The Creativity Trade-Off

Recently, Rex Jung and his group found that creativity as measured by divergent thinking and creative activity in 10 domains was associated with changes in cortical thickness. The changes were not all-or-none or clustered in a single location, but rather formed a complex network.

"This is the first study to link cortical thickness measures to psychometric measures of creativity. We found network where increased and decreased cortical thickness
related to creativity as measured with DT and creative achievement. The network was not limited to one lobe of the brain, nor to one hemisphere, nor to the ‘more is better’ notion..."

Areas that went up: right posterior cingulate, right angular gyrus
Areas that went down: left frontal lobe, lingual, cuneus, angular, inferior parietal, fusiform gyri

The observation that higher levels of creativity were associated with up and down areas of cortical thickness makes sense with some of the trade-offs that are seen with creativity and diffuse attention and right and left hemispheric competition.

John Allen has a nice summary of current creativity theory.

Excerpt: Alice Flaherty's model of creativity posits "...a network of brain regions, rather than be localized to one part of the brain or one hemisphere. Flaherty proposes first that cortical interactions between the temporal and frontal lobes are critical for regulating creative expression. Temporal lobe deficits can increase the generation of creative ideas, sometimes at the expense of quality, as in various manic states. In contrast, frontal lobe deficits can inhibit creative thinking. Thus via mutually inhibitory pathways, the frontal and temporal lobes work together to not simply generate ideas but those that are "novel and useful"--creative ideas.

In addition to the fronto-temporal network, another brain system is also critical for creative expression: the dopamine pathways of the subcortical limbic system (which also have strong connections to parts of the frontal lobe). Being creative is not a passive process, and creative people are more responsive to sensory stimulation, have higher baseline levels of arousal, and increased goal-directed behavior."

The notion of successful creativity being a balance between open-field running and yet appropriate focus, or divergent idea generation, but then effective application and execution makes sense and also immediately conjures up the different ways students can go wrong.

Understanding the trade-offs in the brain might suggest reasons why gifted-LD or twice exceptional students seem so common (over half of gifted students in one series) and why the highest IQ kids had thinnest prefrontal cortex in early development (figures from Shaw et al. below). The brain is not just a lumpy static hodge-podge of different areas, but rather a dynamic and constantly remodeling network in which the connections, activity, and competitions between different brain areas determine what will happen.

In the figure below, note how the cortical thicknesses of superior IQ kids are actually a lower than average and high IQ kids at the age of 7. They do bloom late - around age 12.

Creativity at Psychology Today
Neuroanatomy of Creativity pdf
Shaw et al. Superior IQ Cortical Thickness Executive Function
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Creativity, Right Hemisphere, and Diffuse Attention
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Most Creative Brains are Slow
Mind Map picture

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