Creative Brains: How Cognitive Neuroscience Helps Understand Design Creativity

by Mike Jansen

Creativity is the very backbone of the design industry. But there is still so much that science has yet to discover about the true nature of creative thinking. Creativity in a neuroscience context is incredibly complex. However, neuroscientists are making constant progress when it comes to understanding exactly how the human brain brews up innovative new concepts on demand.

The human brain has numerous different lobes and areas that handle different tasks, actions, and behaviors. For example, teenagers are impulsive in their younger years due to underdeveloped frontal lobes. This impulsiveness settles down as the part of the brain responsible for risk assessment fully matures. 

Interestingly, creative thinking does not stem from any one specific area of the brain. This has led scientists to believe that a person’s creativity is largely facilitated by a combination of genetics and environmental experience. With the latter factor playing a greater role than the former.

Delving into the Factors Behind Creativity

It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict how creative a person is, or to objectively measure their creativity. If it were possible to predict someone’s level of creative abilities, even when they are not embroiled in a creative task, then the theory of some people being inherently more creative than others would hold some water scientifically. However, this simply isn’t true, and there is no objective measure for creativity available to us today.

This is why design creativity is partly attributed to genetics and human experience. The experience factor suggests everyone can become more creative in theory. And that exposure to a wider range of experiences can help to facilitate that development. 

Cognitive neuroscientists have also suggested that certain choices or beliefs can put a damper on creative thinking patterns. Likewise, other beliefs and choices seem to have the power to amplify creative expression in design and beyond. Even basic factors in our everyday lives can positively or negatively affect our creative abilities. It all depends on how we experience them.

The study of creativity is still a relatively new pursuit. But there are some factors that neuroscience has already ascertained about innovative thinking. For instance, it is widely understood that factors like perceived stress and time restrictions hinder creativity. Other negative influences on innovation are easy to find in our day-to-day environments. Many creative designers find that working in the same place according to the same schedule every day affects their creative thinking. Others cite perfectionism, sleep deprivation, and a fear of error or failure as potential issues.

Debunking the Left Brain, Right Brain Theory

Creativity, simply defined, is innovation without borders or constraints. However, science must impose certain constraints to understand and measure exactly where design creativity stems from. And if all creative thinking is created equal. 

The true neuroscience of creativity suggests that the traditional ‘right and left brain’ theory does not provide us with a clear picture of how creativity comes about within the human brain. It certainly does not seem to stem from a specific side of the brain.

Instead, the creative process needs to get broken down and analyzed in steps to be more concisely understood. The process for many designers starts with an idea, then preparation, incubation, illumination, verification, and action. Each of these steps requires multiple conscious and subconscious cognitive processes to interact, while visual cues and emotions inform them. 

This means that the inner workings of the creative process very much rely on the stage of the process a designer is working on, what they are attempting to innovate or create, and the goals and requirements they are aiming to meet with their work. Creative thought is thus a collaboration between various different parts of the brain. It’s determined by how efficiently the brain can communicate across its various regions to generate creative ideas.

Creative Brains: How Cognitive Neuroscience Helps Understand Design Creativity

Brain Networks in the Creative Process

There are three separate brain networks primarily involved in the creative process. These are:

  • The default network, which relates to daydreaming, doodling, and brainstorming
  • The executive control network, which governs focus and concentration
  • The salience network, which detects environmental stimuli and helps the brain to switch between the former two network functions

These networks work across the brain’s hemispheres and aid creative thought in different ways. The executive network stimulates working memory, and is put to use when a specific task requires a high degree of attention and concentration. It’s active when a designer is in problem-solving mode or concentrating on a challenging topic or requirement. 

The default, or imagination, network is primarily involved in re-creating dynamic mental situations based on a thinker’s past experiences. It also considers the possibilities of the future and imagines alternative scenarios and perspectives. This part of the brain is intrinsically involved in social cognition and experience. When we imagine what someone else, such as a viewer of a design, may think, this network of the brain is in session.

Lastly, the salience network connects various parts of the brain in a coherent way to facilitate the development of individual creativity and innovation. 

Characteristics of Creative Thinkers

According to neuroscience, highly creative and original thinkers display strong connectivity between the three networks of the brain mentioned above. They are adept daydreamers who allow their minds to wander freely. But they still have the ability to think in a focused way and selectively divert their attention to a specific task or problem. The good news is that all three of these characteristics are strengthened and improved with practice and repetition.

Mind wandering, or daydreaming, is excellent for a designer’s creativity. As your mind wanders, different parts and regions of your brain are activated, accessing information that may previously have laid dormant. This is why daydreaming and activities like doodling promote creativity, unique insight, and the development of solutions to problems that you may not otherwise have considered.

Science has found that creativity occurs when a person allows for unfiltered, subconscious, and random thoughts and sensations to arise during a working flow state. Likewise, creatives who silenced the parts of their brain allowing for self-criticism found it easier to stay within their creative flows. This suggests that hindering your ‘inner critic’ can amplify your creative abilities in design.

The Power of Visualization

Visualization has a marked effect on creating new neural pathways and facilitating creative thinking. Everyone has an innate ability to create mental images of different situations and scenarios. By invoking our senses during this process, those thoughts are given space to become more real to us and gain traction in our minds.

Neuroscience has shown that study participants who imagine walking stimulate the same neural pathways in their brains that activate if they actually walk. The brain registers visualized thoughts at an actionable level. It’s more likely to make connections with real events if those events were visualized beforehand. 

Just imagining creative solutions can offer physical and mental benefits to designers, too. This is helpful when working with clients and groups to explore possible outcomes and brew up effective design strategies. Think of the brain like the software and visualization as the printer that brings an idea to life. Visualization is an excellent way to encourage the brain to access more flexible and abstract ways of thinking and get a result. 

Visualize a situation or result by harnessing your innate brain body connection. What does the situation look like, smell like, taste like, feel like and sound like? What experiences does it provide? Adding details in your mind’s eye will help to paint a more comprehensive mental picture that you can use as inspiration for your work. 

Harness the Benefits of Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is a term brewed up by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967. This term refers to the ability to generate numerous different solutions or ideas from a single piece of data, event, or experience. Divergent thinking and creative thinking are not one and the same. But divergent thinkers are more likely to be creative at any rate.

Divergent thinking is characterized by free flowing, spontaneous, and unrestricted thought. These thinkers focus on keeping their minds open to all possibilities. The more possibilities they can think of, the stronger their creative responses become. Designers can consciously improve their creative abilities by using their creativity more often and using their executive networks to scan for more divergent thought patterns whenever possible. 

The executive and salient brain networks form a flexible system that adapts to new situations and obstacles. This is not a resilient system. The brain adapts in relation to its environment and the culture, language, and ideas to which it is exposed. 

The more of these factors a brain is exposed to, the more divergent thoughts it can process and give rise to. The information provided has so many more possible states to consider. This is referred to as entropy; the number of possible states a system can be in. Conscious and creative thought is highly entropic in nature.

Creative Brains: How Cognitive Neuroscience Helps Understand Design Creativity

Powering The Creative Brain

Science has come a long way in understanding and explaining how the structures in the human brain give rise to critical and creative thought patterns. The key to understanding design creativity lies in the brain’s ability to collaborate between its various regions according to each stage of a creative process. 

We are continually moving towards the ability to think more creatively. But this all depends on the strength of the connections between the areas of the brain involved in problem solving, concentration and divergent thinking. 

Image Credit: Pxfuel

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