Where do flexibly new creative options come from? Dopamine helps us walk the flexibility-fluency tightrope

Navigating the flexibility-stability tightrope . . . Source: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons


Imagine that you’re trying to think of alternative ways to creatively address a thorny problem. What’s your best approach?

Should you place your bets on idea quantity: simply spouting and pouring forth with as many ideas as you can, hoping that in the fast flood of your ideas, among the many rather mundane ideas and a few silly ones, there may be one or two insightful gems that will illuminate your way forward?  Or should you, from the outset, more closely channel and focus your idea generation efforts, placing your bets on idea quality: telling yourself that it’s not just any ideas that you’re looking for, but that you’re looking to find creative ideas, ideas that are novel, inventive, ingenious, innovative…?

The proposed answers to this question – should you place greater emphasis on the quantity versus quality of ideas generated – have varied across time, and labs, in part because idea quantity and quality are clearly associated with one another.  For example, there is often a positive correlation between the number of ideas that people generate and both the originality of their ideas and the variety (or flexibility) of their ideas.  And it is often the case that later generated ideas are more creative than earlier ones.

A different approach

A team of eight researchers in the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford recently tackled the issue of the fluency (quantity) versus uniqueness (quality) of responses from a very different approach. They set their sights on the question of what might be the biological basis of varied responses, choosing to focus particularly on the neurochemical dopamine.  Dopamine (especially the dopaminergic nigrostriatal network) has long been implicated in creativity and cognitive flexibility, but direct evidence for how dopamine influences fluency and flexibility has so far been lacking.

Aiming to ask the question in a way that was minimally influenced by differences in individual’s background knowledge or learning, the Oxford research team adopted a markedly simple visual-spatial task.  Participants were shown a 23″ touchscreen computer screen.  On the screen were two small red circles, one directly above the other, with the two circles vertically separated by about 8 inches. Participants were told to “Draw as many different paths as you can from the bottom red circle to the top red circle in 4 minutes.’’

These direct and simple task instructions allowed for fine-grained quantitative assessments of how many paths the participants drew (a measure of quantity or fluency) and how varied they chose to make each of their paths (a measure of quality, originality, or uniqueness).

Equally important, the simple task also allowed testing with participants who have known deficits in dopaminergic function – that is, individuals with Parkinson’s Disease.  The researchers could test patients both when they were on medications to supplement their dopaminergic function (referred to as being in an “on” state) and when temporarily off those medications following an overnight abstention from their medication (referred to as being in an “off” state).  The researchers could then assess how participants performed the task depending on the level of dopamine present.

To further probe the effects of dopamine on the fluency of responses versus variation (uniqueness) of responses the researchers also tested a group of older adults, both when the participants were only given a placebo pill (control condition), and when they were administered a drug that is known to enhance D2 dopaminergic function (cabergoline, experimental condition).  Like for the individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, the researchers could then assess how participants performed the task depending on the level of dopamine present.

Examples of participants’ responses to the drawing task

Example 1:  Non-fluent & Non-unique

Source: Ang et al. (2018).

In the image above, there are relatively few paths from the bottom red dot to the top red dot, and the paths mostly look the same.  All of the drawn paths are slightly curved outward, either to the right or to the left, but otherwise essentially follow the same trajectory.

Example 2: Fluent & Unique

Source: Ang et al. (2018).

In example 2, there are a large number of paths from the bottom red dot to the top red dot, and the drawn paths take many different trajectories, sometimes looping and swirling this way or that way, with some taking quite varied curved paths and others more direct or smooth-cornered paths.

So, what did they find?

Across each of three studies, with different age and participant groups, the findings were the same: Increased availability of dopamine increased the fluency (quantity) of responding (that is, the number of lines drawn) compared to the control conditions. This was observed both for individuals with Parkinson’s disease tested when “on” their dopamine-promoting medication (compared to when they were off their medication), and in older adults tested after being administered cabergoline (compared to being given placebo).

