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The Real Neuroscience of Creativity

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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So yea, you know how the left brain is really realistic, analytical, practical, organized, and logical, and the right brain is so darn creative, passionate, sensual, tasteful, colorful, vivid, and poetic?


Just no.

Stop it.


Thoughtful cognitive neuroscientists such as Anna AbrahamMark Beeman, Adam Bristol, Kalina Christoff, Andreas Fink, Jeremy Gray, Adam GreenRex JungJohn KouniosHikaru TakeuchiOshin VartanianDarya Zabelina and others are on the forefront of investigating what actually happens in the brain during the creative process. And their findings are overturning conventional and overly simplistic notions surrounding the neuroscience of creativity.

The latest findings from the real neuroscience of creativity suggest that the right brain/left brain distinction does not offer us the full picture of how creativity is implemented in the brain.* Creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain.

Instead, the entire creative process– from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification– consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.

Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain. In recent years, evidence has accumulated suggesting that “cognition results from the dynamic interactions of distributed brain areas operating in large-scale networks.”

Depending on the task, different brain networks will be recruited.

For instance, every time you pay attention to the outside world, or attempt to mentally rotate a physical image in your mind (e.g., trying to figure out how to fit luggage into the trunk of your car), the Dorsal Attention / Visuospatial Network is likely to be active. This network involves communication between the frontal eye fields and the intraparietal sulcus:

The Dorsal Attention / Visuospatial Network

If your task makes greater demands on language, however, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are more likely to be recruited:

The Language Network

But what about creative cognition? Three large-scale brain networks are critical to understanding the neuroscience of creativity. Let’s review them here.

Network 1: The Executive Attention Network

The Executive Attention Network is recruited when a task requires that the spotlight of attention is focused like a laser beam. This network is active when you’re concentrating on a challenging lecture, or engaging in complex problem solving and reasoning that puts heavy demands on working memory. This neural architecture involves efficient and reliable communication between lateral (outer) regions of the prefrontal cortex and areas toward the back (posterior) of the parietal lobe.

Network 2: The Imagination Network

According to Randy Buckner and colleagues, the Default Network (referred to here as the Imagination Network) is involved in “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.” The Imagination Network is also involved in social cognition. For instance, when we are imagining what someone else is thinking, this brain network is active. The Imagination Network involves areas deep inside the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe (medial regions), along with communication with various outer and inner regions of the parietal cortex.


Green= The Executive Attention Network; Red= The Imagination Network

Network 3: The Salience Network

The Salience Network constantly monitors both external events and the internal stream of consciousness and flexibly passes the baton to whatever information is most salient to solving the task at hand. This network consists of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortices [dACC] and anterior insular [AI] and is important for dynamic switching between networks.

The Salience Network

The Neuroscience of Creative Cognition: A First Approximation

The key to understanding the neuroscience of creativity lies not only in knowledge of large-scale networks, but in recognizing that different patterns of neural activations and deactivations are important at different stages of the creative process. Sometimes, it’s helpful for the networks to work with each other, and sometimes such cooperation can impede the creative process.

In a recent large review, Rex Jung and colleagues provide a “first approximation” regarding how creative cognition might map on to the human brain. Their review suggests that when you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the Executive Attention Network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks. Indeed, recent research on jazz musicians and rappers engaging in creative improvisation suggests that’s precisely what is happening in the brain while in a flow state.

However, sometimes it’s important to bring the Executive Attention Network back online, and critically evaluate and implement your creative ideas.

Or else this can happen:

As Jung and colleagues note, their model of the structure of creative cognition is only a first approximation. At this point, we just have leads on the real neuroscience of creativity. The investigation of large-scale brain networks does appear to be a more promising research direction than focusing entirely on the left and right hemispheres; the creative process appears to involve the dynamic interplay of these large-scale networks. Also, converging research findings do suggest that creative cognition recruits brain regions that are critical for daydreaming, imagining the future, remembering deeply personal memories, constructive internal reflection, meaning making, and social cognition.

