Wired for imagination

New research

Have you wondered what makes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ludwig van Beethoven so different from you and me? Does it imply that people with artistically creative skill sets like writers, musicians, singers etc. have anything in common? One would naïvely guess not so much ! But it turns out that "experts" with varying skill sets, have their brains wired quite similarly. This is what new research led by Dr. Martin Lotze and his team from University of Greifswald, Germany suggests using brain scans.

How do the researchers investigate their theory ? The neuroscientists set an experiment involving 48 native German participants in a creative writing task. All the participants were students of the Creative Writing and Journalism courses offered in German universities. To obtain a relative comparison of brain activities between the expert and non-expert group, the participant group was divided into two categories based on the length of their writing experiences.

The experiment was designed such that the participant lies in a horizontal position on the scanner table. The participant was provided with two texts - a prose and a poem from contemporary German literature as inspirational material. The volunteers were required to read the text, copy key words on a piece of paper, brainstorm their ideas, followed by creative continuation of the same text in paper, all in a span of about 6 minutes. All of this is done to get their creative juices flowing! These 'juices' were followed, by scanning the brain using the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques. Now one way to find out which brain region is active while being creative, is by following the flow of blood. And the fMRI method measures just that.

The fMRI images reveal that different brain regions light up in the expert group versus the non-expert group. According to Dr. Lotze, while using fMRI technique to monitor blood flow is not new, it is, in the context of behavioral research for creativity. The significance of this finding is Dr. Lotze says, "The non-experts seemed to be involved increasingly in perceptive visual attention whereas the experts involve increasing capacities for prefrontal planning. The decreased attention demand on visual aspects of the task (mere reading and checking written words) might provide additional resources for planning which is highly important for the creative process."

What this means is that, the expert's mastery of the language goes beyond the words but understanding the meaning behind it. Therefore, they spent much less time using visual cortex of the brain to see the words. While the non-experts grappled with merely seeing the words, the experts had assimilated the content and were already contemplating the continuity of the text presented to them.

Dr. Lotze also reports, that not only does the brain scan images show differences, but that the stories written by experts were rated as highly creative by unbiased professors of the University of Hildesheim compared to non-experts.

The present study may be explorative in nature, yet it is a powerful one. As the authors point out, these findings certainly pave the way for future discoveries on how do nerve cells communicate when one performs a cognitive task and would perhaps bring us one more step closer to a better understanding of artificial intelligence!

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