But this was not the only finding.  Although dopamine, overall, decreased the uniqueness of the responses, for any given number of responses, the uniqueness of responding was also higher at that same level of fluency.  So: dopamine strongly bolstered the quantity of responding, and also the uniqueness of responding.  Stated differently, dopamine shifted the trade-off line between fluency and uniqueness, so that participants were more unique for a given level of fluency.

The researchers also carefully considered possible confounding factors and designed additional experiments to examine them.  For example, could it be that dopamine influenced not the ability to simply think of (generate) different options, but rather the ability to plan them, or the ability to actually make the movements needed?

The researchers were able to show that the effects of dopamine really were on the process of generating different options rather than following through on a planned action or making the movement.  For example, when the iPad display showed many different end points, rather than only one, and the participant only had to choose one of the end points, then there was little influence of dopamine status on performance. Other findings showed that the differences were not due to the contribution of motor tremor, and also not due to differences in drawing speed (which can influence the movements of individuals with Parkinson’s disease).

The results of this study nicely converge with those of another recent study­, from a research team in Israel, that compared the creative performance of 27 individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, when “on” their dopaminergic therapy with the creative performance of 27 control participants, matched on age and years of education.  In agreement with the Oxford team’s drawing-task findings, the Parkinson’s Disease group outperformed the control group in both the fluency (number) and the quality of their creative responses on a visual task that required interpreting the meanings of lines.  This bolstering of creative visual responses was significantly greater in a subset of the participants with Parkinson’s Disease who were receiving a higher daily dose of dopaminergic-supplement (higher L-dopa equivalent daily dose) compared with a lower dose.

What does this all mean?

The line-drawing study shows that the neurotransmitter dopamine is an important modulator of how we flexibly self-generate or autonomously produce varied options for our behavior. The research provides direct evidence – based on convergent and analytically-careful experimental methods with both patient groups and healthy controls – for the important role of dopamine in how we imaginatively and flexibly generate new opportunities for action.

The exact mechanisms by which higher levels of dopamine might lead to increased creativity remain to be tested.  One possible mechanism relates to how availability of the neurotransmitter dopamine (especially in the striatal brain system affected in Parkinson’s disease) boosts our tendencies to seek out novelty.  Novelty-seeking is an important contributor to creativity and creative flexibility. Novelty-seeking is also an important aspect of enduring personality traits related to creativity, such as openness to experience.  Increased dopamine is also known to be associated with good feelings or positive affect, such as how we may feel when we are unexpectedly or unpredictably given a small gift.

To be more creative, should we all, then, be looking to find ways of increasing dopamine, perhaps through engaging in these or other “happiness-boosting” activities?

The answer to this is likely neither a simple “yes,” nor a simple “no,” but rather – as for many questions about behavior and the brain – “it depends.”

A certain level of flexibility is good and often desirable.  But too much flexibility can lead us to be distractible, taking away our ability to concentrate or persist in our goals.  Whether bolstering our flexibility will also boost our creativity depends on our starting or baseline level of flexibility.  It’s all a delicate balancing act, a tightrope between being aptly flexible and being appropriately persistent or stable.


Ang, Y.-S., Manohar, S., Plant, O., Kienast, A., Le Heron, C., Muhammed, K., Hu, M., & Husain, M. (2018). Dopamine modulates option generation for behavior. Current Biology, 28, 1561–1569.

Boot, N., Baas, M., van Gaal, S., Cools, R., & De Dreu, C.K.W. (2017). Creative cognition and dopaminergic modulation of fronto-striatal networks: Integrative review and research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 78, 13–23.

Faust-Socher, A., Kenett, Y. N., Cohen, O. S., Hassin-Baer, S., & Inzelberg, R. (2014). Enhanced creative thinking under dopaminergic therapy in Parkinson Disease. Annals of Neurology, 75, 935–942.


What keeps us going creatively when the going gets tough? The motivational value of both long-term and short-term goals

Taking our goals in stride . . . Source: Yftaheco via Wikimedia Commons


Many of our important projects and goals require extended effort – effort stretched out over long periods of time, from months, to years, or even decades.  What keeps us going on these projects, pursuing our long-term goals, even when, in the short-term, the road ahead seems riddled with bumps and potholes, steep hills to climb, or unanticipated setbacks? you are embarking on an ambitious new creative project – say you want to launch your first solo artist exhibit of paintings or sculptures, or your first interactive video+sound installation, or to publish a substantial written work such as a novel, or an extended theoretical or historical analysis.  Should you set yourself highly specific and concrete attainable goals for each day, or for each week?