Nevertheless, much more research is needed that investigates how the brain creates across different domains, species, and timescales.

It’s an exciting time for the neuroscience of creativity, as long as you ditch outdated notions of how creativity works. This requires embracing the messiness of the creative process and the dynamic brain activations and collaborations among many different brains that make it all possible.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: I was one of the reviewer’s of the paper by Rex Jung and colleagues.

Note: For more on the latest findings in the emerging neuroscience of creativity, I highly recommend the recent book “Neuroscience of Creativity,” edited by Oshin Vartanian, Adam S. Bristol, and James C. Kaufman.

* There’s some grain of truth to the left brain/right brain distinction. For instance, spatial reasoning recruits more structures in the right hemisphere, and language processing recruits more structures in the left hemisphere. Also, there’s some really interesting research conducted by John Kounios and Mark Beeman showing that the Aha! moment of insight– in which participants discover seemingly unrelated words– is associated with activation of the right anterior superior temporal gyrus. None of these findings, however, negate the fact that the entire creative process involves the whole brain.

image credit #1: io9; image credit #2, 3, & 5:; image credit #4: pnas; image credit #6: photocase

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Douglas Eby 10:37 pm 08/19/2013

    Thanks for this stimulating article. A number of writers and neuroscientists encourage an integration of thinking, using both sides of our brain/mind – including neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel of UCLA, who talks about using techniques such as guided relaxation and imagery to help bring more balance. And in your interview with Darold Treffert, M.D., considered one of the foremost experts on savantism in the world, he refers to Betty Edwards’ book “The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” He points out, “There are companies, major corporations, that send their executives to Betty Edwards’ courses, not to have them learn to draw better but because the vision, seeing the bigger picture, and creativity itself is more likely a right-brain-dominant domain than a left-brain one.”

    – See more quotes by multiple writers and researchers, plus videos in my post: “Left Brain, Right Brain – Creativity And Innovation”

    Link to this
  2. 2. jasonthibeault 11:03 pm 08/19/2013

    Great article. I’ve been working on general theories around creativity for a while. This is fantastic support to my own writing/work in which I posit that the brain has two “states:” rational and irrational. Creativity comes ultimately when the brain switches to irrational. The rational state always tries to regain control (and our dopamine-based reward network will let it because we’ve been taught to favor rationalism our entire lives). You’ve pretty much summed it up here:

    “Their review suggests that when you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the Attentional Control Network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Attentional Flexibility Networks”

    “Creative geniuses” as we call them are able to balance the irrational and rational much better. Almost like a real-time feedback loop in software programing (just on a crazy-fast level).

    Here’s the piece I wrote specifically about this:

    And here is a collection of my writing on creativity.

    I am getting ready to post a piece on the biology of creativity (so what neurological elements support creativity). Again, great piece and so love that others (real scientists) share my position on what happens within the brain during the creative process.


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  3. 3. Pharmainfosource 3:47 am 08/20/2013

    Well written article. Good to know the creativity process of brain.

    Pharma Info Source

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  4. 4. cbplatt 12:16 pm 08/20/2013

    It’s true that we need to use our whole brain for most things, but disagree with the creativity studies that a) use only right-handed subjects and b) are testing for “novel” uses for objects or finding one common word that brings together a list of disparate ones. This is a very limited use of the word “creativity.”

    If we are talking about artistic creativity, including poetry and music, I believe brain studies would show increased use of the right hemisphere. Associative, alliterative, rhythmic, visual, emotional poetry actually is right-hemispheric language (See Kane, JCS, 2004).

    In my work on poets, I find that those with a genetic predisposition and/or childhood traumas that enhance right-hemispheric functioning are especially creative and able to produce language dissociatively as well. Ayptically lateralized individuals should be included in scientific studies for a full rendering of the cerebral origins of creativity.

    I do, however, completely agree that shutting down the frontal regions will allow for free association and/or a sorting of already ingested materials to produce stream-lined creative thought, especially during sleep or relaxing activities like walking, and, yes, a rapper’s song.

