A Researcher Live Series: February-March 2023

Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity


What is creativity? And what makes an idea or solution creative? In this mini-series we explore the neuroscience behind creativity.

We invite experts to discuss the cognitive and psychological aspect of coming up with a novel idea, an unusual solution or a new form of expression. 





Exploring the cognitive neuroscience of creativity

with William Orwig, PhD Student in Psychology at Harvard University

Tuesday, 28 February

3 pm GMT

Creativity: What happens before and after idea generation

with Dr Roni Reiter-Palmon, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO)

Tuesday, 14 March,

2 pm GMT

The creative brain: How flexible processing facilitates flexible thinking

with Dr Oshin Vartanian, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto

Tuesday, 28 March,

4 pm BST / 3pm GMT


Hear from industry experts

Join our speakers for discussions and Q&A about their latest research and discoveries

Exploring the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity 

with William Orwig, PhD Student in Psychology at Harvard University

William Orwig_sq

Creativity has had a profound impact on the modern world. From the invention of the lightbulb to the formation of the internet, creative ideas have shaped the course of human history. Despite its critical importance to society, the process of how creative ideas emerge remains elusive. Given the multifaceted nature of creativity, the brain processes supporting this mode of cognition are highly complex. Recent developments in neuroimaging and network analysis have begun to illuminate patterns of brain activity associated with creativity. My work aims to characterize large-scale brain connectivity associated with creativity.

Through application of graph theory techniques in resting-state fMRI data, my colleagues and I have identified connectivity profiles of highly creative people. In a sample of established creative experts, we found less integrated connectivity of primary visual areas to the rest of the brain, compared with controls. This finding extends past work describing individual differences in continuous creative performance within the general population to a group difference present in a highly expert sample of creatives (Orwig et al., 2021). Moreover, we found that reduced connectivity to lateral visual cortex was associated with more vivid distal simulations in creative experts. Taken together, these results highlight connectivity profiles of highly creative people and suggest that creative thinking may be related to the ability to vividly imagine the future. In this lecture, I will present our ongoing study in the context of published findings, and discuss a few avenues for future investigation.

About the speaker

William Orwig is PhD Student in Psychology at Harvard University. He received his bachelor’s in Cognitive Neuroscience, with Distinction and Honours, from University of Michigan in 2016. Following graduation, he spent two years in Medellín, Colombia with a Fulbright Scholarship. Upon returning to the United States, he completed a master’s in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before starting his PhD, he worked as Research Coordinator of the Sepulcre Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. His current research focuses on the psychological and neural processes that support the generation of novel ideas.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Creativity is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that has captured the interest of many researchers across disciplines.
  2. Brain network connectivity plays a crucial role in facilitating creative thinking.
  3. Mind wandering may facilitate creative thinking.
  4. Genetic factors also play a role in shaping the neural mechanisms underlying creativity.
  5. Semantic distance is a way of standardizing creative assessment using computerized assessments of divergent thinking responses.
  6. There is a strong relationship between the semantic distance ratings and human ratings of creativity.
  7. The default mode network is the most well-studied network in cognitive neuroscience and has been linked to internally directed or self-generated thought.
  8. Mind wandering can occur both with and without intention and should be studied as separate constructs.
  9. Negative associations between individual creative ability and connectivity within the primary occipital cortex, the lateral occipital cortex, and inferior parietal areas have been found.
  10. Specific genes associated with the distributed connectivity phenotype include NRXN2 and SHANK3, which are located in presynaptic and postsynaptic membranes and have been associated with synaptic function and autism spectrum disorders.

Creativity: What happens before and after idea generation

with Dr Roni Reiter-Palmon, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha

2019-10-18 picture 3_sq

Cognitive processes that lead to creativity have been an interest to creativity theorists, researchers and practitioners since the early days of the study of creativity. However, much of the research has focused on idea generation, and only limited research focused on other process. In this presentation I will focus on processes that occur before idea generation and after it, specifically problem identification and construction and idea evaluation and selection. I will discuss what we have already learned from research on problem identification and construction and idea evaluation and selection, and present some new research that is being published.

