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The Neuroscience Of Creativity And Insight—The Good, The Bad, & The Absolutely Ridiculous
Andrea Kuszewski   Jan 18, 2012   The Rogue Neuron  

—A Critical Look at Recent Studies of Creativity and Insight—

“All this fires in my soul, and—provided I am not disturbed—my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and in the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance…”  —Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

This is how Mozart described his subjective cognitive experience at his time of greatest productivity. We may recognize it as the “Ah ha!” moment—the point at which everything rapidly, and often suddenly, comes together to form a whole, complete idea, sometimes out of nowhere. This is also known as the moment of insight—the pinnacle of the creative process.

Anyone who’s experienced this moment knows how addictive that feeling can be. For me, it’s like being high on ideas—scrambling to dictate, transcribe, and extract as much information as you can from this mental epiphany before it escapes into the haze of unrealized theories. When it hits you—and you are in that moment—it’s heaven.

And so, like most wonderful things, science wants to replicate it artificially. In fact,  some scientists even claim they found a way to induce creative insight—with a jolt of electricity to the brain.

Chi and Snyder, two researchers whose claim to fame is a “thinking cap” meant to induce both creativity and savant-like skills at will (like magic!), recently published a paper,“Facilitate Insight by Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation”. They looked at the Anterior Temporal Lobe  (ATL), an area in the brain responsible for recognizing and interpreting visual patterns and representations. They claim that by stimulating the right ATL, while simultaneously inhibiting the left ATL (suppressing activity), they can induce that “Ah ha!” moment, helping a person to solve a problem using insight.

They state:

“This prediction is based on evidence that the right ATL is an area associated with insight and novel meaning and that inhibition of the left ATL is associated with emergence of certain cognitive skills and a less top-down or hypothesis driven cognitive style. More generally, it is consistent with evidence that the left hemisphere is involved in the maintenance of existing hypotheses and representations, while the right hemisphere is associated with novelty and with updating hypotheses and representations.”

Basically, they are saying if you activate the side that is associated with novel ideas (R), and at the same time suppress the side associated with maintaining existing hypotheses (L), you can free your brain from a fixed mental set and see alternate solutions.  In other words, you will be able to see the correct answer with this burst of insight from the right side of your brain, that had been blocked by the left side. 

So—plausible? Possible?

Hell, I’m just gonna come out and say it—you can’t zap your brain and magically turn yourself into the next Leonardo, no matter how much electricity you use.  Not even if you use fairy dust (although it does add a little flair).

Creativity isn’t magic, people. It’s science.
(But I won’t lie—I wish it was magic. I always wanted superpowers.)

I’ll also mention that Ed Yong, at Not Exactly Rocket Science, did a terrific job breaking down and summarizing the entire Chi-Snyder paper, so I won’t repeat all of that here. I encourage you to go there to get more details about the study’s methods, materials, and so forth (I weighed in over there, also). Here I’ll just brief you on the highlights.


Chi and Snyder did their experiment with three groups—each group was given the same types of tasks to complete, but each group got shocked and inhibited in a different area of the ATL.

Group 1: sham (fake) stimulation
Group 2: stimulate L, inhibit R
Group 3: inhibit L, stimulate R


Indeed, they found that the group with their left side inhibited and their right side stimulated, were able to solve the problems significantly better than the other two groups. So—a success, right? This “thinking cap” doohickey shocking the ATL facilitates insight? Makes you more creative???

Eh… Not so fast. While this type of whacky, unexpected research is fun to read about, and makes for good jokes, it’s very important that the data be examined and evaluated for what it really means, not what makes for a better press release. All kidding aside, I take creativity research very seriously, so let it be known that I don’t support this type of study. I will explain why.

First of all, “insight” is not the same as “creativity”. Insight is a moment of clarity, the second a solution hits you. Creativity is a process, a way of thinking and perceiving. More on this later.

Here’s an excerpt from Ed’s post, where I state my interpretation of Chi and Snyder’s results:

“For creative thinking to take place, there needs to be recruitment from both sides, not just the right. Stimulation of the right side (and inhibiting the left) is sort of like a kick in the pants, so your brain stops being so inflexible. That’s really all it does, and it’s temporary. No lasting creative effects… They aren’t actually measuring creativity. They are artificially inducing a “clear your head and start over” type of strategy. But just because you are open to new ideas, doesn’t mean you’ll actually get one.”

Knocking your brain free from a fixed pattern is helpful, but it doesn’t give you an amazing, creative solution to a problem, it merely stops preventing one from coming in, like opening a door. But you need to generate the info coming in the door yourself, it isn’t provided for you. For people who are trying to solve a problem and get “stuck”—I can see how this might be useful.  But then again, so is stepping away from your work for a minute to clear your head—to break free from that fixed mental set—the good old fashioned way. Added bonus: No risk of brain damage from electric shock!

