Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Why Creative Folks Blink a Lot

New research shows a link between creativity and dopamine

Sometimes a lack of cognitive inhibition can be a good thing. Especially when it comes to creativity, loosening your associations can be conducive to generating ideas. From a biological perspective, researchers have started to investigate functioning of the dopaminergic neurotransmitter system as a factor that contributes to a divergent mind. Dopamine is a good candidate for contributing to creativity due to its activating effects on behavior and cognition and its contribution to approach behavior, sensitivity to rewards, Extraversion, positive mood, and Openness to Experience. 

eyeTo more directly investigate the dopamine-creativity link, Soghra Akbari Chermahini and Bernhard Hommel in the Netherlands recently assessed the relation between creativity and dopaminergic functioning by assessing participant's spontaneous eye blink rate (EBR), a well-established clinical measure of striatal dopamine production. Prior research using the EBR have come up with some interesting findings. For instance, schizophrenics, who tend to score high in cognitive disinhibition have both elevated EBRs and elevated striatal dopamine uptake. Interestingly, both cocaine users and Parkinson patients show reduced EBR (which suggests if you want to be creative, don't take cocaine!).

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The researchers measured divergent thinking by asking participants to list as many possible uses for a brick, shoe, and newspaper they could within 10 minutes. They also measured convergent thinking by giving participants three unrelated words (e.g., time, hair, stretch) and asking participants to find the word common to all three (answer: long). Compared to the divergent thinking test, the convergent thinking test has only one right answer. Also they found that their convergent thinking test correlated positively with fluid intelligence, but negatively with their fluency measure of divergent thinking (how many uses people could think of for the objects). So there is reason to believe that their measures of convergent and divergent thinking are tapping into different mental processes.

Combining the analysis of three separate experiments (to increase the power of their analyses), they found that participants with a faster spontaneous eyeblink rate scored higher in the flexibility measure of the divergent thinking task (they crossed more categories). In their first experiment they found that this association held even after controlling for fluid intelligence. Interestingly, those with a medium spontaneous eyeblink rate had the highest levels of flexibility; too slow or too fast of a spontaneous eyeblink rate was detrimental to divergent thinking. This suggests there may be an optimal level of dopamine required for divergent thinking. If you've ever drank too much coffee (coffee increases dopamine production) and felt useless because your thoughts were racing too fast, then you can relate to this.

A different pattern was found for the convergent thinking measure. A negative relation was found between EBR and performance on the convergent thinking measure- those with the lowest EBRs tended to score the highest on the convergent thinking measure. This was a straight, linear relation.

The results look like this:

Figure 4

These results are fascinating, and do suggest avenues for future research. Clearly, creativity involves both divergent and convergent thinking. This is because creativity needs to be both novel and useful. It takes both the ability to generate and elaborate to fashion a creative product. As the authors note, the EBR is a basic, subcortical measure of dopaminergic functioning that does not discriminate between different dopamingergic pathways and receptor systems. Future research should look at these different pathways in creative people. As the researchers note, research shows that genes related to the DA-D2 receptor family play a role in divergent thinking, whereas individual variations in the COMT gene (which also regulates aspects of dopaminergic functioning) may affect convergent thinking processes. Clearly multiple interacting genes and neurotransmitters play a role among the highly creative, as well as interactions between the genes and the environment

These results are interesting especially in light of Oshin Vartanian and his colleagues' research showing that creative people are better at adjusting their focus of attention as a function of task demands. Creative people tend to be good at focusing or defocusing their attention depending on whether the task is ill defined or well defined. This suggests that creative people are somehow really good at modulating their neurotransmitters at different points in the creative process. The mechanisms by which they do this is unclear, but remains an important research topic.

There are also implications here for schizophrenia. It is well known that people with schizophrenia have loose associations but also have trouble controlling their thoughts, a skill necessary for good convergent thinking. Perhaps instead of lowering the dopamine levels too much in people with schizophrenia, medication and therapy should attempt to obtain medium levels in these individuals so that their already heightened potential for creativity is not extinguished (see: Schizophrenic Thought: Madness or Potential for Genius?). Training programs to help increase convergent thinking ability in people with schizophrenia may also prove useful.

At any rate, this study is important. Next time your chatting with someone and they seem to be blinking an awful lot, instead of looking at them like they are crazy, hire them. Chances are, they'll be flexible thinkers.

© 2010 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

References

Chermahini, S.A., & Hommel, B. (2010). The (b)link between creativity and dopamine: Spontaneous eye blink rates predict and dissociate divergent and convergent thinking. Cognition, doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.03.007.

Vartanian, O. (2009). Variable attention facilitates creative problem solving.Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3, 57-59.

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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