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Fluid Whole-Brain Connectivity Supports Creative Thinking

Having less segregated neural networks promotes creativity.

Key points

  • Creativity involves accessing and bringing together real-life knowledge (i.e., semantic memories) stored in different brain areas. 
  • Highly creative individuals have robust whole-brain connectivity that allows them to "connect the dots" between many neural networks.
  • Less segregated neural networks can facilitate creativity by making broad-ranging semantic knowledge easier to access and link together.

"Any ability or tendency which serves to bring otherwise mutually remote ideas into contiguity will facilitate a creative solution; any ability or tendency which serves to keep remote ideas from contiguous evocation will inhibit the creative solution." —Sarnoff Mednick describing ways of achieving a creative solution (1962, p. 222).

Source: Griboedov/Shutterstock

In a recent post about the neuroscience of superfluid thinking, I explored the hypothesis that bidirectional cerebro-cerebellar communication between the cerebrum and cerebellum coordinates cognitive processes and may promote creativity.

Accumulating evidence suggests that robust functional connectivity between all four brain hemispheres promotes better whole-brain thinking.

New research on the neural mechanics of creativity highlights how fluid brain connectivity—as indexed by less segregated neural networks—fosters creative thinking. These findings (Ovando-Tellez et al., 2022) were published on Feb. 4 in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.

For this study, an international team of researchers led by Marcela Ovando-Tellez and Emmanuelle Volle of the Paris Brain Institute's Front Lab assessed real-life creativity within various creative domains (e.g., music, visual arts, performing arts, literary expression, scientific research) through the lens of semantic memory structure and brain connectivity.

The Neuroscience of Creativity

Creative thinking involves generating new and useful connections between seemingly unrelated concepts and remote associations that are broadly held in someone's semantic long-term memory.

Previous neuroimaging studies have identified that multiple brain regions are involved in creative cognition. Real-life creativity appears to benefit from fluid semantic memory organization that allows various neural networks and brain regions to work in concert synergistically.

Accumulating neuroscientific evidence also suggests that "aha!" moments may rely on functional interactions between numerous neural networks, including the default mode network, executive control network, salience network, and motor control networks working in conjunction with brain regions that hold semantic and episodic memory.

Getting all of these brain regions and neural networks working together in harmony requires robust whole-brain functional connectivity during the creative process.

Whole-Brain Connectivity, Less Segregated Neural Networks, and Creative Thinking Are Synergistic

The latest fMRI-based research into creativity investigates how functional connectivity patterns and semantic memory organization mediate real-world creative behaviors.

To assess each study participant's individual semantic memory network organization, the researchers had them perform a semantic relatedness judgment task (RJT) inside an fMRI brain scanner. Each participant also performed several motor training tasks and creativity tasks both inside and outside the scanner.

Based on these fMRI neuroimages, the researchers compiled individual brain maps of how each person's semantic networks were structured and explored how the organization of their semantic memories related to real-world creativity.

According to the authors, the neuroimaging results revealed patterns of whole-brain functional connectivity that predicted individual differences in real-life creativity related to semantic memory organization.

Specifically, more efficient and robust functional connectivity between the cognitive control network, default mode network, sensorimotor network, salience network, and visual networks predicted semantic memory structures that were more integrated. As Ovando-Tellez and co-authors explain:

"The advantage of a whole-brain functional connectivity approach is to provide a holistic and functional view of how brain networks relate to creative thinking. For example, resting-state functional connectivity within and between these networks was shown to predict creative abilities, and task-based functional connectivity within and between these networks increased during a creativity task, compared to a control task."

The fluidity of these integrated semantic memory networks appears to facilitate real-life creative behaviors. "Less modular networks may allow more flexible thinking, with a higher connectivity between weakly related elements facilitating their combination," the authors note.

Overall, these findings suggest that less segregated (i.e., less modular) semantic memory structures promote creativity.

"The originality of our study is to link three levels of investigation, behavior in real-life, cognitive processes, and the brain, by combining recently developed computational approaches to predict complex cognitive functions from brain connectivity and to explore individual semantic networks," senior author Emmanuelle Volle said in a news release.

Creativity's Associative Aspects Benefit From Multiple Brain Networks Being Fluidly Connected

"The [creative] combinations which present themselves to the mind in a sort of sudden illumination, after an unconscious working somewhat prolonged, are generally useful and fertile combinations. Among chosen combinations, the most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart." —Henri Poincaré on his creative process during mathematical creation (1913).

Over a half-century ago, in 1962, Mednick described creative thinking as "the forming of associative elements into new combinations which either meet specific requirements or are in some way useful."

Based on this associative theory of creativity, highly creative individuals can readily access remote concepts from distant corners of their minds and bring them together in fresh and "fertile" ways, as Poincaré described in 1913.

The latest (2022) research on how robust whole-brain functional connectivity and less modular semantic memory structures predict real-life creativity supports the decades-old hypothesis that creative thinking has an associative basis (Mednick, 1962).

Take-Home Message: The combination of less compartmentalized semantic memory structures and superfluid brain connectivity may give creative thinkers the cognitive flexibility to make cohesive associations between disparate and seemingly unrelated ideas.

References

Marcela Ovando-Tellez, Yoed N. Kenett, Mathias Benedek, Matthieu Bernard, Joan Belo, Benoit Beranger, Theophile Bieth, Emmanuelle Volle. "Brain Connectivity–Based Prediction of Real-Life Creativity Is Mediated by Semantic Memory Structure." Science Advances (First published: February 04, 2022) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abl4294

Yanyan Li, Lihao Yang, Lihua Li, Yuanjun Xi, Peng Fang. "The Resting-State Cerebro-Cerebellar Function Connectivity and Associations With Verbal Working Memory Performance." Behavioural Brain Research (First published: January 24, 2022) DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2021.113586

Samuel S. McAfee, Yu Liu, Roy V. Sillitoe, and Detlef H. Heck. "Cerebellar Coordination of Neuronal Communication in Cerebral Cortex." Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience (First published: January 11, 2022) DOI: 10.3389/fnsys.2021.781527

Sarnoff A. Mednick. "The Associative Basis of the Creative Process." Psychological Review (1962) DOI: 10.1037/h0048850

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