Scientists have found a way to improve creativity through electrical brain stimulation, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Goldsmiths, University of London.
They achieved this by temporarily suppressing a key part of the frontal brain called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is involved in most of our thinking and reasoning.
The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, show that participants who received the intervention showed an enhanced ability to ‘think outside the box’.
Dr Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, first author from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, said: “We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process. It works fine most of the time, but fails spectacularly when we encounter new problems which require a new style of thinking - our past experience can indeed block our creativity. To break this mental fixation, we need to loosen up our learned rules.”
Dr Luft conducted the research while previously working at Goldsmiths, University of London, with Dr Michael Banissy and Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya.
The researchers used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which involved passing a weak constant electrical current through saline-soaked electrodes positioned over the scalp to modulate the excitability of the DLPFC. Depending on the direction of the current flow, DLPFC was temporarily suppressed or activated. The very low currents applied ensured that it would not cause any harm or unpleasant sensation.
60 participants were tested on their creative problem solving ability before and after receiving one of the following interventions: DLPFC being suppressed, DLPFC being activated, and DLPFC being unstimulated. The participants solved “matchstick problems”, some of which are hard, because to solve these problems, participants need to relax the learnt rules of arithmetic and algebra.
The participants whose DLPFC was temporarily suppressed by the electrical stimulation were more likely to solve hard problems than other participants whose DLPFC was activated or not stimulated. This demonstrates that suppressing DLPFC briefly can help breaking mental assumptions learned from experience and thinking outside the box.
But the researchers also observed that these participants got worse at solving problems with a higher working memory demand (where many items are needed to be held in mind at once). These problems require the participants to try a number of different moves until finding the solution, which means they have to keep track of their mental operations.
Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya, who leads the Brain and Cognition Research Cluster at Goldsmiths and is the senior author of the study, said: “Of course creativity is very complex and has many facets, and our results suggest that it may be possible to temporarily boost people’s ability to ‘think outside the box’, a key aspect of creative problem solving.
"However, don’t rush out to buy a cheap brain stimulation kit hoping for a quick gain on your creativity. Not only will such devices not yield the targeted effect but they can even lead to poorer performance on other demanding tasks as shown by our study.
"We do need our prefrontal cortex for most of our thinking and problem solving and the prefrontal cortex is needed to function at its sweet spot for creativity to flourish. Future research should aim to reveal more about it."
The research was funded by the European Commission through the CREAM (CReativity Enhancement through Advanced Methods) project.
A report of the research, ‘Relaxing learned constraints through cathodal tDCS on the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’ by Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, Ioanna Zioga, Michael J Banissy, and Joydeep Bhattacharya, is published in Scientific Reports.
Original story: QMUL