The Downside of Executive Function: It Squelches Creativity

A new study suggests that our much-lauded prefrontal brain mechanisms for control and focus may actually make it more difficult to think creatively, writes Alison Gopnik in the Wall Street Journal.

Previous studies using brain scans have shown that when musicians are making up melodies on the spot, some of the  parts of the prefrontal cortex involved in self-control shut down. Prefrontal control is “deactivated” when musicians improvise, that is, but not when they are playing something they’ve previously memorized. Gopnik elaborates:

“But it’s important to remember that correlation is not causation. How could you prove that the frontal deactivation really did make the improvisers innovate? You’d need to show that if you deactivate those brain areas experimentally, people will think more innovatively. Sharon Thompson-Schill at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues did that in the new study.

They used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. If you pass a weak electrical current through part of the brain, it temporarily and safely disrupts neural activity. The researchers got volunteers to think up either ordinary or unusual uses for everyday objects.

While the participants were doing this task, the scientists either disrupted their left prefrontal cortex with tDCS or used a sham control procedure. In the control, the researchers placed the electrodes in just the same way but surreptitiously turned off the juice before the task started.

Both groups were equally good at thinking up ordinary uses for the objects. But the volunteers who got zapped generated significantly more unusual uses than the unzapped control-group thinkers, and they produced those unusual uses much faster.

Portable frontal lobe zappers are still (thankfully) infeasible. But we can modify our own brain functions by thinking differently—improvising, freestyling, daydreaming or some types of meditation. I like hanging out with 3-year-olds. Preschool brains haven’t yet fully developed the prefrontal system, and young kids’ free-spirited thinking can be contagious.

There’s a catch, though. It isn’t quite right to say that losing control makes you more creative. Centuries before neuroscience, the philosopher John Locke distinguished two human faculties, wit and judgment.

Wit allows you to think up wild new ideas, but judgment tells you which ideas are actually worth keeping. Other neuroscience studies have found that the prefrontal system re-engages when you have to decide whether an unlikely answer is actually the right one.” (Read more here.)

I notice that one of the commenters on Gopnik’s WSJ article has shared a priceless quote (attributed—accurately?—to Ernest  Hemingway) that sums all this research up: “Write drunk, edit sober.”

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