Creativity and Your Brain
Indre Viskontas is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, where she runs the Creative Brain Lab. She earned a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has published more than 50 original papers and chapters related to the neural basis of memory and creativity. A passionate science communicator, she has appeared on major TV and radio programs and hosts the popular science podcast Inquiring Minds as well as the podcast Cadence: What Music Tells Us about the Mind.
01: The Creative Life Begins in the Brain
Begin to examine the nature of creativity and what neuroscience can tell us about it. Look at traits that are associated with creative people and consider four distinct stages of creativity. Note the differences between artistic and scientific creativity. Then, take a first look at the structure of the brain and its organization. Study the creative brain’s major networks and their functions.
02: Beyond the Right-Brain Creativity Myth
Explore current knowledge of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, taking stock of both early and more recent scientific thinking on the specialization of the hemispheres. Note how different aspects of creativity rely on different hemispheres, and how the left hemisphere is involved in key creative functions. Also, grasp how our early environment shapes brain development.
03: Creativity Is a Process
Assess Graham Wallas’s influential model of the creative process, breaking creativity into four fundamental stages. Contrast this with the work of Arne Dietrich, proposing four basic types of creativity, using examples of each of Dietrich’s types within science and art. Enjoy a groundbreaking series of interviews with creative people, and consider what they reveal about the creative process.
04: Evaluating the Creative Product
Can we define what is creative? Consider two basic features of a creative product and how meaning is both subjective and domain-specific. Investigate how our brains process information and assign meaning, and, in art, how the way we look determines what we see. Grasp how we endow objects with value, based in what we know about the creator of the product and the circumstances of its creation.
05: Who Is the Creative Person?
Look at three ways to identify especially creative people. First, examine personality traits that creative people may share, such as openness to new experiences, extraversion, and abstract or semantic thinking. Study two types of creative thinking and how they appear to correlate with scientists and artists. Finally, consider possible neurological and genetic components of creativity.
06: The “Mad Genius” Myth of Mental Illness
Investigate notions linking mental health issues with creativity. Review studies of creatives, looking at factors such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and findings indicating that certain psychological conditions may be beneficial in creative work. Then, consider the reverse: whether creative work fosters mental aberrations. Grasp the dangers of romanticizing mental illness in creatives.
07: Finding Your Motivation for Creative Work
This lecture delves into the neurological reward system, which shapes our actions and experiences. Observe how the brain’s neural networks support both motivational behaviors and learning when seeking rewards. Examine the effects of external rewards and stimuli on creative behavior, and how factors such as a sense of autonomy, competence, and self-control increase internal motivation.
08: When Creatives Confront Depression
Here, look at three artists who suffered from depression, yet, created some of the great creative works of the 20th century. Begin with the brilliant poet Sylvia Plath, followed by painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and innovative dancer Martha Graham. In each case, examine the relationship between depression and artistic work, and consider the evidence that each creative’s work contributed to their depression, rather than the reverse.
09: Free Your Brain with Spontaneous Creativity
Findings from neuroimaging studies of musicians who improvise indicate that experienced improvisers can “turn down” activity in brain regions involving self-evaluation, to stay fully in the moment when creating music. Learn the basic “rules” of improvisation and see how they can be applied in many life situations, such as team building at companies or coping with Alzheimer’s disease.
10: Behind the Mystical Aha Moment
Sudden insight (the “Aha” moment”) is a core feature of creativity. Review studies of brain activity during insightful problem-solving and examine the roles of the left and right brain hemispheres, as well as the subject’s mood. See how we might make insight more likely by letting the mind wander and follow tangents. Learn about technology that stimulates the brain, and its use in enhancing creativity.
11: Unlocking Your Imaginative Brain
Consider the brain’s capacity to both remember past events and to visually imagine the future. Consider conditions in which people’s ability to do both can be compromised. Learn about the hippocampus, and other brain regions involved in imagination. Take account of how the activity of mind-wandering can allow imagination to blossom, and review studies using mind-wandering to boost creativity.
12: The Creative Path to Skill Mastery
For skill mastery in art, sports, or any domain, grasp the necessity of using only the physical and mental resources that are necessary for the task. Note how skill mastery involves moving from conscious thinking to automating the actions of the skill. Map the stages of mastering a skill, three essential levels of practice, and the integration of the process that makes the skill second nature.
