A new study linking highly creative people and robust connectivity between the left and right brain hemispheres of the cerebral cortex debunks the myth that the “right brain” is the seat of creativity. The February 2017 findings were published today in the journal Bayesian Analysis.
For the study, an international team of statisticians from Duke University in North Carolina and the University of Padova in Italy analyzed enormous datasets on brain connectivity provided by a team of neuroscientists led by Rex Jung at the University of New Mexico. Rex Jung's research focuses on solving the riddle: "How are intelligence and creativity linked to brain structure and function?"
For the past decade, neuroscientists have been studying something called "connectomics" which focuses on network science to improve our understanding of the human brain. Instead of focusing on a specific brain region (such as the "right brain") being autonomous from other brain regions, connectomics uses advanced brain imaging techniques to identify and map the intricate web of white matter (communication lines) that link gray matter (neural brain volume).
Your brain's white matter is a labyrinth underneath the outer gray matter which is comprised of myelin-covered bundles of axons that connect billions of neurons and carry electrical signals between brain regions.
Rex Jung and his colleagues in New Mexico collected massive amounts of data on brain connectivity between the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum using an MRI neuroimaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). This method can create three-dimensional maps that are then converted into neural connectivity diagrams of the human brain.
At the outset of this experiment, Rex Jung and his colleagues devised a variety of ways to assess creativity. All of the responses were used to calculate a composite creativity score for each person. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that people who scored in the top 15 percent of creative capacity had significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres of their cerebral cortex.
In my opinion, the best news about this study linking increased white matter and increased creative capacity is that other studies have shown that regular exercise is an easy way to improve functional connectivity between all of your brain regions.
For example, in December 2016 researchers at the University of Arizona reported that endurance running may alter the structure and functional connectivity of the brain in ways similar to practicing complex tasks such as playing a musical instrument. (I wrote about these findings in a Psychology Today blog post, "Runners' Brains May Develop Greater Connectivity.")
Although this new study on brain connectivity and creativity doesn't address intelligence directly, the researchers plan to explore how brain connectivity might be linked to intelligence. Connectomics research suggests there may be a link between functional connectivity between brain regions and IQ.
As an example, in 2013, Dean Falk, an evolutionary anthropologist at Florida State University, published a study, "The Corpus Callosum of Albert Einstein's Brain: Another Clue to His High Intelligence," in the journal Brain. This study found that Einstein had more extensive connections between certain parts of his cerebral hemispheres compared to both younger and older control groups.
My father, Richard Bergland, was a neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, and author of The Fabric of Mind (Viking). During the time my dad was chief of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel in the 1970s, he was often approached by people interested in popularizing the notion of the "right brain" as the seat of creativity.
Much to his chagrin at later points in his life, he agreed. My dad became the 'medical expert' for books such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. (A book I love. But that isn't 100 percent empirically correct from a strictly neuroscientific perspective.)
Later in his life, my father regretted that he'd publicly identified himself with the "right brain" being the seat of creativity. But, it was too late. That genie was out of the bottle. And there was no way my dad could reverse the juggernaut of most people associating the right brain of the cerebral cortex with creativity.
Throughout 2005, my dad and I worked together to create a new split-brain model that focused on the salient divide in the brain being between both hemispheres of the cerebrum (Latin for "brain") and both hemispheres of the cerebellum (Latin for "little brain"). After my father's death in 2007, I continued to keep my antennae up for new research linking the importance of functional connectivity between all four brain hemispheres.
One day in 2009, as I was walking home from the gym, I bumped into my friend Maria on Commercial street in Provincetown. Maria is a poet. She asked me what I was up to... I began telling her about all the research I was doing on the daily habits of creative people and how I had a hunch that physical activity was a key to creating ‘superfluidity.’ And that I was working on a book proposal (that my literary agent was unable to sell at the time) titled, Origins of Imagination.
Without missing a beat, Maria looked at me and said, “I ride the elliptical trainer for at least 40 minutes every day. Whenever I start moving my arms and legs back and forth, poetry starts to pour out of me.”
As Maria moved her arms and legs back and forth to emulate riding the elliptical, suddenly, I realized that her bipedal motion was engaging all four hemispheres of both the cerebrum and cerebellum. And that the connectivity between ALL FOUR brain hemispheres might be optimizing brain function and lead to fluid intelligence. (It was a eureka! moment for me).
Maria's movements and the link between her daily exercise routine and writing poetry inspired me to draw the sketch you see above. I rushed home and got this very basic illustration down on paper as quickly as I could.
To this day, anytime I look at the sketch I drew almost a decade ago, I continue searching for clues hidden in this "map" that might answer some of the mysterious questions about the brain my dad spent his life trying to solve.
Stay tuned for more research on how white matter, creativity, and functional connectivity between brain regions are intertwined.
Daniele Durante, David B. Dunson. Bayesian Inference and Testing of Group Differences in Brain Networks. Bayesian Analysis, 2016; DOI: 10.1214/16-BA1030
W. Men, D. Falk, T. Sun, W. Chen, J. Li, D. Yin, L. Zang, M. Fan. The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein's brain: another clue to his high intelligence? Brain, 2013; DOI: 10.1093/brain/awt252
David A. Raichlen, Pradyumna K. Bharadwaj, Megan C. Fitzhugh, Kari A. Haws, Gabrielle-Ann Torre, Theodore P. Trouard, Gene E. Alexander. Differences in Resting State Functional Connectivity between Young Adult Endurance Athletes and Healthy Controls. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2016; 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00610
Jennifer Zuk, Christopher Benjamin, Arnold Kenyon, Nadine Gaab. Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (6): e99868 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099868