Inside Creativity

Where does creativity come from?

It's a question that has long stumped scientists. Now, a simple noun-verb association test, coupled with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may offer a glimpse into what sparks innovation. 

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Neurologists have been using MRIs for years to study creativity in the brain, but Jeremy Gray, a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, believes this new test offers a way to elicit truly creative responses, even within the physical constraints of an MRI.

Subjects are given a noun, such as “lamp,” and must reply with a verb, such as “to light,” within eight seconds. Creativity is measured based on the uniqueness of the response. While “light” would not be considered creative, “redecorate” would be seen as highly creative. “Illuminate” would fall somewhere in the middle.

Bursting Out of the Box

A popular saying in the corporate world is that “creativity loves constraint,” a term coined by Yahoo! President Marissa Mayer. The idea is that mind becomes more open to unusual solutions when presented with a specific problem.

Gray's test prompts people to think that way, he told Healthline. “We ensure that the words that people say are verbs, imposing some constraint, and are not crazy-out-there random words,” he said.

The researchers also assessed the subjects' creativity using previously tested, in-depth assessments. Those tests confirmed that the most creative responses to the word-association tests came from truly creative people.

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In a few months, Gray plans to begin using the noun-verb test on subjects in an MRI machine. This will allow scientists to peer inside the brain while subjects flex their creative muscles.

How Does Creativity Work?

Dr. Rex Jung, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, has done extensive research in this area and has called for better scientific tests to use in conjunction with brain imaging scans.

He says little is known about what happens in the brain during creative bursts.

“What we can agree on is that the frontal lobes are critically involved in creative processes, both down-regulation during cognitive expansion, and up-regulation during the refinement of ideas,” Jung said. “This back and forth between different networks within the frontal lobes, and between the frontal lobes and other regions of the brain, appear to suggest a complex process drawing upon multiple brain regions and multiple cognitive processes.”

But being creative isn't enough if you don't also have the determination to follow through on your ideas. “It's not enough to (try to) think great thoughts, it's important to iterate on them, refining and incrementally improving,” Gray said.

Tips for Turning Up the Juice

Bob Root-Bernstein, a physiology professor at Michigan State University and the author of Sparks of Genius, offers these tips for cranking up your creativity:

  1. Question! Challenge! Cultivate ignorance! It's what we don't know how to do that drives creativity.
  2. Practice the creative process by choosing a creative avocation or hobby. 
  3. Learn best creative practices by emulating the methods of the most successful innovators. Everyone starts by copying! 
  4. Specialize in breadth instead of details, principles instead of facts, and doing rather than knowing. 
  5. Do what makes your heart leap! Creativity is hard work, so you have to love what you do.

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