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creative mind university reviews

Creative Mind University

CreativeMind University trains Life Coaches in consciousness studies and timeless Eastern wisdom, delivering an unparalleled set of programs that impact every layer of the human experience. We are a tribe of seekers and constant learners passionate about personal growth and committed to creating lasting fulfillment in our lives and the lives of others.


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creative mind university reviews

Abstract image of a brain

Secrets of the Creative Brain

A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ, and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.

As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies creativity, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many gifted and high-profile subjects over the years, but Kurt Vonnegut—dear, funny, eccentric, lovable, tormented Kurt Vonnegut—will always be one of my favorites. Kurt was a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, and participated in the first big study I did as a member of the university’s psychiatry department. I was examining the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness, and Kurt was an excellent case study.

He was intermittently depressed, but that was only the beginning. His mother had suffered from depression and committed suicide on Mother’s Day, when Kurt was 21 and home on military leave during World War II. His son, Mark, was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia but may actually have bipolar disorder. (Mark, who is a practicing physician, recounts his experiences in two books, The Eden Express and Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So , in which he reveals that many family members struggled with psychiatric problems. “My mother, my cousins, and my sisters weren’t doing so great,” he writes. “We had eating disorders, co-dependency, outstanding warrants, drug and alcohol problems, dating and employment problems, and other ‘issues.’ ”)

While mental illness clearly runs in the Vonnegut family, so, I found, does creativity. Kurt’s father was a gifted architect, and his older brother Bernard was a talented physical chemist and inventor who possessed 28 patents. Mark is a writer, and both of Kurt’s daughters are visual artists. Kurt’s work, of course, needs no introduction.

For many of my subjects from that first study—all writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—mental illness and creativity went hand in hand. This link is not surprising. The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.” This pattern is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays, such as when Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream , observes, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” John Dryden made a similar point in a heroic couplet: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Compared with many of history’s creative luminaries, Vonnegut, who died of natural causes, got off relatively easy. Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.

My interest in this pattern is rooted in my dual identities as a scientist and a literary scholar. In an early parallel with Sylvia Plath, a writer I admired, I studied literature at Radcliffe and then went to Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship; she studied literature at Smith and attended Cambridge on a Fulbright. Then our paths diverged, and she joined the tragic list above. My curiosity about our different outcomes has shaped my career. I earned a doctorate in literature in 1963 and joined the faculty of the University of Iowa to teach Renaissance literature. At the time, I was the first woman the university’s English department had ever hired into a tenure-track position, and so I was careful to publish under the gender-neutral name of N. J. C. Andreasen.

Not long after this, a book I’d written about the poet John Donne was accepted for publication by Princeton University Press. Instead of feeling elated, I felt almost ashamed and self-indulgent. Who would this book help? What if I channeled the effort and energy I’d invested in it into a career that might save people’s lives? Within a month, I made the decision to become a research scientist, perhaps a medical doctor. I entered the University of Iowa’s medical school, in a class that included only five other women, and began working with patients suffering from schizophrenia and mood disorders. I was drawn to psychiatry because at its core is the most interesting and complex organ in the human body: the brain.

I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? My latest study, for which I’ve been scanning the brains of some of today’s most illustrious scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers, has come closer to answering this second question than any other research to date.

The first attempted examinations of the connection between genius and insanity were largely anecdotal. In his 1891 book, The Man of Genius , Cesare Lombroso, an Italian physician, provided a gossipy and expansive account of traits associated with genius—left-handedness, celibacy, stammering, precocity, and, of course, neurosis and psychosis—and he linked them to many creative individuals, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sir Isaac Newton, Arthur Schopenhauer, Jonathan Swift, Charles Darwin, Lord Byron, Charles Baudelaire, and Robert Schumann. Lombroso speculated on various causes of lunacy and genius, ranging from heredity to urbanization to climate to the phases of the moon. He proposed a close association between genius and degeneracy and argued that both are hereditary.

Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, took a much more rigorous approach to the topic. In his 1869 book, Hereditary Genius , Galton used careful documentation—including detailed family trees showing the more than 20 eminent musicians among the Bachs, the three eminent writers among the Brontës, and so on—to demonstrate that genius appears to have a strong genetic component. He was also the first to explore in depth the relative contributions of nature and nurture to the development of genius.

As research methodology improved over time, the idea that genius might be hereditary gained support. For his 1904 Study of British Genius , the English physician Havelock Ellis twice reviewed the 66 volumes of The Dictionary of National Biography . In his first review, he identified individuals whose entries were three pages or longer. In his second review, he eliminated those who “displayed no high intellectual ability” and added those who had shorter entries but showed evidence of “intellectual ability of high order.” His final list consisted of 1,030 individuals, only 55 of whom were women. Much like Lombroso, he examined how heredity, general health, social class, and other factors may have contributed to his subjects’ intellectual distinction. Although Ellis’s approach was resourceful, his sample was limited, in that the subjects were relatively famous but not necessarily highly creative. He found that 8.2 percent of his overall sample of 1,030 suffered from melancholy and 4.2 percent from insanity. Because he was relying on historical data provided by the authors of The Dictionary of National Biography rather than direct contact, his numbers likely underestimated the prevalence of mental illness in his sample.

A more empirical approach can be found in the early-20th-century work of Lewis M. Terman, a Stanford psychologist whose multivolume Genetic Studies of Genius is one of the most legendary studies in American psychology. He used a longitudinal design—meaning he studied his subjects repeatedly over time—which was novel then, and the project eventually became the longest-running longitudinal study in the world. Terman himself had been a gifted child, and his interest in the study of genius derived from personal experience. (Within six months of starting school, at age 5, Terman was advanced to third grade—which was not seen at the time as a good thing; the prevailing belief was that precocity was abnormal and would produce problems in adulthood.) Terman also hoped to improve the measurement of “genius” and test Lombroso’s suggestion that it was associated with degeneracy.

In 1916, as a member of the psychology department at Stanford, Terman developed America’s first IQ test, drawing from a version developed by the French psychologist Alfred Binet. This test, known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, contributed to the development of the Army Alpha, an exam the American military used during World War I to screen recruits and evaluate them for work assignments and determine whether they were worthy of officer status.

Terman eventually used the Stanford-Binet test to select high-IQ students for his longitudinal study, which began in 1921. His long-term goal was to recruit at least 1,000 students from grades three through eight who represented the smartest 1 percent of the urban California population in that age group. The subjects had to have an IQ greater than 135, as measured by the Stanford-Binet test. The recruitment process was intensive: students were first nominated by teachers, then given group tests, and finally subjected to individual Stanford-Binet tests. After various enrichments—adding some of the subjects’ siblings, for example—the final sample consisted of 856 boys and 672 girls. One finding that emerged quickly was that being the youngest student in a grade was an excellent predictor of having a high IQ. (This is worth bearing in mind today, when parents sometimes choose to hold back their children precisely so they will not be the youngest in their grades.)

These children were initially evaluated in all sorts of ways. Researchers took their early developmental histories, documented their play interests, administered medical examinations—including 37 different anthropometric measurements—and recorded how many books they’d read during the past two months, as well as the number of books available in their homes (the latter number ranged from zero to 6,000, with a mean of 328). These gifted children were then reevaluated at regular intervals throughout their lives.

“The Termites,” as Terman’s subjects have come to be known, have debunked some stereotypes and introduced new paradoxes. For example, they were generally physically superior to a comparison group—taller, healthier, more athletic. Myopia (no surprise) was the only physical deficit. They were also more socially mature and generally better adjusted. And these positive patterns persisted as the children grew into adulthood. They tended to have happy marriages and high salaries. So much for the concept of “early ripe and early rotten,” a common assumption when Terman was growing up.

But despite the implications of the title Genetic Studies of Genius , the Termites’ high IQs did not predict high levels of creative achievement later in life. Only a few made significant creative contributions to society; none appear to have demonstrated extremely high creativity levels of the sort recognized by major awards, such as the Nobel Prize. (Interestingly, William Shockley, who was a 12-year-old Palo Alto resident in 1922, somehow failed to make the cut for the study, even though he would go on to share a Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.) Thirty percent of the men and 33 percent of the women did not even graduate from college. A surprising number of subjects pursued humble occupations, such as semiskilled trades or clerical positions. As the study evolved over the years, the term gifted was substituted for genius . Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative. Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

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But if high IQ does not indicate creative genius, then what does? And how can one identify creative people for a study?

One approach, which is sometimes referred to as the study of “little c ,” is to develop quantitative assessments of creativity—a necessarily controversial task, given that it requires settling on what creativity actually is. The basic concept that has been used in the development of these tests is skill in “divergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with many responses to carefully selected questions or probes, as contrasted with “convergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with the correct answer to problems that have only one answer. For example, subjects might be asked, “How many uses can you think of for a brick?” A person skilled in divergent thinking might come up with many varied responses, such as building a wall; edging a garden; and serving as a bludgeoning weapon, a makeshift shot put, a bookend. Like IQ tests, these exams can be administered to large groups of people. Assuming that creativity is a trait everyone has in varying amounts, those with the highest scores can be classified as exceptionally creative and selected for further study.

While this approach is quantitative and relatively objective, its weakness is that certain assumptions must be accepted: that divergent thinking is the essence of creativity, that creativity can be measured using tests, and that high-scoring individuals are highly creative people. One might argue that some of humanity’s most creative achievements have been the result of convergent thinking—a process that led to Newton’s recognition of the physical formulae underlying gravity, and Einstein’s recognition that E=mc2.

A second approach to defining creativity is the “duck test”: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. This approach usually involves selecting a group of people—writers, visual artists, musicians, inventors, business innovators, scientists—who have been recognized for some kind of creative achievement, usually through the awarding of major prizes (the Nobel, the Pulitzer, and so forth). Because this approach focuses on people whose widely recognized creativity sets them apart from the general population, it is sometimes referred to as the study of “big C .” The problem with this approach is its inherent subjectivity. What does it mean, for example, to have “created” something? Can creativity in the arts be equated with creativity in the sciences or in business, or should such groups be studied separately? For that matter, should science or business innovation be considered creative at all?

Although I recognize and respect the value of studying “little c ,” I am an unashamed advocate of studying “big C .” I first used this approach in the mid-1970s and 1980s, when I conducted one of the first empirical studies of creativity and mental illness. Not long after I joined the psychiatry faculty of the Iowa College of Medicine, I ran into the chair of the department, a biologically oriented psychiatrist known for his salty language and male chauvinism. “Andreasen,” he told me, “you may be an M.D./Ph.D., but that Ph.D. of yours isn’t worth sh--, and it won’t count favorably toward your promotion.” I was proud of my literary background and believed that it made me a better clinician and a better scientist, so I decided to prove him wrong by using my background as an entry point to a scientific study of genius and insanity.