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  5. 5. biogirl 10:40 pm 08/21/2013

    Thank you cbplatt!!

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  6. 6. darinlhammond 11:35 pm 08/25/2013


    The outdated and oversimplified vision of the mind is so tiresome, and it’s refreshing to see real cognitive scientists dispelling the cultural myths. Even at the level of common sense, if you understand anything about the complexity of the brain and skills like language and creativity, the notion that the brain would be so nicely divided just doesn’t make sense.

    The beliefs persist because it’s nice to think of the brain as being so simply constructed, but the same beliefs restrict and confine thinking on the brain, resisting progress and insight. Also, if you understand evolution, the right left brain dichotomy just has no justification that is rational.

    Thank you for helping dispel myths,

    Darin L. Hammond

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  7. 7. scott.undefined 9:54 am 08/29/2013

    Clearly there must be some validity of the left/right brain hypothesis. Is the issue that the left/right brain perspective is better suited for lower level tasks while higher level tasks, such as creativity, use these types of global networks? Or, is it that the left/right brain split people just aren’t very good at the higher level thinking skills, such as creativity?

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  8. 8. senecor 5:16 am 09/2/2013

    Very inspiring approach, this issue reminds to include quantum brain´s dynamics into the equation. Research in this field is going further that a simple localizationist-mapping theory.

    I do also think that brain Connectome project can shed some light in this line,is a novel paradigm but very promising: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are (see MIT )

    Thank you for your ideas and feelings

    Cristina G.

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  9. 9. lnaiman 6:24 pm 09/11/2013

    Thank you for an informative article. I have been advocating whole-brain creativity for years, (see http;// ) nevertheless, I confess I do like describing Left and Right hemispheres as analytical, practical, organized, artistic, etc, — because as you say, there is a grain of truth here, and this framing is a useful metaphor to organize whole-brain thinking.

    Another useful metaphor to describe the Creative Brain, comes from Dr Shelley Carson who organizes brain function into 7 brainsets: CREATES — Connect, Reason, Envision, Absorb, Transform, Evaluate, and Stream. Creatively-productive individuals are able to switch among different brain states depending upon the task at hand.(Based on findings from neuroimaging, psycho-physiological studies, and her own research at Harvard)

    I imagine “brainsets” dovetail with the networked brain you have described.

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  10. 10. WMCEREBELLUM 2:30 pm 10/28/2013

    This pretty traditional stuff! The real story of the neuroscience of creativity has been proposed by Larry Vandervert and is quite different in that Vandervert’s approach has the capacity to explain the extraordinary brilliance of Albert Einstein, child prodigies,and the creative mechanism behind the evolution of language. Anyone who wishes to explain creativity has to tie all of these appearance of creativity together. Vandervert has achieved just that. Those who wish to understand how creativity really works should go to Sec. 8.l on creativity in Wikipedia.

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  11. 11. SojournerTruth 5:29 pm 03/5/2014

    The life of the human being is much larger than “neuro- pathways” and so any attempt to analyze the neurological process of creativity will be doomed to failure. As a case in point, consider the fact that a pianist can play 128th notes on a piano when the synapse cannot process neurological energy faster than 1/32 of a second, much too slow to send the command from the brain to the fingertips to play 128th notes. There is life and consciousness in the hands that cannot be identified neurologically leading to the fact that not all of the life of a person is channeled through the brain and the nervous system, and it is outside of the biological organism that you will find the area of creativity, sacrificial love, and other life-giving functions of the human being.

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  12. 12. SingleMom 8:07 pm 03/5/2014

    I thought this was going to be an article about dyslexia, which can inherently prompt and support creativity and creative thinking. Has anyone with the focus on “creativity” and “imagination” overlaid their neurological research with that of dyslexic neurological research?

    Link to this
  13. 13. israpilarsanukayev 2:51 am 01/20/2015

    Thanx for your reply and greetings from a now very cold, windy and rainy place across the planet.

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