Neuroscience and Creativity

11 April 2019

Posted By artgym

By Katie Pattison and Ling Sian Tan – Artgym Advanced Diploma Participants


Recently, a survey on LinkedIn Learning looked at the skills companies most need now and into the future, and there was a bit of a surprise at the very top of the list: CREATIVITY.

Technically, creativity is the second most in-demand skill in the world, with cloud computing at the top. And, macroeconomic trends suggest creativity will only become more important moving forward. It’s no stretch to say creativity is the single most important skill in the world for all business professionals today to master.

Neuroscience is constantly uncovering new research which shows how as humans, we have the ability to reinvent and grow new neural pathways in our brains. In the last decade, science has advanced hugely in this area and uncovered fascinating information about how the brain can change and become more receptive to creativity with focused effort and targeted practices.

As you have just read, learning to engage with our whole brain is going to be a vital aspect to nurture further creativity in our fast and changing world. As facilitators studying on the Artgym Advanced Diploma, we are constantly curious and seek out ways to ignite and encourage individual and team creativity by exploring lots of different creative processes. We look to engage at every level, as the mind and the body are interwoven. We have found that we are at our most creative when all of them are fired up!

Here are some thought-provoking ideas, all of which endorse this fact.  Engaging greater creativity in your life on a regular basis and learning how to think more creatively will benefit you the rest of your life/career.




The latest findings from the real neuroscience of creativity suggest that the right brain/left brain distinction does not offer us the full picture of how creativity is implemented in the brain. * Creativity does not involve a single brain region or a single side of the brain.

Instead, the entire creative process– from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification – consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.

Creative thought can be determined by how effectively the brain can communicate between different regions that usually work separately.

Three distinct brain networks are key to most creative thinking.

These are known as the executive control network (which activates when a person needs to focus), the default network (related to brainstorming and daydreaming), and the salience network (known for detecting environmental stimuli and switching between executive and default brain networks).

Network 1: The Executive Attention Network

The Executive Attention Network is recruited when a task requires that the spotlight of attention is focused like a laser beam. This network is active when you’re concentrating on a challenging lecture or engaging in complex problem solving and reasoning that puts heavy demands on working memory.

Network 2: The Default Network

The Default Network (also referred to as the Imagination Network) is involved in “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.” The Default Network is also involved in social cognition. For instance, when we are imagining what someone else is thinking, this brain network is active.

Network 3: The Salience Network

The Salience Network constantly monitors both external events and the internal stream of consciousness and flexibly passes the baton to whatever information is most salient to solving the task at hand.

When you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the Executive Attention Network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks.

However, sometimes it’s important to bring the Executive Attention Network back online, and to critically evaluate and implement your creative ideas.

Source: Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge “Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity.”




Neuroscience is currently exploring what characterises creative minds. Harvard researchers have found that highly original thinkers show very strong connectivity between three networks of the brain.  These are mind wandering, focused thinking and selective attention and all three can be strengthened with practice. Mind wandering – structured daydreaming – is really good for your creativity!  As our minds wander, different parts of our brains are activated, accessing information that may have previously been dormant or out of reach. This accounts for creativity, insights and often the solutions to problems that you had not considered. CREATIVITY IS FOSTERED BY TASKS THAT ALLOW THE MIND TO WANDER




Improvisation is a highly complex form of creative behaviour that justly inspires our awe and admiration. The ability to improvise requires cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking and discipline-specific skills, and it improves with training.

Through a study conducted by the University of California, Charles Limb, a neuroscientist, looked for a way to see what happens with the brain when it is creating. Jazz musicians were asked to play a memorized song while their brains were scanned with functional MRI. Then the musicians were scanned while they were improvising to compare the differences.

The results, published in 2008, were fascinating. While the musicians improvised, the parts of the brain that allow humans to express ourselves — the medial prefrontal cortex or “default network” — became more active. At the same time, the part of the brain responsible for self-inhibition and control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, became dormant.

So by inhibiting the part of the brain that allows self-criticism, the musicians were able to stay in their creative flow, known as “in the zone.”

In other words, the inner critic must be shut down, and the inner Picasso turned up.

Source: “What Time Feels Like When You’re Improvising- The neurology of flow states.”, Nautilus June 2018




Olympic athletes use it all the time – tapping into your mind’s eye to mentally prepare for the competition.  The language of self-belief is rich with metaphors – we all have the ability to create a mental image of doing something amazing; and by really getting in touch with our senses, that thought can surface and become more real to us and our brains.

Research has shown that the same part of the brains’ neural pathways in the cortex is stimulated and activated if you imagine walking as if you had actually walked!  The brain registers this at a deep level and is likely to make a positive connection with a real-life event.

Simply imagining something has the power to deliver physical as well as mental benefits. This can be useful when working with individuals and groups to explore better outcomes. It is a great way to turn away from logical dominance and access a more abstract and flexible way of thinking.  It needs to start with harnessing the brain-body connection.  What does the vision look like, smell like and taste like and what was the experience that is felt? This helps to raise the unconscious to the conscious level. *

*Extracts from Dr Tara Swift – The Source




“Divergent thinking” was a term coined by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967. It is the ability to generate many ideas or solutions from a single idea or piece of information. Divergent thinking is not the same as creative thinking. However, it is a good indicator of creative potential.

Divergent thinking is usually more spontaneous and free-flow. Individuals try to keep their mind open to any possibilities that present themselves. The more possibilities they come up with, the better their divergent thinking.

Neuroscience research suggests that we are able to consciously influence ourselves to have greater creativity. Not just by practicing and doing exercises which require creativity or by being creative, but also by using our executive network to invoke our salience network to scan actively for more divergent thoughts, and by disinhibiting our suppression of divergent thoughts.




If you have a mindset that is positive, you are helping your brain protect itself and decrease the activity in the amygdala, which processes fear.  Unfortunately, long term stress can shrink the size of your temporal lobe and increase the size of the amygdala that processes fear information. More recently it has been proven that the hippocampus is critical for long-term memory, creativity and imagination. If you can retrain your brain by becoming more positive and find different associations to banish negativity, this will encourage activity in your hippocampus. In the way that the hippocampus allows us to think about the past and memory, it also allows us to imagine the future. Exercise also has a very powerful effect and releases key neurotransmitters associated with good mood and long-term memory

Long-term stress is literally killing the cells in your hippocampus that contribute to the deterioration of your memory. But it’s also zapping your creativity.*

*Taken from an article in Forbes 2019 – media LLC by Dr Wendy Suzuki













Other Related Articles

9 Core Competencies for Innovation at Work

18th May 2020

 What Does it Take to Lead Innovation and Change in the 21st Century? Well using our experience and research we have identified…

The Creativity Assessment

17th April 2020

Are you putting your creativity to work? Check out Artgym’s free Creative Intelligence Self-Assessment to help you find out? Creative…

Upping Creative Intelligence in the workplace

3rd April 2020

Eugene Hughes is the CEO at Artgym and a Psychologist specialising in imagination and creativity. He has won many international…