The University of Iowa is home to the Writers’ Workshop, the oldest and most famous creative-writing program in the United States ( UNESCO has designated Iowa City as one of its seven “Cities of Literature,” along with the likes of Dublin and Edinburgh). Thanks to my time in the university’s English department, I was able to recruit study subjects from the workshop’s ranks of distinguished permanent and visiting faculty. Over the course of 15 years, I studied not only Kurt Vonnegut but Richard Yates, John Cheever, and 27 other well-known writers.

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Going into the study, I keyed my hypotheses off the litany of famous people who I knew had personal or family histories of mental illness. James Joyce, for example, had a daughter who suffered from schizophrenia, and he himself had traits that placed him on the schizophrenia spectrum. (He was socially aloof and even cruel to those close to him, and his writing became progressively more detached from his audience and from reality, culminating in the near-psychotic neologisms and loose associations of Finnegans Wake .) Bertrand Russell, a philosopher whose work I admired, had multiple family members who suffered from schizophrenia. Einstein had a son with schizophrenia, and he himself displayed some of the social and interpersonal ineptitudes that can characterize the illness. Based on these clues, I hypothesized that my subjects would have an increased rate of schizophrenia in family members but that they themselves would be relatively well. I also hypothesized that creativity might run in families, based on prevailing views that the tendencies toward psychosis and toward having creative and original ideas were closely linked.

I began by designing a standard interview for my subjects, covering topics such as developmental, social, family, and psychiatric history, and work habits and approach to writing. Drawing on creativity studies done by the psychiatric epidemiologist Thomas McNeil, I evaluated creativity in family members by assigning those who had had very successful creative careers an A++ rating and those who had pursued creative interests or hobbies an A+.

My final challenge was selecting a control group. After entertaining the possibility of choosing a homogeneous group whose work is not usually considered creative, such as lawyers, I decided that it would be best to examine a more varied group of people from a mixture of professions, such as administrators, accountants, and social workers. I matched this control group with the writers according to age and educational level. By matching based on education, I hoped to match for IQ, which worked out well; both the test and the control groups had an average IQ of about 120. These results confirmed Terman’s findings that creative genius is not the same as high IQ. If having a very high IQ was not what made these writers creative, then what was?

As I began interviewing my subjects, I soon realized that I would not be confirming my schizophrenia hypothesis. If I had paid more attention to Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, who both suffered from what we today call mood disorder, and less to James Joyce and Bertrand Russell, I might have foreseen this. One after another, my writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out the stories of their struggles with mood disorder—mostly depression, but occasionally bipolar disorder. A full 80 percent of them had had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group—only slightly less than an age-matched group in the general population. (At first I had been surprised that nearly all the writers I approached would so eagerly agree to participate in a study with a young and unknown assistant professor—but I quickly came to understand why they were so interested in talking to a psychiatrist.) The Vonneguts turned out to be representative of the writers’ families, in which both mood disorder and creativity were overrepresented—as with the Vonneguts, some of the creative relatives were writers, but others were dancers, visual artists, chemists, architects, or mathematicians. This is consistent with what some other studies have found. When the psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison looked at 47 famous writers and artists in Great Britain, she found that more than 38 percent had been treated for a mood disorder; the highest rates occurred among playwrights, and the second-highest among poets. When Joseph Schildkraut, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, studied a group of 15 abstract-expressionist painters in the mid-20th century, he found that half of them had some form of mental illness, mostly depression or bipolar disorder; nearly half of these artists failed to live past age 60.

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While my workshop study answered some questions, it raised others. Why does creativity run in families? What is it that gets transmitted? How much is due to nature and how much to nurture? Are writers especially prone to mood disorders because writing is an inherently lonely and introspective activity? What would I find if I studied a group of scientists instead?

These questions percolated in my mind in the weeks, months, and eventually years after the study. As I focused my research on the neurobiology of severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and mood disorders, studying the nature of creativity—important as the topic was and is—seemed less pressing than searching for ways to alleviate the suffering of patients stricken with these dreadful and potentially lethal brain disorders. During the 1980s, new neuroimaging techniques gave researchers the ability to study patients’ brains directly, an approach I began using to answer questions about how and why the structure and functional activity of the brain is disrupted in some people with serious mental illnesses.

As I spent more time with neuroimaging technology, I couldn’t help but wonder what we would find if we used it to look inside the heads of highly creative people. Would we see a little genie that doesn’t exist inside other people’s heads?

Today’s neuroimaging tools show brain structure with a precision approximating that of the examination of post-mortem tissue; this allows researchers to study all sorts of connections between brain measurements and personal characteristics. For example, we know that London taxi drivers, who must memorize maps of the city to earn a hackney’s license, have an enlarged hippocampus—a key memory region—as demonstrated in a magnetic-resonance-imaging, or MRI, study. (They know it, too: on a recent trip to London, I was proudly regaled with this information by several different taxi drivers.) Imaging studies of symphony-orchestra musicians have found them to possess an unusually large Broca’s area—a part of the brain in the left hemisphere that is associated with language—along with other discrepancies. Using another technique, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we can watch how the brain behaves when engaged in thought.

Designing neuroimaging studies, however, is exceedingly tricky. Capturing human mental processes can be like capturing quicksilver. The brain has as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way, each connected to other neurons by billions of spines, which contain synapses that change continuously depending on what the neurons have recently learned. Capturing brain activity using imaging technology inevitably leads to oversimplifications, as sometimes evidenced by news reports that an investigator has found the location of something—love, guilt, decision making—in a single region of the brain.

And what are we even looking for when we search for evidence of “creativity” in the brain? Although we have a definition of creativity that many people accept—the ability to produce something that is novel or original and useful or adaptive—achieving that “something” is part of a complex process, one often depicted as an “aha” or “eureka” experience. This narrative is appealing—for example, “Newton developed the concept of gravity around 1666, when an apple fell on his head while he was meditating under an apple tree.” The truth is that by 1666, Newton had already spent many years teaching himself the mathematics of his time (Euclidean geometry, algebra, Cartesian coordinates) and inventing calculus so that he could measure planetary orbits and the area under a curve. He continued to work on his theory of gravity over the subsequent years, completing the effort only in 1687, when he published Philosophiœ Naturalis Principia Mathematica . In other words, Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration—a version of the eureka experience—and production. Many forms of creativity, from writing a novel to discovering the structure of DNA, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process.

With functional magnetic resonance imaging, the best we can do is capture brain activity during brief moments in time while subjects are performing some task. For instance, observing brain activity while test subjects look at photographs of their relatives can help answer the question of which parts of the brain people use when they recognize familiar faces. Creativity, of course, cannot be distilled into a single mental process, and it cannot be captured in a snapshot—nor can people produce a creative insight or thought on demand. I spent many years thinking about how to design an imaging study that could identify the unique features of the creative brain.

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Most of the human brain’s high-level functions arise from the six layers of nerve cells and their dendrites embedded in its enormous surface area, called the cerebral cortex, which is compressed to a size small enough to be carried around on our shoulders through a process known as gyrification—essentially, producing lots of folds. Some regions of the brain are highly specialized, receiving sensory information from our eyes, ears, skin, mouth, or nose, or controlling our movements. We call these regions the primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor cortices. They collect information from the world around us and execute our actions. But we would be helpless, and effectively nonhuman, if our brains consisted only of these regions.

In fact, the most extensively developed regions in the human brain are known as association cortices. These regions help us interpret and make use of the specialized information collected by the primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor regions. For example, as you read these words on a page or a screen, they register as black lines on a white background in your primary visual cortex. If the process stopped at that point, you wouldn’t be reading at all. To read, your brain, through miraculously complex processes that scientists are still figuring out, needs to forward those black letters on to association-cortex regions such as the angular gyrus, so that meaning is attached to them; and then on to language-association regions in the temporal lobes, so that the words are connected not only to one another but also to their associated memories and given richer meanings. These associated memories and meanings constitute a “verbal lexicon,” which can be accessed for reading, speaking, listening, and writing. Each person’s lexicon is a bit different, even if the words themselves are the same, because each person has different associated memories and meanings. One difference between a great writer like Shakespeare and, say, the typical stockbroker is the size and richness of the verbal lexicon in his or her temporal association cortices, as well as the complexity of the cortices’ connections with other association regions in the frontal and parietal lobes.

A neuroimaging study I conducted in 1995 using positron-emission tomography, or PET, scanning turned out to be unexpectedly useful in advancing my own understanding of association cortices and their role in the creative process.

This PET study was designed to examine the brain’s different memory systems, which the great Canadian psychologist Endel Tulving identified. One system, episodic memory, is autobiographical—it consists of information linked to an individual’s personal experiences. It is called “episodic” because it consists of time-linked sequential information, such as the events that occurred on a person’s wedding day. My team and I compared this with another system, that of semantic memory, which is a repository of general information and is not personal or time-linked. In this study, we divided episodic memory into two subtypes. We examined focused episodic memory by asking subjects to recall a specific event that had occurred in the past and to describe it with their eyes closed. And we examined a condition that we called random episodic silent thought, or REST : we asked subjects to lie quietly with their eyes closed, to relax, and to think about whatever came to mind. In essence, they would be engaged in “free association,” letting their minds wander. The acronym REST was intentionally ironic; we suspected that the association regions of the brain would actually be wildly active during this state.

This suspicion was based on what we had learned about free association from the psychoanalytic approach to understanding the mind. In the hands of Freud and other psychoanalysts, free association—spontaneously saying whatever comes to mind without censorship—became a window into understanding unconscious processes. Based on my interviews with the creative subjects in my workshop study, and from additional conversations with artists, I knew that such unconscious processes are an important component of creativity. For example, Neil Simon told me: “I don’t write consciously—it is as if the muse sits on my shoulder” and “I slip into a state that is apart from reality.” (Examples from history suggest the same thing. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once described how he composed an entire 300-line poem about Kubla Khan while in an opiate-induced, dreamlike state, and began writing it down when he awoke; he said he then lost most of it when he got interrupted and called away on an errand—thus the finished poem he published was but a fragment of what originally came to him in his dreamlike state.)

Based on all this, I surmised that observing which parts of the brain are most active during free association would give us clues about the neural basis of creativity. And what did we find? Sure enough, the association cortices were wildly active during REST .

I realized that I obviously couldn’t capture the entire creative process—instead, I could home in on the parts of the brain that make creativity possible. Once I arrived at this idea, the design for the imaging studies was obvious: I needed to compare the brains of highly creative people with those of control subjects as they engaged in tasks that activated their association cortices.

For years, I had been asking myself what might be special or unique about the brains of the workshop writers I had studied. In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. To test this capacity, I needed to study the regions of the brain that go crazy when you let your thoughts wander. I needed to target the association cortices. In addition to REST , I could observe people performing simple tasks that are easy to do in an MRI scanner, such as word association, which would permit me to compare highly creative people—who have that “genie in the brain”—with the members of a control group matched by age and education and gender, people who have “ordinary creativity” and who have not achieved the levels of recognition that characterize highly creative people. I was ready to design Creativity Study II.