13: Getting Into the Creative Flow
The flow state, or being “in the zone,” is another key feature of creative work. Look into the nature of flow, what it feels like, and identify nine elements that underlie the flow state. Learn about what happens in the brain when we’re in flow, and two hypotheses that help us understand it. Review studies on the flow state in basketball, and what they tell us about this creative condition.
14: The Brain Science of Beauty
The field of neuroaesthetics studies the brain basis of aesthetic appreciation. Investigate what neuroaesthetics tells us about how we experience beauty and perceptions that we value. As a case in point, study the measurable response of the “chills,” or “goosebumps,” and the roles of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the brain’s rewards system in processing the pleasure and meaning of beauty.
15: Can Brain Degeneration Unleash Creativity?
Delve into the phenomenon of paradoxical facilitation, where enhancement of creativity or a skill follows upon degenerative conditions of the brain. Study cases of affected patients who have developed remarkable skills as visual artists or musicians. Observe how the condition of semantic dementia has this effect and seems to give patients a different way of seeing—a key aspect of creativity.
16: Beethoven, Dyslexia, and Creativity
Examine evidence that Beethoven is likely to have been dyslexic, and the ways in which that condition may have fed his creative genius. Look at studies indicating that people with dyslexia are more emotionally reactive and show higher-than-average, nonverbal intelligence. Consider how living with dyslexia may promote compensating development in the right brain and thinking outside the box.
17: The Creative Environment
Take account of the ways in which physical spaces and work culture impact creativity. Note, throughout history, how creative geniuses have tended to cluster together, in places such as ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and modern Silicon Valley. Look at factors of environment, such as the free exchange of ideas, human interaction and collaboration, and diversity, that foster creativity.
18: Design Thinking Helps Structure Creativity
Design thinking is an ideology used to give practical form to the creative process. Discover the five steps of design thinking, which begin with a focus on the end user. Focusing on idea generation, grasp how design thinking can help us move out of being “stuck” in the process of developing creative ideas. Witness an example of how the design process operates in the work of architect Frank Gehry.
19: Creativity Thrives on Difference
In human life, as in nature, the meeting of ecosystems or cultures sparks creative diversity. See how this manifests in fashion design and science, where studies show that work that represents cultural interaction performs better or is rated as more creative. Note that trends toward respecting workers with non-typical brain function show significant benefits for workplace creativity.
20: Get More out of Group Creativity
Identify pitfalls that are common to creativity in group settings, and guidelines that may allow for an ideal collaborative group. Then, observe how effective musical ensembles can teach us a lot about group creativity. By examining how musicians perform in sync, grasp the roles of eye and body coordination, listening and reacting, cooperation and synergy, and what motivates the creative endeavor.
21: Overcome Creative Anxiety
Stress and anxiety can pose challenging problems for creative work. Learn about the brain physiology of acute stress, which can get in the way of creative performance, and how beta blockers can be used to mitigate the effects of performance anxiety. Track the harmful effects of chronic stress, how scientists are now studying creativity-specific anxiety, and what may help to lessen its effects.
22: Can Drugs Open Up the Creative Brain?
Survey evidence regarding the impacts of psychoactive substances on creativity. Begin with studies evaluating whether coffee helps idea generation and alcohol enhances creativity. Then, look at the use of cannabis, and finally psychedelics, comparing popular notions about their use with experimental data. See what conclusions we can make about these different substances as aids in creative work.
23: Being Creative in a World Not Built for You
As useful examples of creative thinking, consider daily challenges faced by people with disabilities, from navigating public spaces and shopping to living with medical conditions and artificial limbs, and see how they use their creativity to invent practical solutions. Note, also, how the brain can adapt to sensory deficits, as in the case of people with vision loss who learn to use echolocation.
24: Using Technology as a Creative Aid
Conclude the course with a look at the expanding industry of cognitive enhancement using technological aids. Learn about transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), why people think it might boost creativity, and what clinical studies show. Finally, take account of how artificial intelligence, which can compose music, create art, or build buildings virtually, can aid human-driven creativity.