Creativity Feels Good

Is being creative itself rewarding?

Posted Jun 27, 2018

A-Durand/Wikimedia Commons
Source: A-Durand/Wikimedia Commons

Why be creative? Often the answer to this simple question is couched in terms of how creativity can bring us and others a bountiful bevy of better things: better products, better services, better ways of doing. Creativity brings with it, it is true, a host of instrumental advantages – improvements in how we work, play, think, and live. A better this, a better that _______ (you fill in the blanks).

But is this answer the full story? Might there be more to be said? Might being creative (often) be something desirable just in and of itself? Is being creative itself rewarding? Does being creative feel good?  

There are many reasons to think so. Creativity clearly brings with it a strong mix and admixture of emotions and motivations. Yes, there are struggles, uncertainty, ambiguity, frustration. But often this is interspersed and shot through with sheer joy, what the writer and Nobel-prize laureate Alice Munro described as "a feeling of delight...a really shocking feeling of delight." 

Let's take a look at some empirical evidence, from the cognitive and brain sciences, that supports the claim that creativity feels good.  We'll start with some indirect findings, and then look at a recent study that used ultra-high-field fMRI to probe what happens–deep within the subcortical reward circuitry of the brain–at moments of creative insight.

Linking "feel-good" reward processes and creativity

Indirect connections between "feeling good" and the creative process have long been recognized.

Some findings have come from naturally occurring mood states, as when individuals experiencing a mild manic state or mild euphoria (such as "hypomania") show enhanced creativity compared with times of more neutral or depressed mood. Apart from naturally occurring mood states, researchers have also looked at how experimentally induced positive emotions bolster creativity.  

Although pointing toward the importance of reward-related processing in creative insight, these findings are still some distance away from showing a direct relation.  

Revealing the rewarding nature of insight

To try to show a closer linkage between creativity and reward processes, cognitive neuroscientists from London and Vienna recently teamed up to more deeply chart the rewarding signature of insight. They challenged 29 healthy adults with a series of insight problems–while participants were in a high-field (7.0 Tesla) MRI scanner. The high field scanner provided an increased signal-to-noise ratio that allowed more detailed imaging of the subcortical (midbrain) and cortical structures related to reward processing.   

The insight problems were remote associate problems. In these problems, the participant is challenged to discover a word that is associatively related to each of three unrelated words. The three words were presented and followed by a series of spaced underlines, with the number of underlines indicating the number of letters in the solution word.  

For example, a participant might be shown the following:

            Reading / Service / Stick   ___ ___ ___

If, after 20 seconds, the participant could not think of the solution word, they were given the first letter of the solution as a hint:

            Reading / Service / Stick   L ___ ___

The hint remained in view for 10 seconds.  If participants indicated that they had discovered the answer, they were shown a screen with three separate letters and asked to indicate if the final letter of the solution word was one of those three letters or another ("other") letter.

                        T   S   P   other?

Finally, after each problem, participants were asked to indicate, on a 6-point scale from 0 to 5, how much insight–and how much impasse (feeling entirely stumped) they had experienced during each problem. Asking participants to indicate how much insight they experienced during the problem allowed the researchers to look separately–for each participant–at problems that were solved with a higher versus lower degree of insight. (If you're still wondering, the answer to the example problem is "lip"–that is, lip reading, lip service, lipstick.)

Insight is rewarding 

For the first time, researchers were able to clearly peer into the deep inner midbrain structures related to reward processing. Problems solved with high insight showed markedly stronger neural activity in several key subcortical midbrain reward processing regions. These included the nucleus accumbens–known to respond to pleasant stimuli and positive reinforcement, and to feelings of elevated mood such as relief, ease, or joy.  Also, especially activated during high insight was the ventral tegmental area–known to respond to expected certainty about a desired outcome or decision. These specific brain regions also showed significantly increased dynamic connectivity or communication with each another.  

So: our brain regions work together in intriguing ways. It's not just that being in a good mood can boost our creativity but it can work in the reverse direction. Being creative can itself boost good feelings.    

Recognizing that creativity itself feels good helps broaden our focus from the outcomes of creative thought and action to also include the creative process. By focusing more on the creative process (rather than only creative outcomes) we may better advance our understanding of why (and when) we experience the urge to be creative–and how this urge interplays with other essential forms of intrinsic motivation, such as our impulses for play, curiosity, and exploration.  


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