Creative Science

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Imagine you’ve been working on a problem for days, maybe even weeks, but you can’t seem to figure it out. Your brain is working over solutions constantly but you feel stumped. So, you take a break. You walk down the street to the nearest coffee shop but as you’re walking home, sipping your drink and watching cars drive by, the solution rushes into your brain. That’s it!

Spontaneously Creative

You can thank your basal ganglia for all those "Ah-hah!" moments.In the above scenario, you aren’t thinking of the problem. You’re thinking of the coffee in your hand, the cars driving by, or the directions back to your house. That problem, that horribly frustrating problem, is solved almost out of thin air. What you’ve experienced is known as spontaneous and cognitive creativity. Your basal ganglia, a part of the brain involved in unconscious functions, took over your conscious brain’s efforts to solve the problem. Even while you were walking to the coffee shop and consciously paying attention to other stimuli (the coffee, the cars), your basal ganglia was working through the problem until it arriving at a solution. That’s the spontaneous part; the cognitive part is need for prior knowledge. You can’t have a spontaneous solution to a biology problem, for example, if you know nothing about biology.

This type of creativity brings up an interesting framework for understanding why scientists and engineers experience a different type of creativity from those in the entertainment industry. It’s not that the old myth of analytical, non-creative scientists and engineers is true – it’s just a different way of being creative (and we’ve got the science to back up that claim!).

Four Ways to Be Creative

Thomas Edison is a great example of a deliberate and cognitive thinker.Neuropsychologist Arne Dietrich studies the neuroscience of creativity, among other topics like consciousness. His research segments creativity into four types: deliberate and cognitive, deliberate and emotional, spontaneous and cognitive, and spontaneous and emotional. The type most associated with scientists and engineers is deliberate and cognitive, which equates to sustained focus in an area, such as a neuroscientist studying the brain. 

Deliberate and cognitive creativity come from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain located behind your forehead. It is the area responsible for focused attention and forming connections between information stored in the brain. You can see how this might relate to a scientist or engineer: deliberate focus, cognitive knowledge of a subject area, and the ability to form connections between information.

On the other hand, artists, musicians, writers, and other traditional creative careers are associated with spontaneous and emotional creativity. This type of creativity stems from the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes basic emotions. In between are spontaneous and cognitive creativity (explained above) and deliberate and emotional creativity, which is akin to working through emotional thoughts or issues. But if you work in one mode of creativity, it does not preclude you from the other types of creativity. A scientist might study research through deliberate and cognitive creativity, but experience spontaneous and emotional creativity while engaged in other creative endeavors. (In fact, we know quite a few scientists and engineers who are also artists or musicians.) 

Or, when a problem can’t be solved by deliberate and cognitive creativity, the brain can use spontaneous and cognitive creativity to find a solution. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper found this out during the episode “The Einstein Approximation.” Everyone’s favorite fictional theoretical physicist found himself stumped on a problem, and nearly drove himself mad by trying to solve it with deliberate and cognitive creativity. But a short stint as a waiter at The Cheesecake Factory, where he was able to focus on other tasks, freed his basal ganglia to work toward a solution.

Sheldon also discovered another way to solve a problem in the episode: sleep. When you can’t think of a solution, studies have shown REM sleep will help you figure it out!


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The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.