But we have many aspirations and hopes – should you be able to tell yourself just why this project is the one you should be taking on right now?  Should you ask yourself what it means for you, or why you’re taking on this big project rather than another one?

There is no single easy answer to these questions.  Most of our goals do not exist on their own, in isolation from other goals, and we can think of our goals in several different ways, each of which can help us with different aspects of our thinking and motivation.  Still, there are some pointers and guidance that research has uncovered.

Let’s look at two common ways of thinking about our goals, and the benefits and possible drawbacks of each. We’ll draw first on the insights from a team of three researchers at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, and then on findings from recent work by researchers working in Canada, at the University of Waterloo.

Goals as hierarchies, or trees

One way we can think about our goals is as trees or structured hierarchies of interconnected aims, with some goals being highly overarching or “superordinate” and others being more narrow, specific, or subordinate “stepping stones” (routes) to other goals.  Superordinate goals often capture the meaning or importance of what we are doing, that is, why we seek to do what we do.  They are often closely linked to our values, or our very broadest aims that span many different contexts or circumstances across our lives and steer our attention, feelings, and choices.  Subordinate goals often delineate the specific methods we need to take to reach a given goal, that is, how we can achieve the desired aim.

So, if we reflect on why we want to launch a new large creative project, we may bring to mind our deep-seated beliefs about why we think creativity is an important or core value for us, such as that we believe we should try to help ourselves and others experience – and make – surprising and beneficial forms of newness in the world.

Some of the ways that bringing to mind our superordinate goals can shape and benefit our thinking and motivation, are pictured below.

Hierarchical goal processes. Source: drawn from Hochli, Brugger, & Messner (2018, Figure 2)

Thinking about our values and our sense of who we are, could strengthen our sense of the meaning and the importance of what we are doing.  Bringing our superordinate goals to mind could also foster a steadying sense of patience – no great creative work of art or science or culture was accomplished without forgoing some shorter-term rewards that loomed alluringly large and attractive in the moment.  It also may encourage us to stay resilient and flexible because we realize that any one concrete shortcoming, any one specific setback, is only that – one among many situations and circumstances.

These may be some of the cognitive and motivational processes that lead to the often-observed beneficial buffering effects of the social-psychological intervention, called “values affirmation” or “self affirmation.”  In values affirmation, individuals under chronic stress or stereotype threat are asked to think about and write about their core values.

Values affirmation has been found to counteract the harmful effects of negative stereotypes on cognitive performance measures, academic outcomes, and health behaviors.  Especially relevant here, values affirmation has also been found to bolster verbal insight problem solving and also boosts nonverbal insight problem solving and abstract relational reasoning.  Several interrelated mechanisms have been proposed to undergird these benefits, including increased resilience, constructively orienting to errors, and regulating negative emotions while staying attuned to big-picture goals.

But does thinking about our goals as hierarchies, ranked by how important they are to us, capture everything we need?  What might it leave out or lead us to overlook?

Goals as networks, or interconnected maps

The importance of a goal is not the only characteristic of our goals that we may want to consider. Exclusively taking a strictly hierarchical picture of our goals, based on their importance, may make it difficult to see other significant interrelations between them.  For this reason, it may also be valuable to think of our goals as forming a network, or an interconnected map.  In this network, goals that are closely related to one another would appear next to each other, and goals that are important to us would have more connections than other goals.


Schematic network model of goals. Source: Wilma Koutstaal

Take the goal of doing well as a student.  Some of a student’s goals will relate to the courses and coursework she has, when each assignment is due, how complex the assignments are, and how much uncertainty she has about the time and effort required to complete them.  Other goals of the student will focus on her relationships with family, peers, or roommates and activities she engages in with them.  In addition, the student may have goals related to leisure, volunteer work, sports activities, or other extracurriculars; and also her daily living arrangements relating to shopping, cooking, cleaning, sleeping, etc.