This time around, I wanted to examine a more diverse sample of creativity, from the sciences as well as the arts. My motivations were partly selfish—I wanted the chance to discuss the creative process with people who might think and work differently, and I thought I could probably learn a lot by listening to just a few people from specific scientific fields. After all, each would be an individual jewel—a fascinating study on his or her own. Now that I’m about halfway through the study, I can say that this is exactly what has happened. My individual jewels so far include, among others, the filmmaker George Lucas, the mathematician and Fields Medalist William Thurston, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jane Smiley, and six Nobel laureates from the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine. Because winners of major awards are typically older, and because I wanted to include some younger people, I’ve also recruited winners of the National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award and other prizes in the arts.

Apart from stating their names, I do not have permission to reveal individual information about my subjects. And because the study is ongoing (each subject can take as long as a year to recruit, making for slow progress), we do not yet have any definitive results—though we do have a good sense of the direction that things are taking. By studying the structural and functional characteristics of subjects’ brains in addition to their personal and family histories, we are learning an enormous amount about how creativity occurs in the brain, as well as whether these scientists and artists display the same personal or familial connections to mental illness that the subjects in my Iowa Writers’ Workshop study did.

To participate in the study, each subject spends three days in Iowa City, since it is important to conduct the research using the same MRI scanner. The subjects and I typically get to know each other over dinner at my home (and a bottle of Bordeaux from my cellar), and by prowling my 40-acre nature retreat in an all-terrain vehicle, observing whatever wildlife happens to be wandering around. Relaxing together and getting a sense of each other’s human side is helpful going into the day and a half of brain scans and challenging conversations that will follow.

We begin the actual study with an MRI scan, during which subjects perform three different tasks, in addition to REST: word association, picture association, and pattern recognition. Each experimental task alternates with a control task; during word association, for example, subjects are shown words on a screen and asked to either think of the first word that comes to mind (the experimental task) or silently repeat the word they see (the control task). Speaking disrupts the scanning process, so subjects silently indicate when they have completed a task by pressing a button on a keypad.

Playing word games inside a thumping, screeching hollow tube seems like a far cry from the kind of meandering, spontaneous discovery process that we tend to associate with creativity. It is, however, as close as one can come to a proxy for that experience, apart from REST . You cannot force creativity to happen—every creative person can attest to that. But the essence of creativity is making connections and solving puzzles. The design of these MRI tasks permits us to visualize what is happening in the creative brain when it’s doing those things.

As I hypothesized, the creative people have shown stronger activations in their association cortices during all four tasks than the controls have. (See the images on page 74.) This pattern has held true for both the artists and the scientists, suggesting that similar brain processes may underlie a broad spectrum of creative expression. Common stereotypes about “right brained” versus “left brained” people notwithstanding, this parallel makes sense. Many creative people are polymaths, people with broad interests in many fields—a common trait among my study subjects.

After the brain scans, I settle in with subjects for an in-depth interview. Preparing for these interviews can be fun (rewatching all of George Lucas’s films, for example, or reading Jane Smiley’s collected works) as well as challenging (toughing through mathematics papers by William Thurston). I begin by asking subjects about their life history—where they grew up, where they went to school, what activities they enjoyed. I ask about their parents—their education, occupation, and parenting style—and about how the family got along. I learn about brothers, sisters, and children, and get a sense for who else in a subject’s family is or has been creative and how creativity may have been nurtured at home. We talk about how the subjects managed the challenges of growing up, any early interests and hobbies (particularly those related to the creative activities they pursue as adults), dating patterns, life in college and graduate school, marriages, and child-rearing. I ask them to describe a typical day at work and to think through how they have achieved such a high level of creativity. (One thing I’ve learned from this line of questioning is that creative people work much harder than the average person—and usually that’s because they love their work.)

One of the most personal and sometimes painful parts of the interview is when I ask about mental illness in subjects’ families as well as in their own lives. They’ve told me about such childhood experiences as having a mother commit suicide or watching ugly outbreaks of violence between two alcoholic parents, and the pain and scars that these experiences have inflicted. (Two of the 13 creative subjects in my current study have lost a parent to suicide—a rate many times that of the general U.S. population.) Talking with those subjects who have suffered from a mental illness themselves, I hear about how it has affected their work and how they have learned to cope.

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So far, this study —which has examined 13 creative geniuses and 13 controls—has borne out a link between mental illness and creativity similar to the one I found in my Writers’ Workshop study. The creative subjects and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness than the controls and their relatives do (though not as high a rate as I found in the first study), with the frequency being fairly even across the artists and the scientists. The most-common diagnoses include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or panic disorder, and alcoholism. I’ve also found some evidence supporting my early hypothesis that exceptionally creative people are more likely than control subjects to have one or more first-degree relatives with schizophrenia. Interestingly, when the physician and researcher Jon L. Karlsson examined the relatives of everyone listed in Iceland’s version of Who’s Who in the 1940s and ’60s, he found that they had higher-than-average rates of schizophrenia. Leonard Heston, a former psychiatric colleague of mine at Iowa, conducted an influential study of the children of schizophrenic mothers raised from infancy by foster or adoptive parents, and found that more than 10 percent of these children developed schizophrenia, as compared with zero percent of a control group. This suggests a powerful genetic component to schizophrenia. Heston and I discussed whether some particularly creative people owe their gifts to a subclinical variant of schizophrenia that loosens their associative links sufficiently to enhance their creativity but not enough to make them mentally ill.

As in the first study, I’ve also found that creativity tends to run in families, and to take diverse forms. In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role. Half the subjects come from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree. The majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued. This is how one person described his childhood:

Our family evenings—just everybody sitting around working. We’d all be in the same room, and [my mother] would be working on her papers, preparing her lesson plans, and my father had huge stacks of papers and journals … This was before laptops, and so it was all paper-based. And I’d be sitting there with my homework, and my sisters are reading. And we’d just spend a few hours every night for 10 to 15 years—that’s how it was. Just working together. No TV.

So why do these highly gifted people experience mental illness at a higher-than-average rate? Given that (as a group) their family members have higher rates than those that occur in the general population or in the matched comparison group, we must suspect that nature plays a role—that Francis Galton and others were right about the role of hereditary factors in people’s predisposition to both creativity and mental illness. We can only speculate about what those factors might be, but there are some clues in how these people describe themselves and their lifestyles.

One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, “The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it … When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.” Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.

One interesting paradox that has emerged during conversations with subjects about their creative processes is that, though many of them suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, they associate their gifts with strong feelings of joy and excitement. “Doing good science is simply the most pleasurable thing anyone can do,” one scientist told me. “It is like having good sex. It excites you all over and makes you feel as if you are all-powerful and complete.” This is reminiscent of what creative geniuses throughout history have said. For instance, here’s Tchaikovsky, the composer, writing in the mid-19th century:

It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a different form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch ere one thought follows another.

Another of my subjects, a neuroscientist and an inventor, told me, “There is no greater joy that I have in my life than having an idea that’s a good idea. At that moment it pops into my head, it is so deeply satisfying and rewarding … My nucleus accumbens is probably going nuts when it happens.” (The nucleus accumbens, at the core of the brain’s reward system, is activated by pleasure, whether it comes from eating good food or receiving money or taking euphoria-inducing drugs.)

As for how these ideas emerge, almost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed—during that state we called REST . “A lot of it happens when you are doing one thing and you’re not thinking about what your mind is doing,” one of the artists in my study told me. “I’m either watching television, I’m reading a book, and I make a connection … It may have nothing to do with what I am doing, but somehow or other you see something or hear something or do something, and it pops that connection together.”

Many subjects mentioned lighting on ideas while showering, driving, or exercising. One described a more unusual regimen involving an afternoon nap: “It’s during this nap that I get a lot of my work done. I find that when the ideas come to me, they come as I’m falling asleep, they come as I’m waking up, they come if I’m sitting in the tub. I don’t normally take baths … but sometimes I’ll just go in there and have a think.”

Some of the other most common findings my studies have suggested include:

Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings. Famously, three Silicon Valley creative geniuses have been college dropouts: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs—for many, the archetype of the creative person—popularized the motto “ Think different .” Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own. Many of my subjects taught themselves to read before even starting school, and many have read widely throughout their lives. For example, in his article “On Proof and Progress in Mathematics,” Bill Thurston wrote:

My mathematical education was rather independent and idiosyncratic, where for a number of years I learned things on my own, developing personal mental models for how to think about mathematics. This has often been a big advantage for me in thinking about mathematics, because it’s easy to pick up later the standard mental models shared by groups of mathematicians.

This observation has important implications for the education of creatively gifted children. They need to be allowed and even encouraged to “think different.” (Several subjects described to me how they would get in trouble in school for pointing out when their teachers said things that they knew to be wrong, such as when a second-grade teacher explained to one of my subjects that light and sound are both waves and travel at the same speed. The teacher did not appreciate being corrected.)

Many creative people are polymaths, as historic geniuses including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were . George Lucas was awarded not only the National Medal of Arts in 2012 but also the National Medal of Technology in 2004. Lucas’s interests include anthropology, history, sociology, neuroscience, digital technology, architecture, and interior design. Another polymath, one of the scientists, described his love of literature:

I love words, and I love the rhythms and sounds of words … [As a young child] I very rapidly built up a huge storehouse of … Shakespearean sonnets, soliloquies, poems across the whole spectrum … When I got to college, I was open to many possible careers. I actually took a creative-writing course early. I strongly considered being a novelist or a writer or a poet, because I love words that much … [But for] the academics, it’s not so much about the beauty of the words. So I found that dissatisfying, and I took some biology courses, some quantum courses. I really clicked with biology. It seemed like a complex system that was tractable, beautiful, important. And so I chose biochemistry.

The arts and the sciences are seen as separate tracks, and students are encouraged to specialize in one or the other. If we wish to nurture creative students, this may be a serious error.

Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection. Asked what it takes to be a successful scientist, one replied:

Perseverance … In order to have that freedom to find things out, you have to have perseverance … The grant doesn’t get funded, and the next day you get up, and you put the next foot in front, and you keep putting your foot in front … I still take things personally. I don’t get a grant, and … I’m upset for days. And then I sit down and I write the grant again.

Do creative people simply have more ideas, and therefore differ from average people only in a quantitative way, or are they also qualitatively different? One subject, a neuroscientist and an inventor, addressed this question in an interesting way, conceptualizing the matter in terms of kites and strings:

In the R&D business, we kind of lump people into two categories: inventors and engineers. The inventor is the kite kind of person. They have a zillion ideas and they come up with great first prototypes. But generally an inventor … is not a tidy person. He sees the big picture and … [is] constantly lashing something together that doesn’t really work. And then the engineers are the strings, the craftsmen [who pick out a good idea] and make it really practical. So, one is about a good idea, the other is about … making it practical.

