New Research Explains Why Overthinking Can Hinder Creativity

Suppressing the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex improves creative thinking.

Posted Jun 08, 2017

Rberlow/Wikimedia Commons
MRI image of human cerebral cortex with stereotaxic localization of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).
Source: Rberlow/Wikimedia Commons

Researchers in the UK have discovered that using a targeted electric current to temporarily suppress a particular region of the frontal lobes called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) helps to break the mental constraints linked to “rut-like thinking.” This process also increased creativity. The findings from researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Goldsmiths University of London were published June 7 online ahead of print in the journal Scientific Reports.

The DLPFC is involved in cerebral thinking and higher executive function. More specifically, this brain region plays a pivotal role in automating cognitive processes to solve problems by applying previously learned rules. Despite the efficiency of this type of automatic thinking, the DLPFC's powers of automaticity can backfire if previously learned “rules” create roadblocks when someone needs to solve an unfamiliar problem that requires fresh ideas and thinking outside the box.

For this study, the researchers had participants try to solve novel matchstick arithmetic problems. Relaxing learned constraints through cathodal transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) on the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex made it easier for participants to solve the problems that required the greatest degree of relaxation. 

Over a century ago, long before neuroscientists had the ability to use tDCS to temporarily suppress the executive function of the prefrontal cortex, William James said prophetically in his speech The Gospel of Relaxation:

Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good...Just as a bicycle chain may be too tight, so may one's carefulness and conscientiousness be so tense as to hinder the running of one's mind.”

Although James was not specifically speaking about the DLPFC in April 1899, the latest research on using electrical stimulation to temporarily suppress someone’s “intellectual machinery” corroborates his advice to “unclamp” as a way to let your mind run free and connect ideas in new ways. Again, the latest findings from June 2017 demonstrate that using tDCS to suppress the left DLPFC facilitates solving a novel problem by relaxing previously learned constraints.

The QMUL researchers, led by Caroline Di Bernardi Luft conclude, “Our findings support the idea that certain cognitive functions, especially those required in creative problem solving, could benefit from inhibition rather than excitation of the prefrontal cortex. We hypothesize that the inhibition of the left DLPFC facilitates constraint relaxation by reducing the strength of automatic processes implemented to solve problems triggered by contextual clues.”

There is an important caveat: The researchers also observed that while the DLPFC was being suppressed, participants were less efficient at solving problems that required higher working memory in which many items needed to be held in mind at one time. This suggests that flipping back and forth between “clamping” and “unclamping” the executive function of your intellectual machinery in the prefrontal cortex might be key to connecting the dots of a variety of seemingly unrelated ideas or crystallized knowledge in new and useful ways.

Enhancing Cerebellum Connectivity With the Cerebrum May Boost Creativity

Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons
Cerebellum in red. 
Source: Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons

The latest research on increasing creativity by suppressing DLPFC activity dovetails with previous research from Stanford University which found that "overthinking" as marked by too much activity in the prefrontal cortex reduced creative capacity. 

For the past few years, researchers at Stanford University, led by Manish Saggar, have been conducting trailblazing research on the neural basis of enhanced creativity. Their findings suggest that suppressing the executive-control centers of the cerebrum—and allowing the cerebellum (Latin for “little brain”) to be the “controller"—increases spontaneous creative capacity. 

Historically, the cerebellum was thought of as the seat of muscle memory, with the primary job of fine-tuning coordinated movement. But increasingly, researchers have corroborated Jeremy Schmahmann’s “Dysmetria of Thought” hypothesis that microzones within the cerebellum fine-tune and coordinate our thoughts much like they fine-tune muscle movements. Schmahmann is Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Ataxia Unit. 

In June 2016, Saggar et al. published a report, “Changes in Brain Activation Associated with Spontaneous Improvization and Figural Creativity After Design-Thinking-Based Training: A Longitudinal fMRI Study,” in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

This study found that improved creative capacity was associated with reduced engagement of executive functioning regions of the prefrontal cortex combined with increased involvement of spontaneous implicit processing of the cerebellum. This empirical evidence adds to a growing body of research, which shows that optimizing cerebellar-cerebral connectivity is associated with more fluid cognitive thought processes and creative thinking. 

In another 2015 study on creativity by Manish Saggar and Stanford colleagues, the researchers found that keeping the executive control centers of the prefrontal cortex in high gear by fastidiously overthinking a problem hindered creativity.

Again, Saggar found that increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex—the same executive-function center involved in attention and evaluation that was suppressed using tDCS in Lunt’s recent experiment—impeded fresh ideas and thinking outside the box. Saggar summed up these findings by saying, “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.” This sentiment echoes what tennis legend Arthur Ashe would describe as “paralysis by analysis.”

In a statement, the study’s senior author, Allan Reiss, professor of radiology, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at Stanford, described their research on creative capacity:

"Our findings represent an advance in our knowledge of the brain-based physiology of creativity. We found that activation of the brain’s executive-control centers—the parts of the brain that enable you to plan, organize and manage your activities—is negatively associated with creative task performance.

It's likely that the cerebellum is the coordination center for the rest of brain, allowing other regions to be more efficient. As our study also shows, sometimes a deliberate attempt to be creative may not be the best way to optimize your creativity. While greater effort to produce creative outcomes involves more activity of executive-control regions, you actually may have to reduce activity in those regions in order to achieve creative outcomes."

Although this research doesn't offer specific actionable advice on how to "unclamp" your DLPFC without the use of transcranial direct current stimulation, other clinical studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is an easy and effective way to reduce activity in the cerebral executive control regions of the brain while engaging the cerebellum. This is one reason that people often have "Aha!" moments while on a walk or jogging, biking, swimming, etc. Please stay tuned for upcoming research on the link between cerebral-cerebellar interconnectivity, psychological well-being, and creative capacity.

References

Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, Ioanna Zioga, Michael J Banissy, and Joydeep Bhattacharya. Relaxing learned constraints through cathodal tDCS on the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. (Published online: 07 June 2017) Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-03022-2

Manish Saggar, Eve-Marie Quintin, Nicholas T. Bott, Eliza Kienitz, Yin-hsuan Chien, Daniel W-C. Hong, Ning Liu, Adam Royalty, Grace Hawthorne, Allan L. Reiss; Changes in Brain Activation Associated with Spontaneous Improvization and Figural Creativity After Design-Thinking-Based Training: A Longitudinal fMRI Study. Cereb Cortex. 2016 bhw171. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhw171

Manish Saggar, Eve-Marie Quintin, Eliza Kienitz, Nicholas T. Bott, Zhaochun Sun, Wei-Chen Hong, Yin-hsuan Chien, Ning Liu, Robert F. Dougherty, Adam Royalty, Grace Hawthorne & Allan L. Reiss. Pictionary-based fMRI paradigm to study the neural correlates of spontaneous improvisation and figural creativity. Scientific Reports, May 2015 DOI: 10.1038/srep10894

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