Thinking of your varied and various goals in this way, and placing them next-to-next in an association-based networked map, may call your attention to subtle or nonobvious interconnections that you hadn’t noticed before.  Indeed, researchers have suggested that this way of picturing our goals may be especially beneficial for sparking what they call “integrative” creative thinking.  This form of thinking draws heavily on associative processes, and may be a form of creativity that involves especially frequent and repeated shifts between divergent and convergent creative processes.

To test this goal-network idea in relation to integrative creative thinking, the researchers asked 191 undergraduate students to complete a paper-and-pencil booklet visualizing their goals for university success.  The students were randomly assigned to sketch out their goals for succeeding at university in one of three ways:

(1) using a hierarchical map – with a clear ordering structure, where the higher-order goals are superior to, and encompass, the lower-order ones, and where lower-order goals may be the means to achieve higher-order goals

(2) using an interconnected network – with goals that are closely related to one another forming clusters, and goals that are more important having more connections

(3) using a series of steps – with goals organized along a timeline, such that achieving a goal at a later point in time depends on achieving goals at earlier points in time.

To test the students’ “integrative” creativity, they were challenged with a creative story re-writing task.  In the story re-writing task, students first read a short summary of the fairytale about Snow White, and then were asked “using their wildest imagination” to rewrite the story – developing an entirely new version of the story.  Four raters, blind to the participant’s condition, rated the creativity of the stories.

As they had hypothesized, the goal-network approach gave the greatest boost to creativity.  The goal-network group showed the highest amount of integrative creativity on the story re-writing task.  Other analyses suggested that this boost did not seem to come about because of differences in the number of goals generated for the different goal-mapping groups or other factors.

What should we make of all this?  Some questions to think about…

We must not draw strong conclusions about creative processes from any one empirical study or any one theoretical perspective on the nature of goals.  Still, there are reasons to think that there are benefits to both thinking of our goals in terms of our values and a hierarchy of their importance, as well as in terms of how our many goals interrelate with each other.

Putting together these recent exploratory forays into how we can and do think about our goals, seems to give rise to many new questions:

  • How often are we aware of the ways in which we are picturing our goals? If we find ourselves “creatively stuck” (or otherwise stuck in our thinking) can we intentionally prompt ourselves to try adopting a different model of our goals to propel ourselves forward both cognitively and motivationally?
  • What type of goal model do you most often assume when thinking about your aims and aspirations?How do your different ways of picturing your goals shape or channel your creative processes?
  • How might you change the structure, or content, of how you think about your goals to more strongly foster your patience and persistence when the road ahead looks steep, or steeped in uncertainty?
  • If you were asked to draw three different network maps of your goals, each showing different interrelations, or different vantage points on your goals, what goals would appear as important in each of the different networks?
  • Are there any goals that are no longer “really yours” – that have become disjoined from other goals, or replaced, or merged into new aims?
  • What are your “F.I.R.S.T” goals — For the long-term, Individualized, Recurring,Superordinate, and Thematic?



Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333–371.

Creswell, J. D., Dutcher, J. M., Klein, W. M. P., Harris, P. R., & Levine, J. M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress. PLoS ONE, 8, Article e62593, 1–7.

Höchli, B., Brügger, A., & Messner, C. (2018). How focusing on superordinate goals motivates broad, long-term goal pursuit: A theoretical perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 1879, 1–14.

Kung, F. Y. H., & Scholer, A. A. (2018). A network model of goals boosts convergent creativity performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 1910, 1–12.

Wen, M-C., Butler, L. T., & Koutstaal, W. (2013). Improving insight and non-insight problem solving with brief interventions. British Journal of Psychology, 104, 97–118.


Are you giving sound enough space in your creative world?

The many places and spaces of sound. Source:Victor Talking Machine Company; Right: Dnoahg via Wikimedia Commons


Given our (often) tremendous visual capacities, it’s easy to just let vision habitually take the reins, and assign other senses to lower rungs in our sensory hierarchy. For example, sounds and hearing often play “second fiddle.” What would it mean to place a higher priority on other senses, especially the roles of sound, in our sensory repertoire?