Of course, having too many ideas can be dangerous. One subject, a scientist who happens to be both a kite and a string, described to me “a willingness to take an enormous risk with your whole heart and soul and mind on something where you know the impact—if it worked—would be utterly transformative.” The if here is significant. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist. “Everybody has crazy things they want to try,” that same subject told me. “Part of creativity is picking the little bubbles that come up to your conscious mind, and picking which one to let grow and which one to give access to more of your mind, and then have that translate into action.”

In A Beautiful Mind , her biography of the mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar describes a visit Nash received from a fellow mathematician while institutionalized at McLean Hospital. “How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical truth,” the colleague asked, “believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” To which Nash replied: “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.

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Mindfulness and creativity: Implications for thinking and learning

Danah henriksen.

a Arizona State University, United States

Carmen Richardson

b Kamehameha Schools, United States

c Kalamazoo Public Schools, United States

  • • This thematic literature review investigates the relationship between mindfulness and creativity
  • • Mindfulness practices improve skills or habits of mind that can support creativity
  • • The mindfulness-creativity relationship is complex, but generally positive
  • • Deliberate/mindful mind-wandering can support creativity
  • • Purposeful inclusion of mindfulness in learning settings can benefit student learning, creativity and wellbeing

Mindfulness and creativity have both come to the forefront of educational interest—but a better understanding of their relationship and the implications for education is needed. This article reviews the literature on the intersection of these topics in order to understand where and how these two related but distinctive areas of research connect, and how this pertains to the complexity of education settings. Our goal is to understand findings from the literature and consider the implications for educational practice and research, with an eye to how mindfulness can be supportive to learners’ creativity. This thematic review and qualitative analysis of extant literature identifies four themes that speak to the connection between mindfulness and creativity. There is solid evidence to show a generally beneficial and supportive relationship, in that practicing mindfulness can support creativity—but many factors affect this and there are a range of considerations for practice. This article reflects on the key findings of scholarly work on the mindfulness-creativity relationship with interpretative discussion and implications for educational research and practice.

1. Introduction

Existing research on creativity has examined its different relationships, connections, or variables—such as personality skills, neuroscientific or cognitive correlates of creativity, disciplinary knowledge, imagination, bodily thinking, or the ways that creativity emerges in real-world design settings, among others ( Runco, 2014 ). One relatively recent and growing area of literature involves the relationship between mindfulness and creativity ( Kudesia, 2015 ). These two areas have been increasingly discussed in education settings, yet there is little research-based guidance to help consider their interrelationship for teaching and learning. Here, we explore the relationship, and also seek to explore the practical applications and implications for education contexts.

Mindfulness has recently received attention across scholarly and popular discourse ( King & Badham, 2018 ). It is defined as a state of “nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness” ( Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p.2 ), and has been studied across varied disciplines such as psychology, physiology, healthcare, neuroscience, the arts, and others. Most mindfulness research has examined its potential to regulate stress and improve cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal functioning ( Sedlmeier et al., 2012 ). Scholars have suggested that the effects of mindfulness also relate to other skills and abilities, such as creativity ( Carson & Langer, 2006 ). Creativity is frequently defined as the ability to develop novel and effective ideas, artifacts, or solutions ( Runco, 2014 ). While this so-called ‘standard definition’ represents many existing research definitions, it does not embody the diversity and divergence of ways that creativity has been defined across a range of practices, disciplines and traditions ( Henriksen, Creely, & Henderson, 2019 ). Creativity is a complex area of research and practice, yet neoliberal perspectives have often driven educational discourse on creativity, emphasizing instrumentalist and societal drive toward innovation ( Mehta, Creely, & Henriksen, 2020 ). But perhaps more importantly, creativity is a way of being in the world with substantive value for human-centered wellbeing and expression ( Goff & Torrance, 1991 ).

Both mindfulness and creativity are complex areas that have been independently touted in education practices. Yet there is a need for a synthesis of extant research findings in understanding the mindfulness-creativity relationship and how it matters in learning settings. There is a theoretical reason for presuming an important relationship between them. These are broad ideas with unique connections to emotions, attention, stress, wellness, and awareness of one’s self and the world ( Baas, Nevicka, & Ten Velden, 2014 ). Given the importance both areas have to thinking and learning, and their increasing presence in educational contexts, it is important to understand research on their relationship.

For our purposes in this thematic literature review, we seek to identify themes and trends in the research, and then discuss the implications for educational settings. While mindfulness and creativity individually arise in education discourses, they are rarely linked and there is little to guide teachers in identifying research takeaways for the complexity of learning settings. Very little existing research on the intersection of these topics is actually embedded in classrooms—so we aim to distill significant aspects of the relationship and share implications for teachers and learners.

In a world awash in distraction, stress, and often, distress—all of which can affect creativity and wellbeing—mindfulness becomes a valuable consideration for supporting learners in educational practice. Particularly in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers and learners are experiencing a sense of uncertainty, discomfort, or even trauma. While we do not suggest that mindfulness offers a “fix” for the kinds of systemic inequities or difficulties that many are facing—situations of stress or trauma underscore the value in paying attention to issues that relate to our sense of wellness and humanity, such as mindfulness and creativity.

We begin with background context about mindfulness, then we describe our literature review approach on the creativity-mindfulness relationship. We then qualitatively analyze and describe thematic findings and takeaways from this review. Finally, we discuss the implications for thinking and learning, with conclusions for educational practice and research.

1.1. Background on mindfulness

Mindfulness has roots in longstanding Eastern spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhist philosophy. Buddhist philosophy and practices teach a way of being present in the moment and letting go of the overreliance that humans tend to have on a sense of individualized identity (as a ‘thinker of thoughts’) in favor of a broader connection to a sense of oneness and integration with all things ( Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2014 ). However, Trammel (2017) notes that mindfulness has entered into secular practice and mainstream culture in recent decades. There has been valid concern about the ways in which the authenticity of Buddhist truths might be stripped of their original values through this mainstreaming of mindfulness. However, scholars such as Sun (2014) have noted that this secular recontextualization of mindfulness has supported the emergence of the concept for use in broader social contexts or organizations such as schools, where they can benefit wellbeing for learning. Williams and Kabat-Zinn (2011) suggest that since Buddhist meditative practices are concerned with embodied awareness and cultivating clarity, emotional balance, equanimity, and compassion—all of which can be developed by intentional deployment of attention—that “the roots of Buddhist meditation practices are de facto universal” (p. 1).

The work of Kabat-Zinn (1990) and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program (developed at University of Massachusetts Medical School) are partly responsible for bringing mindfulness to broader audiences, with intentional development of secular-based practices for health and wellbeing needs. Since then, many programs and studies have documented the physical and mental benefits of mindfulness, inspiring adaptations into schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and more.

The previously-noted definition of mindfulness can be elaborated as the ability to be fully present, and aware of where we are and what we are doing, without becoming overly reactive or overwhelmed by the present.. Mindfulness is often associated with meditation practices, aimed at building skills for present-moment awareness as a mental habit (e.g. just as physical exercise aims to make the body more healthy even beyond exercise sessions—meditation or mindfulness practices aim to cultivate healthy psychological awareness and wellbeing, beyond the practices themselves). Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center (n.d.) suggests, “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” Despite the simple, intuitive nature of such definitions, achieving it is often not simple or intuitive.

O’Donnell (2015) suggests that mindfulness has gained widespread interest precisely because states of distraction, anxiety, suffering, and lack of connection are so common and detrimental. As society veers toward more chaotic, techno-centric, globally-connected and distracted modes, mindfulness offers an antidote to internalized unrest—particularly for learners who face ever expanding sources of difficulty from stress and distraction. The buzz of popular interest and excitement around the concept has increased, such that mindfulness appears ubiquitous, from healthcare or corporate settings, to schools and classrooms ( Shapiro, 2009 ).

Researchers have sought to study interventions related to different components of mindfulness, often through the central practice of meditation. Because meditation offers specific practices for awareness of one’s own thoughts, it provides an intervention to study the development and effects of mindful states, helping people connect with thoughts and emotions in the present moment ( Shapiro, 2009 ). Research has demonstrated that by developing awareness about one’s own mind and the present moment, people experience less anxiety, more positive emotions and engagement, and other mental and emotional benefits ( Weinstein, Brown, & Ryan, 2009 ). In becoming more aware of their thinking, learners in particular become more skilled at navigating thought processes in psychologically healthy ways ( Bennett & Dorjee, 2016 ). Importantly, it also connects to creative thinking skills ( Kudesia, 2015 ).

While creativity and mindfulness may work synergistically, the relationship is complex. Researchers and practitioners in educational contexts require a better sense of a nascent but growing body of literature to understand implications for the future of research and practice.

2. Methods for review

We explore scholarly literature at the intersection of mindfulness and creativity to understand how it relates to thinking and learning settings. This is a thematic literature review and our work is guided by the following questions:

  • ● What is the nature of the mindfulness-creativity relationship as outlined in existing research and literature?
  • ● Based on the literature on mindfulness and creativity, what are the implications for teaching and learning settings? And what takeaways and ideas can be used to inform educational practice?

2.1. Approach and rationale for review

A thematic literature review is not based around the progression of time in a body of work as a chronological review might be ( Yun, Lee, & Kim, 2019 ), nor does it describe the emergence of a body of work as a narrative review might ( Bower & Gilbody, 2005 ). Instead, a thematic review is organized based on topics, issues, ideas, or takeaways from within a relevant body of work ( Hart, 2018 ). Unlike meta-reviews or systematic reviews, such as the one conducted by Lebuda, Zabelina, and Karwowski (2016) , we do not aim to extract empirical data findings to quantify the relationship.

We elected a thematic approach for important reasons. Our purpose was to narrow the scope of inquiry and dive into a qualitative exploratory analysis of relevant work on creativity and mindfulness skills. Such an approach provides space to explore insights from literature and then consider how broader takeaways might be used to inform practice. A thematic review was also deemed most appropriate because extant literature on this topic is not fully representable as systematized data, constraining the ability to present literature as a quantified ‘dataset’ for empirical dissection ( Tranfield, Denyer, & Smart, 2003 ). Although high-quality, quantifiable studies do exist in this space [see Lebuda et al. (2016) ] we wished to consider a more open swath of literature, including not only quantitative, but also theoretical, practical or qualitative works that are not amenable to systematic analysis. To allow for a comprehensive stance toward relevant literature, our review is framed in an exploratory, thematic way. This allowed us to go deeper into varied stances to later use these in discussion of implications and applications. We also aimed to be methodical about our search processes, using review criteria/approach as described.

