Brains, bridges, and creativity boosts

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Picturing a swing-bridge in action. Source: adapted from Y tambe, Wikimedia Commons

“Truly, one of the most joyous things that I do in preparing for a performance is the warming-up part.” 
– opera singer Jessye Norman (from her 2014 book Stand Up Straight and Sing! p. 53)

Dancers and drummers, singers and swimmers, all regularly warm-up before their performances. Should we, too, sometimes be warming up before diving into a creative endeavor? If so, how might we better ready ourselves to innovatively think and make? And why might it work?

For creativity boosting suggestions and for how creativity might relate to swing-bridges and brains, see Wilma’s latest Psychology Today post.

Looking in, looking out: Spontaneous cognition, intention, and creativity

At this time of year, many of us may find our thoughts turned inward, reflecting on what we have experienced and achieved in the past year, and our goals and aspirations for the upcoming year. This underscores an important distinction in our thinking between inner-directed attention, and outer-directed attention, and their interplay.

When our attention is directed externally, whether intentionally or not, we are responding to, and interpreting, stimuli or events outside of ourselves, with information coming in to us from the external world through our senses. When, though, our attention is directed internally, we draw on our own memory and knowledge, reliving past experiences, and imaginatively anticipating future events using what we already know.

In many situations, our internally directed cognition and our externally directed cognition compete with one another. Think of the times we may drift into reverie during a long talk or while overhearing an extended conversation—only to find ourselves unable to capture what was said just moments before. Or, conversely, think of what happens when we’re trying to recall an uncommon word or an unfamiliar name, and we might close our eyes or avert our glance, as we try to fully turn our attention inward and block out external distractions.

This competition is also often observed in brain imaging studies. An interconnected set of brain regions (often referred to as the “default mode network”) is strongly activated when we turn our attention inward. A different set is often activated (for example, in what has been called the “executive control network”) when we are purposefully responding to externally presented words, objects, or sounds. When activation in one set of brain regions goes up, activation in the other set goes down and vice versa.

But do internally directed and externally directed thinking always compete with each other? What would it mean for creativity and imagination if they could, instead, cooperate?

A growing number of studies show that during creative or imaginative activities, when we are partially thinking in spontaneous or automatic ways, there can be a more cooperative relationship between internal and external thinking.

What might this mean for our creative processes? During our creative endeavors, we need to exert some deliberate guidance, but not be too rigid and unrelenting a “controller,” weaving in with our guidance and goals, and then loosening control before we weave in again. In the longer-term, developing effortless ease in parts of our creative process may lead to conditions that promote even more discoveries because there’s a powerful blending of the spontaneous and the intended, and of our internally and our externally directed thinking.

 

—> For a recent and comprehensive review on the relationship between externally and internally directed cognition in the brain see:

Matthew L. Dixon, Kieran C.R. Fox, & Kalina Christoff (2014). A framework for understanding the relationship between externally and internally directed cognition. Neuropsychologia, 62, pp. 321-330.

Dynamic brains & dynamic environments for creativity: How so?

Everyone today is telling us that we need to regularly “exercise” our brain. But what does mental exercise mean for creativity? When we regularly workout “mentally” what is really changing in our brain?

By mental exercise, we mean engaging in challenging activities that require us to pay close attention and learn new things and make novel, often subtle, distinctions between similar-appearing things. The distinctions could be sensory-perceptual, or about meaning, or about action. Our brains are continually learning and forming predictions based on the environments we choose and make for ourselves. Environments matter.

Our brain—in response to our environments—changes continually, in multiple ways, and across multiple timescales. Both the structure of the brain (that is, how it is built) and the function (that is, the ways it processes information) may change in the face of experience. At the structural level, stimulating mental exercise may lead to the formation of new synaptic connections between neurons (that is, changing “gray matter”). It may also lead to more efficient connections between neurons and neuronal ensembles at long distances through changing what is known as “white matter” or axons. Greater white and gray matter connectivity may enable us to process and understand information more quickly and efficiently.

In the longer-term, our increased active grappling with novelty might lead to the generation of new neurons (neurogenesis) in regions of the brain such as the hippocampus, important in memory and in making connections between our experiences. Challenging mental exercise may make it more likely that new neurons that are born throughout our lifespan actually survive and become meaningfully connected to our existing memory and experience networks. New, effortful, and successful learning is the ticket to the survival and integration of many newly generated neurons. This could allow us to develop an increasingly deeper and richer wellspring of knowledge to draw upon in our discoveries and problem solving.

We should also consider the conjoined benefits of mental with physical exercise. Putting the two together may yield benefits that are more than the sum of their parts.

So what works best? Particularly potent are activities that involve naturally occurring combinations of mental and physical actions and that call on fine-grained multimodal coordination in time and space, such as various forms of dance, theater, filmmaking, musical performance, or real-world making and shaping. Dislodging old unproductive habits, deliberately varying, and paying attention in the moment all help our brains to dynamically develop brand new neural connections. We should choose and nurture activities that offer us long-term challenges with ever-unfolding possibilities.

As we observe in Part 1 of our book, Innovating Minds:

“We cannot understand creativity, or identify potential barriers to the generation of novel and innovative ideas and methods, if we isolate our mind or brain from our environments.  Our minds, brains, and environments are in perpetual interplay.  It is at their intersections that new ideas emerge and can be realized.”

 

–>For some empirical research on our dynamic brains and environments see:

Newly learning to juggle is a stimulus to brain plasticity. Juggling changes the brain’s gray matter. And juggling changes the brain’s white matter.

How stimulating environments “makes new neurons, and effortful learning keeps them alive.”