A flash of creativity

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Public Domain (Author: snowlion, 2009)

I’m back, casuals!

This week, we’re all about creativity, that fickle muse that we creatives need yet somehow evade us. Before we go any further, a mental exercise – write down all of the steps required to hold a pen (yes, people still use these things these days – can you believe it?). I’ll wait.

It takes you longer to think about it than it takes for you to do it. This is automaticity at work, good casuals: you don’t really think about a lot of the things you do everyday because it’s a habit. You don’t think about how to open a door. You don’t think about the fact that walking is really just you falling and catching yourself (well, you weren’t thinking about it before). You just open doors and walk through them. You don’t think about 1 + 1 = 2, it just does from all that adding you’ve ever had to do. Life just seems simpler when you don’t have to think about every. Single. Thing. Automaticity is great!

Well, until something happens that you’ve never run into before, a problem that needs to be solved. Now you have to think. Ugggggghhhhhh……

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Public Domain (Author: Gerd Altmann, 2014)

Artists and scientists alike run into this problem all the time. The things we know, our ‘rules’, may limit us when we’re searching for solutions. There’s been a lot of research in problem-solving that leans towards doing that because some problems have more than one solution, may not have clear conditions, or both. Bruce Lee – no real introduction needed – has a great comment about art and rules:

Art is the expression of the self. The more complicated and restricted the method, the less the opportunity for expression of one’s original sense of freedom.

He also used electric stimulation for his muscles, and by sheer coincidence this week’s Featured Article is about electrically stimulating the brain to relax a part of it in order to help with problem-solving. That was a weird segue…

Anyway, the authors mention that there’s a part of the brain in the prefrontal cortex that is involved in applying rules, thus the automaticity that I mentioned some 300 words ago. However, if you could just relax that part of the brain, could one see improvement in problem-solving performance? I’d like to see if this works, although I wouldn’t count on chess wonks in the park with electrode caps just yet.

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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (Author: Raysonho, 2015)

Sixty healthy participants who knew Roman numerals from I to XX (you’re going through your rules right now, aren’t you!?) were chosen for this study. Their brains were zapped by an electric neurostimulator that’s available on the market, limited to below 2 milliamps of current. This isn’t very much – for reference, 1 milliamp is the kind of current associated with hearing aids. The problems involved arranging matchsticks in order to fulfill some kind of mathematical expression, so that’s where the Roman numerals come in. I would suggest having a read yourself (p. 3 in the Featured Article), and this may be a fun activity if you just happen to be a teacher and you want to bend a few minds in your classroom for some reason (revenge?) or just to kill some time. They did two sets of similar problems: one before, and one after a 15-minute session with brain electrodes.

So does a good jolt to the head give better problem-solving performance? In short, yes, but before I get to the nitty-gritty I really have to remind everyone NOT TO ACTUALLY TRY GETTING PURPOSEFULLY ELECTROCUTED!!!! Geez. Anyway, by relaxing the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC, the part of the brain that has all these automatic rules), the subjects had more success with solving problems, compared to when they didn’t get hooked up to electrodes or compared to those who received what is essentially the placebo effect in neurological stimulation, which you can read about here (under “What is Sham stimulation”) if you’re interested.

There is probably a long, long, long process of testing before one can even get this certified for use in the public. It’s going to be a while before you’ll see coffee-shop artistes, poets, and musicians, bursting with creativity from a few milliamps upside the frontal lobe. Until then, we creatives will have to look like this:

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Public Domain (Author: Tim Gouw, 2016)

However, unfortunate souls with traumatic brain injuries can benefit from research like this – doesn’t seem fair that they can’t solve problems or make decisions because something happened with their wiring. Perhaps a small jolt can complete the right circuit and they can recover their cognitive functions. One day, creatives can get access to brain-jolting tech and maybe, just maybe, we can finally have an answer to a documented attempt at a cure for a disease some of us can’t seem to shake

Feel stuck in a project? How are you dealing with it? Comment below, or hit me up on Twitter @sci_jonny (or just click on the Twitter logo at the top of the page) with your response and #creativity. If you got the room, throw a #scicomm in there too – lets the science communication community know that you’ve just learned about some research, and you’ve got something to say.

‘Later, casuals.

postscript: maybe I could use this tech to come up with a better closing, I’m still not very good at it

Featured Article: Di Bernardi Luft C, Zioga I, Banissy MJ, Bhattacharya J. (2017) Relaxing learned constraints through cathodal tDCS on the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Scientific Reports 7. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-03022-2

Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: Willi Heidelbach, 2008)

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