2.2. Criteria and process for literature search

The research we reviewed is situated mostly within psychology or education. Our sources of literature were primarily drawn from two main databases, those being: 1.) Science Direct , and 2.) Scopus —as these two databases comprise a significant swath of ‘mainstream’ research papers in English. Additionally, we performed a search of both Google and Google Scholar to ensure that nothing was missed in the primary research database searches and to identify any useful non-empirical pieces.

We began by identifying keywords and search terms, which we selected based on the scope of study and the literature; we then chose the search strings most appropriate for the study ( Charmaz, 2003 ). We were able to keep the search relatively straightforward by pairing keywords and terms that precisely defined one of four areas: ‘ mindfulness’ , ‘ meditation’ , ‘ creativity’, or ‘ creative thinking .’ This yielded articles or studies that specifically referenced the theory/terminology within the text ( Grant & Booth, 2009 ).

This initial scoping process produced copious results, many of which were outside the scope of our topics ( Paré & Kitsiou, 2016 ). Common search terms of “mindfulness” and/or “meditation” and “creativity” yielded hundreds, in some instances thousands, of articles. By narrowing the scope using database functions, to include only articles that used both key terms as foci in titles and/or abstracts, we were able to clarify and tighten the search. This makes sense, as inquiry-driven intersection of these constructs has mostly emerged within recent decades and is a comparatively small space in the larger arena of creativity research. We then sifted through articles to identify work exploring the relationship between the constructs.

Our review criteria were agnostic as to the types of sources included, and this article explores varied academic sources, including books, chapters, and peer-reviewed journal articles. However, peer-reviewed empirical journal articles encompass most of the sources reviewed, allowing us to focus on understanding the state of the field of research findings, without entirely excluding important ideas that emerged in other sources.

2.3. Approach to thematic analysis

To assess and distill the key ideas from the literature into useful takeaways, we sought to extract ideas/findings and categorize them into “meaning units” ( Moustakas, 1994 ). Therefore, we engaged in several rounds of collective thematic coding from the articles identified, using a shared digital space to collectively document key findings identified in every piece of literature used ( Saldaña, 2015 ).

We first familiarized ourselves with the ‘data,’ which in this case were the key ideas/findings in varied studies or papers ( Moustakas, 1994 ). Through shared discussions of meaning-making, we coded thematically, by looking across the findings for patterns of organization ( Braun & Clarke, 2006 ). This resulted in takeaways that were less specific than most thematic coding, because the documented findings tended to focus around several broad areas that categorized the research on mindfulness and creativity—such as the generally positive nature of the relationship, or the observed lack of applied research. Several iterations of organized coding brought us to four themes that emerged from the literature. These were driven by our stated questions and are shared in the findings and discussion.

2.4. Limitations

There are limitations in this work. First, we limited most of our examination to two databases, including Science Direct and Scopus, supplemented by peripheral searches of Google and Google Scholar as supplementary sources to check for additional work. Although these were selected because they are comprehensive sources of academic scholarship in English, encompassing most major and smaller journals that cover creativity research, there is still a limitation of scope.

Further, we would note that personal bias is always a potential issue in thematic review, and transparency is important. Our own interest in the topics as educational researchers could have influenced the process of analysis, as researchers naturally bring in their own preconceptions, assumptions or interests. Though we tried to minimize this effect through multiple rounds of reading and discussion, the possibility of bias influencing analysis exists.

3. Findings

We identified four broad thematic areas. The first theme describes how mindfulness enhances creativity. The second theme addresses the factors that complicate the nature of the relationship . The third theme addresses the relationship between mindfulness, mind-wandering and creativity ; and finally, the fourth theme concerns the need for more applied educational research on mindfulness and creativity . These are described in greater detail in the sections below.

3.1. Theme 1: mindfulness enhances creativity

Much literature suggests that the nature of the mindfulness-creativity relationship is positive and promising—in that mindfulness can enhance creativity. Research demonstrates that mindfulness improves a person’s ability to concentrate ( Sedlmeier et al., 2012 ), decreases the fear of being judged, and enhances open-minded thinking while reducing aversive self-conscious thinking ( Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007 ). These points map directly onto key characteristics of creative habits of working, thinking, and being in the world, including: relaxation or flow states (improved concentration), risk-taking (requiring a lack of fear about judgment), and curiosity or open-mindedness/openness to experience (reducing self-conscious experience) ( Prabhu, Sutton, & Sauser, 2008 ). Logically, these effects suggest that mindfulness supports the skills associated with creativity, and research findings suggest that high levels of self-reported mindfulness correlate to creative practices ( Colzato, Szapora, & Hommel, 2012 ).

Many aspects of ‘trait mindfulness,’ or skills that are facilitated by mindfulness training, increase creativity. For example, mindfulness is associated with the ability to change perspectives by expanding empathy and open-mindedness ( Carson & Langer, 2006 ). It also increases a person’s capacity to respond to situations in a non-habitual fashion—which is at the crux of creativity ( Moore & Malinowski, 2009 ). Mindfulness training’s ability to reduce fear of judgment is conducive to creativity; as is its ability to improve working memory ( Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2011 ). Specifically, experienced meditators are better problem solvers and have better verbal creativity ( Greenberg, Reiner, & Meiran, 2012 ). Jedrczak, Beresford, and Clements (1985)) found that meditation of any length strengthens creativity—even short meditation breaks. Thus, ontologically, mindfulness has the potential effect of improving or enhancing creativity by building skills or ways of being that support creativity. The ontological nature of the relationship show promise for educational settings where developing creativity is challenging. Anxiety, fear of risk or failure, and self-consciousness about one’s own thinking are often detrimental to classroom creativity—which opens up the possibility that mindfulness might offer practices that ameliorate barriers to learner’s creativity.

In their meta-review, Lebuda et al. (2016) hypothesized a positive relationship between mindfulness and creativity, wherein the former supports the latter. Their meta-analysis examined peer-reviewed, quantitative studies with direct measures of mindfulness and creativity—aiming to measure the relationship between the two and consider the role of moderators. Their study estimated the correlation between mindfulness and creativity at r = .22 (r = .18 without correction for attenuation). This suggests a significant correlation, with a small-to-medium effect size. Across all studies they found no evidence of publication bias, concluding that the estimation of the relationship is accurate and robust. This aligns with the proposed beneficial role of mindful meditation in creative thinking. The moderators included in their analysis clarify some important questions about the nature of this relationship. For instance, there were no differences between correlational and experimental studies—in both types of studies the effect size of the association was the same. This suggests not only a correlation between mindfulness and creativity, but more importantly reveals that developing mindfulness through meditation increases creativity—e.g. it goes beyond correlation into causation. This causal connection is something that educators and schools can potentially look to as they seek to address mounting calls to support students’ creativity, and as they also try to manage the socio-emotional needs of students in our tense and distractible society.

Despite this, varied kinds of moderators, such as the type of meditation practiced and the multifaceted character of mindfulness, create challenges in untangling the mindfulness creativity relationship ( Baas et al., 2014 ). The inherent complexity and emergent or experiential nature of both mindfulness and creativity could also be a confounding factor. Much like creativity, mindfulness is complex and involves different skills, such as: attention/observation, ability to act with awareness, capacity for nonjudgmental description, and ability to refrain from immediate evaluation. There is also no commonly agreed-upon mechanistic model of creative processes that could confirm how different types of meditations might affect such processes. All of this leaves educational practitioners with some foundations to work from in that mindfulness does seem to support creativity—but also some contested ground to navigate, in which the relationship can be nuanced by different contextual factors.

3.2. Theme 2: a relationship with complicating factors

Given the complexity of these areas it is not surprising that research also indicates a complicated relationship between the two. Different types of meditation (which are a vehicle for mindfulness) have differential relationships to creativity. Two of the main techniques discussed frequently in the literature on mindfulness include open-monitoring meditation and focused-attention meditation . Open-monitoring is the practice of observing and attending to any sensation or thought without focusing on any specific task or concept. Focused-attention meditation instead trains the participant to focus their attention and awareness to a particular task, item, thought or stimuli ( Colzato et al., 2012 ). These mindfulness skills can influence creativity differently. For example, while open-monitoring may increase creative thinking, some have found that focused-attention meditation may be either unrelated to creativity, or in certain instances may impede performance on creativity tests ( Zedelius & Schooler, 2015 ). For educators interested in facilitating a kind of mindfulness-supported creativity, that may leave questions as to which types of meditation to use in classrooms.

The Lebuda et al. (2016) meta-analysis noted that beyond the positive connection where mindfulness enhances creativity, there are areas of uncertainty. For instance, the Horan (2009) longitudinal study showed inconsistencies in the meditation-creativity relationship using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, a measure that distinguishes between verbal and figural dimensions of creativity. Specifically, groups practicing transcendental meditation showed significant gains in figural flexibility and originality, but no improvements in verbal creativity. This is interesting in teasing apart the relationship, however, it begs the question: To what degree would or should such individualized tests of creativity matter within the sociocultural dynamics of many learning settings?

Colzato et al. (2012) dissected the complexities by evaluating the impact of both types of meditation upon creativity tasks for either divergent or convergent thinking . Divergent thinking involves solving problems with many possible solutions—as opposed to convergent thinking, which involves solving problems with a more focused and narrowing approach. The researchers studied whether different types of meditation induce people toward particular cognitive-control states related to creativity. They hypothesized that open-monitoring meditation encourages divergent thinking and focused-attention meditation induces convergent thinking. Thus, open-monitoring meditation would be expected to improve divergent thinking but not convergent thinking (both of which were assessed by the AUT (Alternative Uses Task) creativity assessment).

Their data demonstrated that people excelled in the divergent thinking task after doing open-monitoring meditation. Although convergent thinking performance improved after focused-attention meditation, the increase was not significant. Interestingly, their measures of mood scores showed that both types of meditation elevated mood. Because elevated mood facilitates divergent rather than convergent thinking (elevated mood may even interfere with convergent thinking) mood effects might have been a confounding factor. In short, the focused-attention meditation may have improved convergent thinking, while the relaxing aspect of the procedure potentially could hamper it. Regardless, they identified a key mindfulness-creativity connection, showing the relationship between open-monitoring meditation and divergent thinking.

These findings point to some degree of nuance beyond the general assertion that mindfulness strengthens creativity. This suggests that if we are to seek more mindful creativity practices in schools, then it is important to consider what types of creative tasks or thinking might be called for in the given context, and consider what types of meditation practices might be beneficial.

3.3. Theme 3: mindfulness, mind-wandering and creativity

We have focused on the nature of the mindfulness-creativity relationship, which raises an important issue for this relationship—namely, mind-wandering. The relationship between mind-wandering to these areas is more uncertain and complicated than the relationship between mindfulness and creativity. Mind-wandering seemingly runs contrary to mindfulness, yet mind-wandering reliably correlates with creative thinking and creative achievement ( Baird et al., 2012 ). This is an issue for educators considering different facets of mindfulness practices, as it may affect creativity and related factors.

