New Study Suggests a Link between Creativity and Brain Structure

Isaac Kaplan
May 8, 2018 9:31PM

Left to right: Diagrams of the left hemisphere and right hemisphere of the brain, exhibiting regions with an inverse correlation between Openness and cortical thickness. Courtesy of Wiley.

What does a creative brain look like? Over the past two decades, through neuroimaging—the process through which scientists make scans of the human brain—we’ve begun to find out. Researchers have discovered that there is no single part of the brain that is responsible for a person’s creativity. Rather, it’s a series of neurological systems interacting with one another that gets the creative juices flowing.

Our understanding of brain structure and creativity is still relatively nascent. One particularly interesting study, published in the Human Brain Mapping journal last month, found an association between a personality trait linked to creativity and the thickness of an area of the brain responsible for cognitive control. The finding supports existing theories around uninhibited nature creativity, while also demonstrating the potential for brain imaging to deepen our understanding of this ineffable quality.

The study

This research is part of a broader area of study called “personality neuroscience,” which is essentially the study of links between brain structure and certain personality traits. Rather than measure creativity directly, researchers scored 185 participants on two traits that have been associated with creativity: their openness and their intellect. Normally, these traits are bundled together and studied as one part of what is known as the “Big Five” personality model. But by focusing on openness and intellect specifically, this study provides a much more nuanced look at creativity and brain structure.

“We had this idea that, if we go to the brain and we look at which regions are correlating individually with intellect and openness, as opposed to the overall factor, there might be something interesting to see there,” said researcher Oshin Vartanian. The study was a collaboration between his team at Defence Research and Development Canada and neuropsychologist Rex Jung’s laboratory at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Participants were given questionnaires that assessed their intellect and openness separately, and researchers took MRI scans of the participants’ brains. Then, the researchers looked for correlations between these personality traits and the thickness of the cerebral cortex (which plays an important part in memory and cognitive control) across the entire brain, known as “cortical thickness.” Researchers hypothesized that they would see a positive correlation between intellect and cortical thickness in regions of the brain associated with intelligence. After all, previous studies have linked intellect—the personality trait—with tangible performance on intelligence measures, like IQ tests. For openness, the researchers expected to find a positive correlation between openness scores and the cortical thickness of regions of the brain associated with creativity.

What it found

The results were somewhat surprising: Researchers did not find the positive correlation between cortical thickness and intellect they expected. In fact, they found no relationship at all.

“This is an interesting finding because it is distinct from what you find when looking at studies of intelligence,” which have found a positive correlation, Vartanian said. “We will have to see how reliable our findings are through future replication.”

The team also made another unexpected finding: a negative relationship between cortical thickness and openness. The higher the openness score, the lower the cortical thickness. This result suggests that intellect and openness are not governed by the same brain structures, despite being lumped together in some personality models.

What it means

But what does this tell us about creativity more broadly? The findings align nicely with a dominant theory of creativity called “cognitive disinhibition,” which posits that creativity is the product of reduced control over what is happening inside of your mind, leading you to entertain new ideas and think more fluidly. Since the cortex plays a role in memory and structuring thought, it makes sense that reduced thickness would be associated with openness.

“It’s almost like a reduced filter mechanism that, in some cases, can be beneficial,” said Vatanian.

Neuroimaging studies like this one could be the future of creativity research, as scientists seek to fully understand which neurons are firing in our brains when the creative spark ignites. But as Vartanian will quickly tell you, even the most advanced technology cannot unearth the biological root of all creativity. After all, what even constitutes creativity is determined by the society a person lives in as much as their individual brain structure. “We know there are all kinds of social and cultural aspects that affect creative thinking,” said Vartanian, “but we’re hoping to find a neural representation of those social and cultural effects.”

When it comes to understanding creativity, he adds, brain structure is just “one aspect of a multifaceted problem.”

Isaac Kaplan