Another interesting fact: While most other studies of creativity and insight involve looking at the Prefrontal Cortex, or PFC (thought to be crucial for creative thinking, working memory, and problem-solving), or the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, ACC (involved in error detection and determining the relevance of stimuli) they decided to zap the ATL instead. I knew that damage to the ATL caused diminished function of the PFC, but I was still unsure what the reasoning was behind this particular choice.

And then I saw the reason. To be honest, I’m surprised that no one has brought this up yet. But this might be one of those unique circumstances where being cross-disciplinary, both a researcher and an artist, made something appear more obvious to me than to the typical neuro researcher that would have initially read this paper. I kept digging through the reference list, and the more I checked citations, the more aggravated I got.


Their entire hypothesis was built on a flimsy, faulty premise, with bad data and inaccurately interpreted results from a prior study. And the thing is—if these guys had the first clue about what creativity actually is, how it’s recognized, assessed, and how to rate it quantitatively, they might not have made such a stupid assumption in their hypothesis. Yet they claim to be experts on creativity and research of this type, and they go on their merry way, cranking out BS research with grandiose claims, and the public eats it up, none the wiser.

Here’s what I discovered:

One of the main studies that they cited in their intro—the results of which being the inspiration for their hypothesis, and why they decided to stimulate the ATL in particular—turns out to be a big pile of poo. They framed their entire study around the faulty poo-premise from this one paper, and justified every move they made through that poo filter. And what is this poo-premise, you ask?

From the introduction:

“Presumably, it would be beneficial in certain situations if we could temporarily induce a state of mind that is less top-down, in other words, less influenced by metal templates or preconceptions. Interestingly, a clue for achieving this comes from people with brain dysfunctions.

For example, Miller, et al. found that artistic talent, due to a different way of perceiving the world, can sometimes emerge spontaneously in those with dominant (usually left) anterior temporal lobe dementia. They argued that damage to this area may interrupt certain inhibitory mechanisms in the left hemisphere and disinhibit contralateral areas in the right. As an oversimplified caricature, brain dysfunctions, induced or caused by inhibiting and disinhibiting certain neural networks, may make our cognitive style less hypothesis driven, thereby enabling access to a level of perception normally hidden from conscious awareness.

This raises a provocative possibility: Can we facilitate insight problem solving in healthy people by temporarily inhibiting or disinhibiting certain areas of the brain?”

You see, these guys at the Centre for the Mind are hell-bent on creating Superhumans. Not that there is anything wrong with that per se, but when you start ignoring real data and only see relevance in data that supports your already existing belief, that’s problematic, and it isn’t science. They read the words, “artistic skill emerging spontaneously…” and they jumped all over it, not even bothering to use their supposedly extensive neuroscience knowledge to tell them it was something else altogether.

Because artistic skill is just being disinhibited, right?! Yeah—so is schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

First of all, “artistic skill” (and certainly not creativity) doesn’t just “emerge” following brain damage. Behavior can change, yes. But this type of brain dementia does not give you superior artistic talent; that’s just not reality.

When I first read this, I smelled poo. My instincts told me it was poo, only I had no data to back it up. Until yesterday. 

After doing some searching, thinking that someone else must have questioned and tested this hypothesis about frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD) resulting in artistic skill and increased creativity, I found this, published this past September: “Poor Creativity in Frontotemporal Dementia: A Window Into the Neural Bases of the Creative Mind”  by de Souza (and party of eleven other researchers).

To save some time, I will sum up why this is a crucial paper:

• This study was done in order to verify if true creativity did indeed emerge in FTLD patients, as mentioned in the Miller study and consequently used in the Chi-Snyder study to justify their course of research. They looked at multiple possibilities of causality, and designed the study accordingly.

* While the Chi-Snyder study looked at one dimension to assess for artistic skill gains (match-stick test), the de Souza study used a full-scale Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) —which is the best measure we have to this day of assessing multiple dimensions of creativity. The full battery is extensive, and it takes a while to administer. They weren’t messing around.

* Without listing all the versions of subjects they had built in to this study to ensure accurate attribution of cause (you can read about it if you wish), you can believe me when I tell you they were very thorough in their rigorous testing measures, methods, and controlling for as many variables as they could reasonably think of.

* And the best part: They accurately rated the creative quality of the behavior exhibited by the subjects in question. Using actual rating scales, not self-report, or experimenter subjectivity. And the results of this complex and thorough analysis?