—> For more, including a Q & A with vocalist, musician, and Resonance Box founder Aida Shahghasemi see: Exploring and Expanding our Auditory Horizons 


Creativity: What’s privacy got to do with it?

An open-plan aquarium. Source: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons


How might a lack of privacy influence our creative thinking?  Our general common sense might suggest a number of reasons that being constantly “on view” for others to see us, as in an open-plan office, could bring with it cognitive costs.  Considerable mental effort may be needed to stay focused on one’s own work, and not be distracted by nearby sounds, movements, happenings, the coming and going of others.

But are we fully aware of all the different ways that lack of privacy might influence our thinking?  And, apart from simply asking people for their self-reports, how might we get a clearer and evidence-based understanding of how a lack of privacy impacts our thinking and making?

Let’s take a look at two highly creative experimental approaches – and the unique insights they provide – on the creativity-privacy connection.

—> For more see Wilma’s post: “Does an Open Office Plan Make a Creative Environment?: New support for the value of privacy at work.”

What’s your metaphor for creative change?

The gracefully powerful pivot.: Source: Matt Duboff via Wikimedia Commons


Embarking on an ambitious new creative endeavor is fraught with perils.  But so is being too doggedly persistent.

Given what we see “out there” –– should we persist in the direction our project has been taking? Or is it time to switch-up the direction of our efforts, pivotingto a different focus?

—> For more see: Mastering the Creative Pivot.

Pivoting in our creative endeavors involves shifting the direction of our efforts and attention. Source: Wilma Koutstaal

How does asking yourself action-related questions catapult creativity?

Source: Moh tch via Wikimedia Commons


What questions or ways of thinking could you adopt to give some fresh lift into your ideas –– like the bubble-blowing device –– expanding them and letting them take flight?

Coming up with good new ideas can seem like a mysterious and mysteriously murky process.  Where do good ideas come from?  Are there any tips, or tricks, or strategies, that we can draw on to help us generate good ideas –– or more of them, more often?

It might seem that we could just begin by asking people who come up with lots of good ideas:  How do you do it?  Tell me!

But that approach presupposes that such “good idea generators” know what it is that they do.  It presupposes that the good idea generators know how they think when they’re thinking creatively.  It also presupposes that a good idea generator can articulate (convey or tell us) what it is that they are doing.

Sadly, neither presupposition is often met:  The processes that a good creative idea generator uses are often somewhat obscure and opaque (perhaps subconscious) even to themselves.  So precisely and clearly telling us what they’re up to during their innovative idea discovery process may not be at all easy, or even possible.

But all is not lost. . .

—> For more see: “Using Action Ideas to Boost your Creative Idea Search

Are inquiring minds creative minds? Does curiosity catalyze creativity?

Source:Ronald Keith Monro via Wikimedia Commons


We all have likely seen them, at one time or another:  the job advertisements calling for curiosity as part of the desired “package of qualities” of the successful applicant.  The ways in which curiosity is described might differ.  But the message is much the same:  what is needed is (choose the one that most resonates with your past encounters) –– a passion for learning; a thirst for knowledge; an inquiring mind; hands-on curiosity –– paired with innovative and creative thinking, and an ability to think “outside the box.”

The connection between curiosity and creativity seems so clear and obvious, that we scarcely notice that these two different qualities have been linked together.  But what is the empirical evidence for their association?  How closely connected are they, really?  And, if they are associated, what is the direction of their connection:  Does curiosity fuel creativity?  Or does having a creative cast of mind catalyze curiosity?

Despite our intuitive sense that there should be a strong association between curiosity and creativity, only recently has the nature of the connection between them begun to be systematically probed.

For more see: Creativity –– What’s Curiosity Got to Do with It?

How You Think of Creativity Matters! — What are your creativity assumptions?

Source: Marco Consani via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Marco Consani via Wikimedia Commons

What sorts of moves are possible when catching a Frisbee?   And how might our beliefs about flexibility and improvisation limit what we see as attainable?

Beliefs are powerful shapers of who we are, and of the aims, small or big, that we strive to realize in our lives.