About the speaker

Dr. Roni Reiter-Palmon is a Distinguished Professor of Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology and the Director of the I/O Psychology Graduate Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). She is also the Director of Innovation for the Center for Collaboration Science, an inter-disciplinary program at UNO. She received her Ph.D. in I/O Psychology from George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. Her research focuses on creativity and innovation in the workplace, team creativity, development of teamwork and creative problem-solving skills, and leading creative individuals and teams. She has published over 160 articles and book chapters. She is the president elect of Division 10 of the American Psychological Association (creativity). She is a fellow of Divisions 10 and 14 (creativity and SIOP) of APA, and has won the system wide research award from the University of Nebraska system in 2017.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Creativity is defined as the production of novel, original, and appropriate or useful products, ideas, or solutions.
  2. Creative ideas must be both original and of high quality, meaning they are appropriate to the problem at hand.
  3. Cognitive models of creativity focus on how creative individuals think, while team creativity considers how individuals' thought processes can be combined into a coherent whole.
  4. The creative problem-solving model consists of five stages: problem construction, information search, idea generation, idea evaluation, and implementation.
  5. Problem construction or definition is critical in identifying the nature of the problem and constructing a structure to guide possible solutions.
  6. Problem construction is often automatic, triggered by environmental cues, and based on past problem-solving efforts.
  7. Problem representations include goals, constraints, information needed, and the process used.
  8. Expertise and creativity are related to problem construction ability and the amount of time spent engaging in problem construction.
  9. Training individuals to engage in problem construction before solving problems improves creativity.
  10. The quality and originality of problem construction directly predict the quality and originality of the solution.

The creative brain: How flexible processing facilitates flexible thinking

with Dr Oshin Vartanian, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto

Oshin Vartanian_sq

There has been longstanding interest in the ways in which the brain contributes to creative cognition. This is an important question to pursue because data from the brain can be used to generate and refine our models and theories of how creative ideas arise in the mind. Toward that end, researchers have explored the roles of associative and controlled processes in both the emergence of creative ideas, as well as individual differences in creativity. I will review this body of literature which has shown that creativity depends largely on the dynamic interplay between brain systems that support associative and controlled processes. 

In other words, to the extent that the construct of creativity can be considered a flexible form of thinking, its emergence also depends on the flexible engagement and disengagement of relevant systems in the brain. In addition, I will review complementary neuroimaging data from studies of expertise in specific domains of the arts (e.g., music) that have demonstrated that expertise is in part associated with variations in function and structure in systems that support these same two modes of thought. Together, the emerging evidence supports the roles of associative and controlled processes in creativity, as well as functional and structural changes in their underlying neural systems due to formal training and experience.

About the speaker

Oshin Vartanian, Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. Professor Vartanian received his PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Maine. He is the Editor of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts and past Editor of Empirical Studies of the Arts. His co-edited volumes include Neuroaesthetics (Baywood Publishing Company), Neuroscience of creativity (The MIT Press), Neuroscience of decision making (Psychology Press), The Cambridge handbook of the neuroscience of creativity (Cambridge University Press), and most recently the Oxford Handbook of empirical aesthetics (Oxford University Press). His main areas of interest include the cognitive and neural bases of aesthetics and creativity.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Creative cognition is supported by a flexible set of systems in the brain.
  2. There is a correspondence between brain systems that support creativity and creative behavior.
  3. Attention is an important factor in creativity, and different kinds of attention may support creativity at different stages of the creative process.
  4. The four-stage model for generating creative content includes preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.
  5. The blind variation and selective retention model proposes a two-step process for coming up with creative ideas or products.
  6. The definition of creativity includes both novelty and usefulness.
  7. Creative achievement is a measure of a person's lifetime achievement in various kinds of domains in terms of how much creativity they entail.
  8. The kind of task used to measure creativity is important, as different tasks may assess different kinds of cognitive processes.
  9. Creative people may be faster on well-defined tasks, but slower on ill-defined tasks that have a lot of interference and ambiguity.
  10. Faster processing times may be associated with narrowed attention in creative people, depending on the conditions of the task.