The neuroscience of creativity – and its implications for agency culture
Improving our understanding of the way our brains work could provide a boost to the creative industries, writes Heather Andrew
Creativity can be seen as a mercurial and inaccessible trait. In fields like advertising, media, or design, and indeed in the wider business world, the capacity to generate ideas and solve problems imaginatively can seem predetermined and also somewhat fragile.
Is creativity a fleeting burst of inspiration, or is it built-in? Is it the preserve of the young? Do ideas ever just run out? And can those who don’t consider themselves creatives still be creative?
While most of our Neuro-Insight commercial research assesses the brain’s response to creative work, there is a great deal of wider neuroscience work out there which highlights the subconscious functions and processes which drive creative processes themselves.
Comparatively recent academic research is revealing that creativity in the brain involves not one but two distinct subconscious processes, driven by two networks in the brain, which each have their own optimal conditions for success.
The first process involves the ‘creation network’, which drives new ideas by combining multiple concepts, with varying degrees of randomness. The more developed this is, the broader and more plentiful its outputs.
But generating thoughts is only part of the creative process, and there is a second network – the ‘judging’ or ‘retention’ network – that becomes involved; weighing up new ideas and determining whether to accept or reject them based on their suitability to solve the problem.
The natural capacity of these idea generators and filters in our brains varies from person to person but they are also influenced by environmental factors.
For instance, the creation network thrives in settings which promote dreaming and relaxation – no surprise that we like to ‘sleep on it’ when we’ve got a tricky problem to tackle. On the other hand, the judging network comes into play when we’re goal-directed and sensitive to external stimulus and scrutiny, as we use these to test and compare our ideas for viability.
Crucially, both networks tend to be mutually exclusive – if you’re in an optimally creative environment, the judging network will be suppressed, and vice versa.
These factors tell us a lot about what makes for a productive brainstorming environment; a non-judgmental, relaxed and light-hearted atmosphere. They also back up some moderators’ requests that phones or other devices are left out of the room – removing the temptation for participants to check email, news or social feeds which play to the judging networks’ strengths and are therefore likely to suppress the creation network.
The neuroscience of creativity also raises some interesting questions around how we perceive individual performance in business or professional settings.
For instance, the profile of a productive creation network aligns closely to that of ADHD, showing a lack of focus and increased impulsivity. Indeed, history shows us that some great thinkers and entrepreneurs demonstrated ADHD symptoms – from Einstein and Edison through to Virgin’s Richard Branson and David Neeleman of Jet Blue. Neeleman himself said he’s happy with his ADD brain, which “naturally searches for better ways of doing things”.
With so many case studies for neurodiversity as a tool in business, it’s worth questioning whether, in some cases at least, ADHD can be viewed as a pathological term for the creative brain. If so, are those diagnosed with ADHD mistakenly overlooked for problem-solving tasks, or misplaced in non-creative environments?
There’s also an age dimension to this – because counter to popular supposition, creativity doesn’t necessarily decline with age. From a neuroscience point of view, the brain does have a natural creative ‘peak’, but it’s older than we might think – the greatest level of creative productivity has been found to sit between ages 40 and 50. However, the same research suggests creativity can rise further in later life with a significant change in the creative domain itself.
So, if a person remains in the same field for too long, it’s likely that creative capacity will decrease. However, willingness to engage in new pursuits will sustain and even increase creativity levels.
With this in mind, whilst we in the creative industries are continually scrutinising the diversity of our background and, on top of a push for gender, neurodiversity and ethnicity to be well-represented, maybe we also need to see a broader age range among creative teams.
Understanding how the creative brain functions provides a great opportunity for us to work better with one another, and to get the best out of ourselves. Questions about who can be creative – and in what circumstances – are also worth raising as we all drive towards a more diverse and more productive industry.
Heather Andrew is UK CEO of Neuro-Insight