight vs. non-insight) contribute to school-related struggles and so-called underachievement?

It's not a great leap to consider how these brain-related differences impact success or failure in the classroom, because we see many bright, creative children who seem to be inexplicably struggling in their early elementary school years. When we talk to them and set challenging tasks before them, they are so obviously bright, playful, and flexible in their thinking, and they frequently have very high IQ test scores to lend support to their promise, but report cards or teachers notes home seem to tell a completely different story... "Not meeting expectations" for motivation, work completion, could this be ADHD etc. etc. So what's the deal?

This excerpt from the Northwestern paper caught our attention:

"...psychometric measures of creativity and measures of real-world creative achievement are associated with a habitual tendency toward diffuse rather than focused attention, which results in ineffective filtering of distracting or irrelevant environmental stimuli (Carson et al., 2003; Mendelsohn & Griswold, 1966; Rowe et al., 2007). One view describes creativity as the ability to utilize nonprepotent remote associations of problem elements in order to discover nonobvious solutions to a problem (Mednick, 1962). Diffuse attention facilitates access to remote associations because it enhances awareness of peripheral environmental stimuli that could serve as cues that trigger retrieval of such associations (Seifert et al., 1995)."

How often it does seem that it's the highly creative child who is having the greatest struggles in the conventional classroom! It's nice finding research that backs up the association. From this Harvard study, a diffuse attentional style was much more common among individuals with high lifetime levels of creative achievement.

The study concludes with a final interesting finding that differences in this attentional style might account for why high IQ beyond a certain point doesn't correlate with higher levels of creative achievement (the threshold effect...e.g. that once one is beyond 120, higher numbers don't correlate with enhanced achievement). If a focused vs. diffuse attentional style is taken into account, then it becomes more evident that diffuse attentional style + high IQ are important factors that contribute to high levels of creative achievement.

Different Problem Solving Styles (Sudden Insight vs. Conscious Manipulation) at Rest
Creative Achievement and Diffuse Attention pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Most Creative Brains
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Tyranny of Our Thinking Styles


  1. (the threshold effect...e.g. that once one is beyond 120, higher numbers don't correlate with enhanced achievement). If a focused vs. diffuse attentional style is taken into account, then it becomes more evident that diffuse attentional style + high IQ are important factors that contribute to high levels of creative achievement.

    This finding is described in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers.
    Genius is important to success, he concludes, but after a certain point one is "bright enough." After that other factors separate successful individuals from the rest.

  2. Hoots,

    To some extent the threshold effect is true, but seeing some of these kids in action, we suspect there are other traits that can still sort out those who seem particularly gifted with divergent thinking, intellectual curiosity, drive, etc. and likely to produce higher levels of creative achievement later. And if you combine with high IQ, it can be an impressive combination.

    Don't know if you know about the Terman data...his tests missed the 2 Nobel Prize winners in the kids tested...and they both were physicists. We see a surprising number of kids with a physicist as a close relative - and these kids definitely have a diffuse attention, are playful / novelty / conceptual thinkers, interested in their own questions (amused by the testing process, question assumptions) etc. - and this may result in lower scores on the tests.

    Another question raised by the final figure is whether it is a bad idea to be overly concerned with having a focused attention.

  3. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Could the fact that some children solve by insight be a reason as to why some children with strong math abilities have considerable difficulty explaining how they solved a math problem?

  4. Yes, this is a common problem with math precocious children. These kids are often quite talented spatially too.

  5. Now that you mention it, Gladwell did, in fact, talk about the Terman kids (I think they were called Termites or some play on the name?) He remarked dryly about those two Nobel laureates that didn't make the cut. You might enjoy "Outliers." It's a quick, entertaining read.

  6. hey fernette -
    I don't know if this is related. but I have always wanted to write something about the moment when one is doing a crossword, and staring at the same empty six or seven spaces.. and after being frustrated by repeatedly imagining the same wrong word - looks with fresh (diffuse) attention at the same spaces and finds a word there that one has never used... a word one did not know that one knew.

    I call it "opening the sunroof" of your brain. and letting a new idea flow in? but until reading about this, I hadn't any notion of what it might mean - biologically.

  7. Thanks for the tip about Outliers. Have not read it, sounds like something we should read.

    Sure sounds like problem solving by insight, Sally - there is not a conscious brain activity the whole time while solving the problem - rather it looks as if the brain is awake, but at rest. The answer appears suddenly and in its full form. More like a pattern match rather than a line of deduction.

  8. Anonymous7:44 AM

    anonymous again,
    We have a math precocious child who can't explain how he solves his problems. However, at school, he needs to be able to explain his reasoning to receive higher level math instruction. He is now bored and angry about his math instruction. Is there a way to help him learn how to explain his reasoning? Or should we just get a tutor to teach him the higher level math and try to encourage his math interests that way?

  9. This is a common situation.

    First, step is to have the teacher demand less of the 'show your work' so anxiety / frustration don't build to be an even bigger problem (e.g. "I don't like math")

    Talk about the issue - a lot of people don't know how they go about solving problems... then suggest different ways that a problem might be solved.

    It can be helpful knowing how a problem was solved - and if you arrive at an answer the same way he did - it will make him feel better. This might take the form of .... "I don't exactly know how I solve it, but ..." and then examples.

    I don't know exactly what problems you're dealing with - but some kids use estimation, a spatial sense of numbers, analogies to other problems, etc. Have you heard about the inchworm vs. grasshopper approaches to solving problems. He may find it interesting. We'll get you a link when we get a chance.... : )

  10. Here's a link to the inchworm vs. grasshopper idea:

    It's from Miles' book on dyslexia and math. I think Liping Ma's book also talked about it.