Some of our beliefs are familiar to us: they are clear, we know we have them, they come readily to mind, and are easily expressed. But not all of our beliefs are so familiar. Some of our beliefs have a more implicit existence. They are intricately interwoven with our experiences and what we have inferred or assumed, sometimes with little or no conscious awareness.

Where do our beliefs about creativity and the creative process reside on this continuum of explicit versus implicit beliefs? What do we hold to be true about how new insights and new ways of acting come to be? Do we think of creativity as something that is fixed and stable and “trait-like” — such that we either have it, or we don’t? Or do we see creativity as something that can be learned, developed, and improved with practice, guidance, or experience?

For more on creativity beliefs, including some research findings see Wilma’s July Psychology Today post.

How do we (really) keep our creative momentum?

We often like to simplify things but — let’s face it — creativity is a messy business. It’s filled with trial and error, trying this and trying that. It reaches across time (minutes, hours, weeks or months, sometimes years) and space. It’s rife with unpredictable spurts forward and sudden stops or detours as unforeseen obstacles loom on the horizon. How then can we ever see “inside creativity” — peering into this dynamically changing thinking-making process to learn what works well, and what doesn’t?

One promising approach is to generate a sort of “creative micro-world” —setting out a creative challenge that can be taken up in a somewhat limited period of time (say a few hours), with specific constraints and goals. Then the entire thinking-making process of creative designers or engineers can be observed (perhaps videotaped and audiotaped). The designers might also be asked to “think aloud” — telling us, moment by moment, what they’re thinking, what problem they’re facing, what options they see, or what next steps they’re mentally testing out (or ruling out). . . .

For more please see WK’s Psychology Today post “Inside Creativity: Charting Innovation as it Happens.”

Innovating Minds – coming mid-September 2015!

Innovating Minds Cover

We expect our new book, based on the latest information from our publisher, to be published and available by mid-September 2015!

You can preorder the book at, for example, Amazon here.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change will be published by Oxford University Press (ISBN: 9780199316021) and is designed to be valuable for readers coming from a variety of different backgrounds, including practitioners as well as students from such fields as the arts, design, education, engineering, management, and the social sciences.

As we explain in the opening sentences of Innovating Minds:

“This book invites us to discover how we can all become more creative thinkers and doers. A central question at the heart of this book is: How can we more flexibly and responsively bring about positive change in our world and in ourselves?

We will ask you to actively work through ideas as, together, we explore a new way of understanding our own and others’ thinking. The science-based ‘thinking framework’ that we will learn can help each of us—as individuals and as groups, teams, or organizations—to be more creative, innovative, and mentally agile.

A primary message of our book is that positive change and creativity can be encouraged through gaining a better understanding of the ways in which our thinking really works.”

We’ll post updates as we get closer to the publication date.

Here’s more about the book from our publisher:

A groundbreaking, scientific approach to creative thinking

From entrepreneurs to teachers, engineers to artists, almost everyone stands to benefit from becoming more creative. New ways of thinking, making, and imagining have the potential to bring about revolutionary changes to both our personal lives and society as a whole. And yet, the science behind creativity has largely remained a mystery, with few people aware of the ways we can optimize our own creative and innovative ideas.

Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity To Inspire Change offers a perspective, grounded in science, that allows us to achieve both individual and collective creative goals. Wilma Koutstaal and Jonathan Binks draw upon extensive research from brain, behavioral, and organizational sciences to present a unique five-part “thinking framework” in which ideas are continually refined and developed. Beyond scientific research, Innovating Minds also describes the everyday creative challenges of people from all walks of life, offering insights from dancers, scientists, designers, and architects.

The book shows that creativity is far from a static process; it is steeped with emotion and motivation, involving the dynamic interactions of our minds, brains, and environments. Accordingly, the book challenges readers to put the material into use through thinking prompts, creativity cross-checks, and other activities.

Vibrant and engaging, Innovating Minds reveals a unique approach to harnessing creative ideas and putting them into action. It offers a fascinating exploration of the science of creativity along with new and valuable resources for becoming more innovative thinkers and doers