In Brief

My cerebellum wrote this

Creativity flows when you don’t force it

Faculty at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, aka the d.school, are devoted to instilling creativity in their students. But how do they know they’ve succeeded?

Enter a professor at the School of Medicine, an MRI machine and a little inspiration from the board game Pictionary.

“Creativity is an incredibly valued human attribute in every single human endeavor,” says professor of radiology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Allan Reiss, MD, who collaborated with d.school researchers who wanted to measure the attribute objectively. The team asked adults whose brain activity was being monitored by fMRI to draw words like “vote,” “exhaust” and “salute.” They then had the subjects rate the difficulty of illustrating each word. Later, the investigators graded the drawings on five-point scales for appropriateness and for creativity.

Words the subjects found more difficult were associated with increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an executive-function center involved in attention and evaluation. But high creativity scores were associated with low activity in the executive-function center and higher activation in the cerebellum, a structure in the back of the brain that is typically thought of as the body’s practice-makes-perfect, movement-coordination center.

The heightened activity in the cerebellum and its association with high creativity scores were unexpected. The researchers speculate that the cerebellum may be able to subconsciously refine all new types of behavior acquired by the more frontally located cortical regions — not just movement. Other studies show that the human cerebellum has robust connections not only to the motor cortex, but to other parts of the cortex as well. “It’s likely that the cerebellum is an important coordination center for the rest of the brain, allowing other regions to be more efficient,” says Reiss, the senior author of the study, which appeared in May in Scientific Reports.

“As our study also shows, sometimes a deliberate attempt to be creative may not be the best way to optimize your creativity,” Reiss says. “While greater effort to produce creative outcomes involves more activity of executive-control regions, you actually may have to reduce activity in those regions in order to achieve creative outcomes.”

The bottom line: Don’t try too hard to be creative, says lead author Manish Saggar, PhD, an instructor in psychiatry who teaches at the d.school. “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.”

Bruce Goldman is a science writer for the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. Email him at goldmanb@stanford.edu.

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