Mind-wandering is “a common everyday experience in which attention becomes disengaged from the immediate external environment and focused on internal trains of thought” ( Schooler et al. 2014, p. 1 ). It is differently important to both mindfulness and creativity. If mind-wandering is associated with getting lost in thought without realizing it—then mindfulness has an inverse purpose, bringing attention and awareness to thoughts in order to disentangle from them. Creativity has been positively associated with mind-wandering that stimulates novel ideas or fresh connections ( Baird et al., 2012 ).

Existing research points to a connection between mind-wandering and deficits in task performance or problems with task completion. However, mind-wandering may be beneficial in some areas, such as planning for the future, positive stimulation via interesting thoughts, and notably, creativity. Learners with ADHD often score higher on laboratory measures of creativity and assessments of creative arts achievement ( White & Shah, 2011 ), though they may struggle with some traditional tasks and outcomes of schooling.

Schooler et al. (2014) tested the mindfulness-creativity relationship directly, by assessing individual differences in mindfulness (via the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale or MAAS) as compared to measures of creative problem-solving performance (via the Remote Associates Test or RAT). They showed a negative correlation between mindfulness scores and RAT performance, and at first assumed that being less mindful helps one be more creative. However, they refined this interpretation by considering different strategies that can be used to solve the RAT problems. Creativity researchers have long been intrigued by the fact that the same creative problems can either be solved through analytic thought, or through spontaneous insight referred to as “Aha” experiences of insight/intuition ( Fleck & Kounios, 2009 ). Prior research has shown that analytic and insight problem-solving methods are associated with markedly different patterns of brain activity. For instance, default mode network activity in the brain is related to solving problems with insight/intuition ( Kounios et al., 2008 )—while the default mode network tends to quiet down through mindfulness.

Schooler et al. (2014) hypothesized that mindfulness might be related to creative analytic problem solving. To test this, after each problem they asked participants whether they had solved it mostly analytically or mostly with insight. They found that trait mindfulness correlated negatively with insight problem solving, but not with analytic creativity—suggesting that creative solutions can benefit from mindfulness, but specifically through a more analytically creative process. Others have actually found that insight problem solving can be enhanced through mindfulness. Ostafin and Kassman (2012) found that certain types of open-monitoring meditation improved insight problem solving. They noted that:

Insight problem solving is hindered by automated verbal-conceptual processes. Because mindfulness meditation training aims at “non-conceptual awareness,” which involves a reduced influence of habitual verbal–conceptual processes on the interpretation of ongoing experience, mindfulness may facilitate insight problem solving.

This helps to clarify how mindfulness can support creativity in terms of mind-wandering. The Schooler et al. (2014) body of work also makes assumptions which may limit the scope of their findings. For instance, they position mindfulness and mind-wandering in opposition to each other, and then carry this assumption out experimentally. However, while mindfulness and mind-wandering are often very different, they need not be mutually exclusive across all forms of practice—and in the messy spaces of implementation and educational practice, it is very possible that such ideas could coalesce. It might suggest that mindful meditations involving both conscious awareness and nonjudgment of thoughts could allow mindful mind-wandering in learning practices.

Certain forms of mind-wandering can be mindful/deliberate, while others are more uncontrolled/spontaneous. The role of these mental states on creativity was explored by Agnoli, Vanucci, Pelagatti, and Corazza (2018)) , who distinguished five constitutional dimensions of mindfulness: observing, acting with awareness, describing, nonreactivity, and non-judging. Results showed that mind-wandering and mindfulness predicted creative behavior both alone and in combination. Via path analysis they explored the value in distinguishing between deliberate and spontaneous mind-wandering. Deliberate mind-wandering positively predicted creative performance; however, spontaneous mind-wandering negatively associated with creative performance. Interestingly, more deliberative mind-wandering showed beneficial interaction effects with mindfulness toward producing creative and original ideas. This suggests that deliberate mind-wandering is a productive characteristic for creative work and potentially for creative learning in classrooms, which is supported by mindfulness.

Preiss and Cosmelli (2017) explored mindful mind-wandering for creativity using illustrative cases of creative writers and their processes. They noted that while their writers discussed the concepts of mind-wandering and creating in different ways, these were most often characterized by deliberation and awareness of their own mind. They termed this as, “mindful mind-wandering,” which nurtures creativity and differs from the absent-minded daydreaming of other mind-wandering:

Professional creators develop a sense of identity that is strongly grounded on their awareness of the mind wandering process. As authors become more expert, they gain a better understanding of the creative process and apprehend its phenomenological nature. Specifically, they become mindful mind wanderers (p. 303).

Research and practice suggest that despite what initially appears to be conflicting dynamics, mind-wandering and mindfulness can enhance each other toward creativity. Mindfulness in conjunction with mind-wandering may allow the mental wanderer more awareness and potential to imagine and think creatively—which may benefit creative imagination in learners’ skills and practices.

3.4. Theme 4: a need for applied and educational research

Finally, in reviewing the mindfulness-creativity relationship in scholarly literature for praxis, we noted a lack of educational literature in this space, which signals a need for more applied but still empirical research for thinking and learning settings. Fisher (2006) suggests that these topics may be most vital for young people in schooling:

For many children childhood is not a carefree time. In a materialistic, competitive world they are subject to many of the same stresses and strains as adults. They are bombarded by an information overload of words, images and noise. They are prey to the frustration and anger of others and often experience negative emotions more deeply and intensely than adults (p. 148).

Fisher notes that these kinds of stressors are commonly recognized as blocks to learning and creativity, making mindfulness a potentially beneficial approach and psychological support for creativity. He highlights a historical link harkening to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed that a quiet mind offered an opening to the creative muse.

Notably, meditation engages the mind in non-verbal ways, which learners do not always have the opportunity to use in schools. While the conscious mind is caught up in language, the brain’s linguistic structures can restrict the scope of human knowledge and action. Meditation may offer an experience of the mind that is not purely linguistic, expanding learners’ creativity by tapping into subconscious and intuitive thought. Claxton (1997) called this the “under-mind” and Malcolm Gladwell (2005) referred to it as the “adaptive subconscious.” Such intuitive experience is essential to learners’ creativity and requires a present-moment focus and freedom from distracting fears and desires.

Much of this connection between children in schools and mindfulness and creativity is still theoretical; and while the existing research is promising, it is greatly limited in volume and scope. As mindfulness has become more prevalent in real-world learning settings, more empirical research is needed to understand the mindfulness-creativity link and practices for learning settings ( Osten-Gerszberg, 2017 ).

A limited number of studies have considered the connection between increased creative outcomes and mindfulness in applied settings outside of university labs or psychological experiments, across disciplines. In education, Justo, Mañas, and Ayala (2014)) studied this with high school students, to analyze the impact of an extracurricular mindfulness program upon the figural creativity levels of a group of 50 teenagers. The authors used an experimental group of high school students who participated in the mindfulness training program, and a control group who did not. The results of the Torrance Test showed significantly higher levels of creativity in the treatment group, after a 10-week mindfulness intervention (of 1.5 h of training a week, with 30 min of daily meditation).

The school-based intervention focused on flow meditation ( Franco, 2009 ), which is meant to set thoughts free rather than control them, by nonjudgmentally noting any spontaneous thoughts that appear in mind. This technique does not aim to redirect thoughts back to an object of foci (the breath, etc.), but to develop attention and allow full awareness of whatever appears in consciousness, noticing the transience and impermanence of thoughts (e.g. a kind of meditation on thoughts). Though the study did not provide an effect size, their results are still promising as a step toward empirical support for mindfulness and creativity in educational environments. In their work, achievement goals and self-determination influenced mastery experience in creativity via mindful learning, which also has implications for teaching.

Yeh, Chang, and Chen (2019) investigated mindful learning and creativity among a younger school population of elementary students. They sought to understand mindfulness within digital game-based creative learning, using the Langer (2000) concept of mindful learning as a flexible state of mind in which people are actively engaged with the present, aware of new things, and sensitive to context. They developed an original training program for creativity and an instrument for measuring mindful learning during game-based learning. Their study focused on how players’ traits would influence their mastery experience during digital creativity game-based learning. Results suggested that mindful learning can support creativity within a game-based learning system; and participating students became more confident in their own creativity competences. This is interesting, because creative confidence has been found to be a driver of creative potential ( Beghetto, 2006 ). In educational settings, the notion of creative confidence is not often addressed, as many traditional education contexts are uncomfortable with the kinds of risk of failure associated with creativity, or do not promote the confidence to work through such discomfort toward creative ends. Thus, support for creative confidence, via mindfulness, may be an interesting pathway for future study.

4. Discussion of findings for education

The research we have described can serve to provide the field of education with ideas to utilize mindfulness to support learner creativity and well-being in educational settings. While the connection between mindfulness and creativity is complex, there is enough evidence to show a generally beneficial and supportive relationship between the two, wherein practicing mindfulness can support creativity. In the next section we discuss implications for the field of education.

4.1. Allowing purposeful mind-wandering

One way that educators can support students is through the teaching of mindful mind-wandering strategies. Preiss and Cosmelli (2017) describe how an awareness of the mind-wandering process is an essential component of the creative process. The more aware people are of these processes and of their own mind’s activities, the more capable they become to notice and attend to creative ideas in productive ways. Educators can help students become mindful mind-wanderers by teaching a creative process that includes stages where students purposefully diverge from the task or topic at hand. Rather than being “off-task” students may be purposefully led through activities that guide them through deliberate acts of mind-wandering ( Agnoli et al., 2018 ).

Intentional mind-wandering can stimulate novel ideas or fresh connections. The most important component here is intentionality. Open-monitoring meditation and flow meditation, as described earlier, allow the mind to notice thoughts or sensory stimuli without trying to change them. This awareness component of noticing may be beneficial for giving the mind space to expand, while also cultivating present moment awareness and observation. If educators can support students in being more aware of the type of mind-wandering they engage in they may be able to provide a valuable skill for metacognitive awareness.

While focused attention has its benefits and is necessary for concentration particularly around analytic creative problem solving, in terms of insight problem solving it can potentially be limiting to “Aha” moments or bursts of creative thought. Therefore, breaking up time used to solve problems with more open mindfulness inspired activities can be helpful when learners in any context get stuck. This may, in fact, be a metacognitive skill that educators can explicitly teach— in understanding how to allow for mental breaks or a shift in awareness, which may lead to higher levels of insight-related creative thought, helping learners to overcome challenges where they get stuck. Dijksterhuis and Meurs (2006) found that too much focused deliberation on problems blocks creativity, whereas strategic distraction improves it. Thus, there may be creative potential to mindfully observe one’s own mind-wandering, and allow it, observing where it goes and what it does.

