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Enhancing Creative Incubation

New research shows that reducing brain activation can increase creativity

Have you ever had a sudden inspiration? The proverbial “Aha” experience?

These “insight moments” tend to happen when you’re not actively working on a problem—they come to you when you least expect it. You might be exercising, gardening, or taking a shower. (For me, they always come when I’m listening to a lecture on a completely different topic.) Ideas come at these surprising times because of incubation—when you take time off from work, it frees up your conscious mind and allows your subconscious mind to “incubate” on the problem.

Psychologists have long known that incubation contributes to creativity. This is also why play is so closely related to creativity—because when you’re playing, your mind is open and wandering more freely. This research has many practical implications for enhancing your personal creativity (I show how in Chapter 4 of my new book Zig Zag).

I just read a fascinating new study* that confirms this longstanding research on incubation, and yet takes it in an exciting new direction. A research team at the University of Pennsylvania passed a weak electrical current through the brains of their research subjects, using a technology called “transcranial direct current stimulation” or tDCS. It sounds a bit scary, but the electrical current was very weak and the subjects couldn’t feel anything.

They focused the current on the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Based on what we know about how the brain works, the current was expected to reduce the neuronal activation in the PFC. This is interesting, because the PFC is thought to be the “seat of consciousness,” the place in your brain where you stay in control—where you “filter bottom-up information” and “inhibit irrelevant information,” as the researchers put it. The researchers hypothesized that inhibiting PFC activity might actually create an “incubation mindset,” resulting in the same creative benefits as meditating or taking a shower.

The researchers had the tDCS subjects, and a comparison group of control subjects, do the “unusual uses” creativity task and the “common uses” task as well. For example, for the word “Kleenex” the common use is “to blow your nose” and the uncommon uses could be, well, just about anything (“block a hole in the wall that allows mice into the house”).

The results were intriguing: inhibiting the prefrontal cortex in the left hemisphere resulted in better performance on the unusual uses task, but not on the common use task. The people who had their brains inhibited were more likely to come up with an unusual use, and they generated responses faster. Right hemisphere inhibition didn’t have any benefit on either common or uncommon uses—particularly interesting, in light of my earlier Psychology Today post that linked the right hemisphere to creativity.

Can you imagine a future world where you can purchase a do it yourself “creativity enhancement” kit? Apply electrodes to your forehead when you need a good idea! Of course, creativity is a lot more complex than that—for example, incubation doesn’t help if you haven’t first spent a lot of time engaged in hard work, and it’s hard to predict ahead of time when incubation will be most helpful—but I’m excited to see creativity research moving in these new directions.

*Chrysikou et al. (in press). Noninvasive transcranial direct current stimulation over the left prefrontal cortex facilitates cognitive flexibility in tool use. Cognitive Neuroscience.

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