They concluded that the effect noted by Miller and validated by Chi and Snyder (artistic skill gained after this FTLD brain injury), was in fact, completely bogus. The subjects with FTLD didn’t actually gain “artistic skill and creativity” at all. In fact, this brain injury correlated with diminished creativity.

How was this “new skill” explained?

Well, the patients with FTLD did indeed experience disinhibition, but the resulting behavior wasn’t creative or “artistic”, it was perseverative and weird. The zap to the ATL removed inhibition to allow for a new thought pattern in the match stick test, but the new thought pattern could easily just be strange, not creative, in a different task. The match-stick test by Chi and Snyder was one measure of skill, but there is no telling if that transfers to a useful skill of another kind in another type of task.

In order to be considered creative, an idea or action must be novel, useful, unexpected, and valuable, given the task at hand. The only thing the subjects in Miller’s study did was start creating visual media. There was no saying it was good, clever, useful, or had any purpose other than a method of transferring energy from body to artistic medium.

What they might want to consider is this: Patients with FTLD suffer from loss of language, social skills, and communication skills. The one area they did have intact was their vision. If you couldn’t talk, couldn’t understand language properly, had no social skills—what would you do with your time? I might start painting for the first time, too. That might be the only method at their disposal for expending energy in an appropriate way (such as in a nursing facility). However, just because one throws paint on a canvas, doesn’t mean he’s skilled, and certainly doesn’t automatically qualify you as a “creative artist”. Weird, strange, or even novel and surprising doesn’t equate with successful creativity. The fruits of those efforts must also have some kind of intended meaningful, useful, purpose—either in a symbolic or practical way.

I guess what bothers me the most about the Chi-Snyder study as well as the Miller study, is that these ill-conceived, poorly executed, non-scientific, inaccurate tests of “creativity” only serve to hurt the validity of this research area in general.

Arne Dietrich, creativity researcher, wrote a fantastic review article very recently summarizing the problems and challenges facing researchers of creativity today. By far, the darkest problem I see, is the tainting of our field by the impurities of pseudoscience—which too often gets overlooked by scientists and lumped into our research, polluting our data. An ignorant researcher could conduct an irresponsible study, draw some invalid conclusions, then get cited in a future study, accepted as valid, and the cycle continues.

At some point the waters are too murky to decipher the valid research from the “thinking caps”— citations buried under citations, blindly accepted as truth. The only way to change this, in order to move the field forward, is for scientists to take a stand against this type of thing as soon as it is brought to light. Stop the cycle of grandiosity and PR. And as much fun as the idea of magical thinking caps may be, just say no to the hype—and say yes to science.


REFERENCES Facilitate Insight By Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation. Chi and Snyder, 2011  Poor creativity in frontotemporal dementia: a window into the neural bases of the creative mind. By de Souza, LC et al. Neuropsychologia, September 2010 A Review of EEG, ERP, and Neuroimaging Studies of Creativity and Insight. by Arne Dietrich Psychological Bulletin, 2010

Image Source, CC Courtesy of Chelsea McNamara


Andrea Kuszewski, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, lives in San Francisco and works as a researcher and manager with VORTEX Research Group. She investigates the neurocognitive factors behind human behavior.


Lovely article. My best writing is stuff that figuratively claws its way out of my head. I don’t get a vision of the whole, but glimpses of what it could be. Of course, I’m not Mozart either.

I really appreciated your emphasis on real science as opposed to running hither and yon like six year olds chasing a soccer ball. The comparison of the two studies points out the necessity of testing things thoroughly before we jump on the bandwagon.

There are a few points here that make me think that everybody is starting from a different definition of creativity. I don’t think anybody is talking about talent. The studies I’ve read and the people with FTD I have seen indicate that some of these people find it easier at some point in their lives to express themselves artistically - maybe some of them had a real talent that manifests itself at this point but odds are that most don’t. Why it’s almost impossible to test this is because many of these people have bursts of creativity (in the sense of novel ways of expression)  even before they are diagnosed (as you know, FTD is probably underdiagnosed anyway and it comes in too many packages to fit snugly into a set of criteria). In later stages, “creativity” goes down mostly because the planning capabilities start shrinking which leave these people incapable of starting action. Or else, that’s my hunch, as we’ll never know if the lack of creativity is a lack of ideas or an impossibility to initiate action.

I actually am on the school of thought of the “Stop fooling around with people’s brains to try and build a super human and start finding a cure, you dummys”. Nothing is more exhasperating to patients and family than have your loved ones being looked at as a key to unlock superpowers rather than a tragedy in two legs.

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