Agnoli et al. (2018) found that high levels of originality were also associated with high levels of deliberate mind-wandering. Therefore, generating creative and original ideas is linked with the re-creation, redirection and reflection of thought. This has implications for how educators engage students in creative processes, suggesting consideration of how they are supporting students’ mind-wandering.

4.2. Time and space for meditation in curriculum

The simple act of meditating has been shown to benefit creativity in learning settings ( Holm, 2015 ). Practicing being more mindfully aware through meditation, even for a short amount of time each day, impacts learning holistically. Brief meditation breaks provide the downtime needed for creativity to be enhanced after returning to the task at hand. These breaks also may positively impact teachers who struggle to maintain their students’ focus in the midst of increasing curricular demands. Puccio et al. (2017) suggest that mindfulness involves the self-awareness of individuals within organizations, communities and group practices. Therefore is not just an individual pursuit, but it impacts the sociocultural settings and complex ecosystems in which people live, work, learn, and play—which underscores its importance within the ecologies of classrooms and schools.

Supporting the development of learners through the mindfulness-creativity connection, Fisher (2006) lays out the case for mindful meditation for children in schools, predicated upon the ways that mindfulness can expand creative thinking—and the degree to which young people often need these kinds of skills for wellbeing. The more general positive effects on student well-being may have other unmeasured values for creative thinking. It could be argued that in a stressful world, being able to learn strategies to increase well-being are an essential part of social-emotional learning and productive creativity.

4.3. Supporting creative thinking and reducing judgment or fear

There are more experiences and strategies that potentially support creativity and divergent thinking than we could cover here. Ideation to guide learners through processes of generating creative and original ideas may also be supported by intentional and mindful mind-wandering. In addition, open-ended tasks are an approach to supporting creativity in content learning, in that multiple solutions are both allowed and expected. Yet while such approaches have been identified as a key way to support student creativity ( Jeffrey & Craft, 2004 ), simply doing such types of activities in learning settings does not guarantee that learners will engage in creative thinking or even feel comfortable doing so.

Some of the most notable barriers to creativity are either fear or judgment—or fear of judgment—which is often the case for learners in school settings. Creativity inherently brings social risk, and people frequently report feeling uncertain about offering up new ideas for fear they might be judged or thought to be strange ( Beghetto, 2007 ). Given the social pressures for students in K12 and higher education contexts, it is critical that creative environments reduce fear or anxiety around judgment. The nonjudgmental awareness of mindfulness meditation is an important skill supporting this.

Educators often note that in attempting more creative lessons, students may be uncomfortable in open-ended, project-based spaces that lack single-correct-answer approaches. Since learners today grow up in standards-based high-stakes testing environments, teachers sometimes report that they can be nervous or uncomfortable with ambiguity ( Olivant, 2015 ). Opening up thinking and allowing for more divergent elements is important, and the connection between divergent thinking and open-monitoring meditation suggests that this might be a useful practice, particularly for instances when ideation and multiple possibilities are important.

By aiming to non-judgmentally expand awareness, mindfulness presents opportunities to open social acceptance of creative thinking and intellectual risk-taking in learning settings. As learners come to expect different ideas and solutions from themselves and their peers without judgment, there may be a decrease in the fear or risk associated with presenting novel ideas, thus enhancing creative thinking ( Brown et al., 2007 ).

5. Conclusion

This literature review investigated findings around the relationship between mindfulness and creativity with focus on educational contexts—scoping the field in a thematic, qualitative exploration of the research into mindfulness and creativity. Summing up the relationship between these two areas is challenging due to their complexity. The most accurate summation may be to point to the generally positive but also complex nature of the relationship—with much research suggesting that mindfulness enhances creativity, as well as areas that are more nuanced depending on contextual factors. We have explored the connection to mind-wandering around mindfulness and creativity—and the possibility of using mindfulness to support deliberative mind-wandering (vs. spontaneous mind-wandering) toward expanded creativity in learning. Finally, we have emphasized the relative lack of applied and/or educational studies around mindfulness and creativity, and the need for more research in this area to inform educational practice across contexts.

The theoretical foundations connecting mindfulness and creativity are strong, with regard to observing and understanding the world and noticing more possibilities without being clouded by mental blinders. This is exemplified by Justo et al. (2014) :

Mindfulness is a technique which allows introspective and perceptual awareness, encouraging the awareness towards our psychological processes and habits. It increases the interhemispheric communication, which is typical of creativity states, since the individual who meditates is able to perceive more and more subtle details of the stream of consciousness and mental processes (p. 233).

Empirically, research in this area has demonstrated promise but there is much room to develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship. Going beyond correlation, meta-analysis has empirically inferred causation, suggesting that mindfulness training supports, strengthens, and expands creative thinking ( Lebuda et al., 2016 ). Mindfulness and creativity are not yet fully understood in many ways, and both are inherently complicated and variable areas unto themselves.

In investigating the relationship, the context, variables, and moderators or potential interactions are important. For instance, mindfulness generally supports creativity—but there are some concerns about the way it affects mind-wandering and the resultant effects on creativity. More nuanced and recent research has teased this apart to further break down mind-wandering into different types (spontaneous and deliberate) each of which affect creativity differently ( Agnoli et al., 2018 ). This remains a somewhat new and still relatively unexplored area of empirical work.

The number of potential moderators, such as different types of mindfulness and meditation, is a challenge for researchers seeking to dissect the relationship. For instance, it is likely that different practices, such as open-monitoring vs. focused-awareness meditations, play a role at different stages of the creative process. Thus, there are gaps in the literature in regards to fully understanding these different roles and different moderators. In order to apply mindfulness and creativity in practical education settings, more sustained, applied and ongoing research is needed.

For educators, it is vital to see more research on mindfulness and creativity embedded in real-world contexts, particularly in learning settings. This would support better understanding of the intersection of these constructs in-situ—or a more robust understanding of mindfulness and creativity ‘in the wild,’ beyond labs or testing situations. When we combine the correlational and causal links between creativity and mindfulness, there are important implications for learning psychology around creativity and creative education—both for creative abilities and self-concept.

In practice, helping educators to understand how different types of mindfulness might support their students across different needs and tasks could be beneficial; and this may be true in other contexts of thinking, learning and development. Existing research points to a promising intersectionbut we would suggest that more action research approaches in classroom settings could benefit our empirical-practical understandings. Mindfulness and creativity are critical to wellbeing and development at individual and societal levels, so understanding them in context is essential. The future of human thinking, wellness, and progress demands no less.

CRediT authorship contribution statement

Danah Henriksen: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing. Carmen Richardson: Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing. Kyle Shack: Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Writing - original draft, Writing - review & editing.

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Review article, the link between creativity, cognition, and creative drives and underlying neural mechanisms.

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  • 1 Department of Psychology and Methods, Jacobs University Bremen, Bremen, Germany
  • 2 Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Clinic Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany
  • 3 Department of Health Psychology and Neurorehabilitation, SRH Mobile University, Riedlingen, Germany

Having a creative mind is one of the gateways for achieving fabulous success and remarkable progress in professional, personal and social life. Therefore, a better understanding of the neural correlates and the underlying neural mechanisms related to creative ideation is crucial and valuable. However, the current literature on neural systems and circuits underlying creative cognition, and on how creative drives such as motivation, mood states, and reward could shape our creative mind through the associated neuromodulatory systems [i.e., the dopaminergic (DA), the noradrenergic (NE) and the serotonergic (5-HT) system] seems to be insufficient to explain the creative ideation and production process. One reason might be that the mentioned systems and processes are usually investigated in isolation and independent of each other. Through this review, we aim at advancing the current state of knowledge by providing an integrative view on the interactions between neural systems underlying the creative cognition and the creative drive and associated neuromodulatory systems (see Figure 1 ).


Creativity and innovative thinking have been a vast construct of questioning to scholars, psychologists, therapists and, more lately, neuroscientists ( Jung et al., 2010 ). Creativity appears in various diverse models, tones, and shades ( Feist, 2010 ; Perlovsky and Levine, 2012 ). The creative contributions of extraordinary artists, designers, inventors, and scientists attract our greatest consideration as they express the foundations of their culture and provide breakthroughs influencing cultural development and progress. Therefore, creativity is a crucial operator of human progress. Nevertheless, not every person who is an artist, inventor or scientist is similarly creative, nor are all creative (innovative) individual artists, inventors or scientists. Some are innovative in business, in communication with other individuals, or just in living.

Consequently, creativity is a multidimensional domain that could be executed in the arts, science, stage performance, the commercial enterprise and business innovation ( Sawyer, 2006 ). Following Baas et al. (2015) who defined the roots of creative cognition in the arts and sciences, creativity is not just a cultural or social construct. Instead, it is an essential psychological and cognitive process as well ( Csikszentmihalyi, 1999 ; Sawyer, 2006 ; Kaufman, 2009 ; Gaut, 2010 ; Perlovsky and Levine, 2012 ). Even so, many experimental investigations on creativity have reported various findings that often seem to be inconsistent and scattered. One of the principal reasons for that could be due to the wide variety of the experimental approaches in the domain of creativity research and the immense diversity in measuring and interpreting creative performance ( Fink et al., 2007 , 2014 ; Abraham, 2013 ; Zhu et al., 2013 ). In this review article we will discuss the relation between creative cognition, creative drives and their underlying neuromodulatory circuits (see Figures 1 , 5 and Table 2 ). We will first elaborate on how different cognitive functions support creativity and on their neural basis as revealed by structural and functional brain imaging studies. Second, we will detail the link between mood and motivation as drives for creative performance and the role of dopamin (DA), noradrenaline (NE) and serotonin (5 HT) as key neuromodulatory systems. Next, we will discuss studies on pathological brain conditions which provide further evidence on the role of the neuromodulatory systems. Finally, based on this integrative view, we will list some open questions and provide suggestions for future research directions.

Figure 1 . A schematic overview of the neurobiology of creativity as outlined in this review. It symbolizes the brain systems and neuromodulatory pathways underlying and modulating creative cognition and creative drive in health and disease. The creative cognition is based on various cognitive functions such as cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, working memory (WM) updating, fluency, originality, and insights. The creative drive includes several factors that influence creativity such as emotion motivation, reward and other factors such as mood states, regulatory focus, and social interaction. The neuromodulatory pathways include the noradrenergic (NE), the dopaminergic (DA) and the serotonergic (5-HT) pathways.

Figure 2 . A schematic overview of the link between creativity and different mood states (after Baas et al., 2008 , 2013 ; De Dreu et al., 2008 ). It illustrates how activating and deactivating mood states (i.e., valences, motivational state), and regulatory focus influence creativity. A “ >” symbolizes a higher influence in the condition left as compared to the right of the symbol. Symbols ± symbolize positive and negative influences, while an “X” symbolizes no influence revealed.

Figure 3 . A schematic overview of the different networks in the brain involved in three dimensions of creativity (after Boccia et al., 2015 ): musical (red colored symbols), verbal (blue colored symbols), and visuospatial (green colored symbols). Filled symbols represent left hemispheric brain regions, open symbols represent right hemispheric regions. For simplicity, several separate foci within brain regions are represented by one single symbol. Brain regions are abbreviated as follows: PFC, prefrontal cortex; PCC, posterior cingulate cortex; IPL, intraparietal lobule; TC, temporal cortex; OCC, occipital cortex; Th, thalamus; CeC, cerebellar cortex; and CS, central sulcus. Black arrows symbolize the interaction between the executive control (EC) network and the default mode network (DMN) according to Beaty et al. (2017) .

Figure 4 . A schematic overview of the neurobiology of different facets of creativity as proposed from animal studies (after Kaufman et al., 2011 ). The creative animal model consists of three levels with increasing cognitive complexity: novelty, observational learning, and innovative behavior. The first level comprises of both the cognitive ability to recognize novelty, which is linked to hippocampal (HPC) function, and the seeking out of novelty, which is associated with the mesolimbic DA system. The second level refers to observational learning, which could range in complexity from imitation to the cultural transmission of creative behavior. Observational learning might critically depend on the cerebellum and the PFC. The third level is represented in the innovative behavior, which relates to specific recognition of a particular object characterized by novelty. This innovative behavior may be reliant upon PFC.

Figure 5 . A schematic overview of the effects of the two DA pathways (the nigrostriatal and mesocortical DA) on the creative drives and the creative cognitions [i.e., executive functions (EFs)]. Both pathways influence creativity via the dual process model, which is composed of a resistance and cognitive flexibility. The prediction of creativity through EFs (i.e., shifting, inhibition and WM) requires an optimal balance between deliberate (controlled) processing and spontaneous processing. On the other hand, there is a link between reward (i.e., promises, training, and intrinsic interest) and creativity through the action effect binding. Moderating effects of mindset (cooperative and competitive) and cognitive resources on creative drives (i.e., mood, motivation, and emotion) is also illustrated. Numbers refer to references as indicated in Table 2 .

Table 1 . Potential candidate genes for creativity.

Table 2 . References related to corresponding numbers in Figure 5 .

Creative Cognition Is Rooted in Executive Functions (EFs)

The field of creative cognition deals with the understanding of the cognitive processes underlying creative performance. A pioneering study by Mednick (1962) linked creativity to associative thinking. This interpretation was not directed to any specific field of application such as art or science. Instead, it was attempted to define processes that underlie all creative thought. Rossmann and Fink (2010) extended Mednick’s theory by investigating the relationship between individual differences in processing associative information and various aspects of creativity.

Along with a variety of creative psychometric tasks, these authors provided a slightly modified variant of Gianotti et al.’s (2001) list of word pairs and asked the participants (university students) to rank the semantic associative distance between the words of a given pair. This list comprised pairs of indirectly related (e.g., cat—cheese) and unrelated word pairs (e.g., subject—marriage). In comparison to the less creative group, the more creative group reported smaller distances between unrelated word pairs, which can be interpreted as that they found creative associations between usually unrelated words.

Recently, Benedek et al. (2012) proposed a close connection between associative processes and divergent thinking (DT) as measured, for example, by the Alternate Uses Task (AUT, Guilford, 1967 ). Accordingly, the notion of creative cognition can be conceptualized within an evolutionary framework, namely Blind Variation and Selective Retention (BVSR; Jung et al., 2013 ). From a behavioral perspective, one could link the “blind variation” component to idea generation as measured by DT tasks. In contrast, the “selective retention” component could be represented by convergent thinking (CT), as represented by measures of remote associates (e.g., Remote Associates Test; RAT). Radel et al. (2015) revealed that inhibition influences certain kinds of creative processes selectively. Exposure to a Flanker or Simon task and thus exhausting inhibitory resources led to enhanced fluency and originality in a following AUT (i.e., DT) task. For a RAT (i.e., CT) task, no such effect was found ( Radel et al., 2015 ). Therefore, a lack of resources for inhibition might lead to the facilitation of the frequency and the novelty (i.e., originality) of thoughts (i.e., ideas). Accordingly, one could claim that particularly idea generation processes profit from a depletion of the resources for inhibition.

Within a latent variable model approach, Benedek et al. (2014) explained the association between fluid intelligence and creative cognition through a general executive component. According to Benedek et al. (2014) , creativity was predicted by working memory (WM) updating and inhibition, but not by mental set shifting. Further, WM updating and the personality factor openness represented a related factor of the shared variance between creativity and fluid intelligence ( Benedek et al., 2014 ). Fleming et al. (2016) described associations between another personality trait, i.e., conscientiousness and mental set shifting, but not response inhibition nor WM updating. Level of conscientiousness influences whether people set and maintain long-range goals, deliberate over preferences (i.e., choices) or behave impulsively, and take obligations to others critically. It was associated with cognitive competencies which are related to rigid (i.e., inflexible) control over impulses (i.e., inhibition), and therefore might inhibit creativity. Mok (2014) highlighted the possibility for creative cognition to be originated from an optimal balance between spontaneous and controlled processes. It was hypothesized by Dietrich (2004) that the principal distinction between spontaneous and deliberate (i.e., controlled) modes of processing is the approach utilized to depict the unconscious novel information in WM. For example, the spontaneous process happens when the attentional system does not actively choose (decide or select) the content to become conscious, enabling unconscious thoughts that are relatively further random, unfiltered, and unusual to be represented in WM. On the other hand, deliberate insights are prompted by circuits in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and therefore tend to be structured, rational (logical), and corresponding to internalized values and belief systems. A delicate balance between further spontaneous processing vs. more controlled processing may likely enhance creative cognition to the extent that default activity does not become suppressed due to the substantial need for controlled processing ( Mok, 2012 ).

Cassotti et al. (2016) discussed how a dual-process model of creativity could expand our knowledge concerning the creative-cognitive associations. This dual-process model resembles the proposed model to account for reasoning and decision making ( Evans et al., 1993 ). According to the dual pathway of creativity model ( Nijstad et al., 2010 ), there are two qualitatively peculiar pathways to creative performance: the flexibility pathway and the persistence pathway. The flexibility pathway suggests stimulating creativity through a flexible switching between categories, approaches, and sets while the persistence pathway leads to creativity through hard work, systematic and effortful exploration of possibilities, and in-depth exploration of just a few categories ( Nijstad et al., 2010 ). Lu et al. (2017) also revealed that cognitive flexibility could enhance two critical forms of creativity (DT and CT) by reducing the cognitive fixation, which, however, at the same time reduces the creative benefits of cognitive persistence. Combined, during the process of task switching, there is often an implicit tradeoff between flexibility and persistence ( Nijstad et al., 2010 ). When task switching strengthens flexibility, it reduces persistence and vice versa ( Lu et al., 2017 ). Also, supported and directed effort can further improve creative performance (e.g., Lucas and Nordgren, 2015 ).

Concerning inhibitory control, it is acknowledged that this executive function (EF) might be a core process involved in creative problem solving and idea generations ( Cassotti et al., 2016 ). During generating creative thoughts, individuals of all ages (i.e., children, adolescents, and adults) tend to follow the path of least resistance. In the meantime, proposed solutions are constructed based on the most common and accessible information within a distinct specialty, which leads to a fixation effect. Given these points, the ability to think about the novel (original) ideas necessitates: (1) inhibiting spontaneous solutions, that cross to mind rapidly and unconsciously; and (2) exploring original (novel) ideas using a generative type of reasoning.

The Link Between Mood States, Motivation, Reward, and Creativity

How do mood states influence creativity.

Creativity is a multifaceted construct, in which different moods influence distinct components of creative thoughts ( Kaufmann, 2003 ). A remarkable study by Baas et al. (2008) explained how creativity is enhanced most by the positive mood states (see Figure 2 ); see also Bittner et al. (2016) . Baas et al. (2008) pointed out that positive-activating moods with an approach motivation and promotion focus (e.g., happiness) activated creativity. On the contrary, negative-activating moods with avoidance motivation and a prevention focus (e.g., fear, anxiety, or even relaxation) correlated with lower creativity. Surprisingly, negative-deactivating moods together with approach motivation and a promotion focus (e.g., sadness) did not link with creativity.

Consequently, mood shifts are crucial in scaling creativity. Along the same line, De Dreu et al. (2008) argued that activating moods (e.g., anger, fear, happiness, elation) induce more creative fluency (i.e., number of ideas or insights) and originality (i.e., novelty) than deactivating moods such as sadness, depression, relaxation, and sereneness do ( Figure 2 ; see also, Yang and Hung, 2015 ). According to De Dreu et al. (2008) , activating moods could affect creative fluency and originality through enhancing cognitive flexibility when the tone is positive while enhancing persistence when the tone is negative (see also, To et al., 2015 ). Despite the previous findings, which related decreased creativity to an avoidance motivation and prevention focus when in a negative mood ( Baas et al., 2008 , 2013 ), an intriguing investigation by Roskes et al. (2012) explicated the contrary. For instance, they indicated that avoidance motivation could stimulate creativity through cognitive effort. However, this finding is incompatible with the dual process model of creativity ( Nijstad et al., 2010 ), which suggests that both flexible and persistent processing styles could construct a creative output. In other words, avoidance motivation has often been related to decreased creativity since it elicits a relatively inflexible processing style ( Baas et al., 2008 , 2013 ). Adjusting these disagreements, Roskes et al. (2012) viewed that people with an avoidance-motivated behavior are not incapable of being creative; instead, they have to compensate for their inflexible processing style by a demanding and constrained processing. Therefore, it is a matter of compensation. Noteworthy, Roskes et al. (2012) reported that whether the individuals are avoidance motivated or approach motivated, their creativity could be enhanced under certain circumstances. These circumstances necessitate their creativity to be directed to a role for goal achievement, which motivates them to exert an additional effort of high-cost cognitive function.

Focusing on anxiety as another mood state that affects creativity, Byron and Khazanchi (2011) provided a meta-analytical study on the association between anxiety and creative performance (i.e., figural and verbal tasks). Anxiety was significantly and negatively related to figural and verbal creative performance. Using fMRI, Gawda and Szepietowska (2016) revealed that trait anxiety could slightly modulate neural activation during the creative verbal performance, notably, in the more complicated tasks. Additionally, there were significant variations in brain activation during the performance of more complex tasks between individuals with low anxiety and those with high anxiety. Also, Lin et al. (2014) reported how emotions shape different creative achievements (CAs). In their study, the positive emotional states reduced switch costs while enhancing the performance in DT and problem solving (i.e., performance in an open-ended DT test and a closed-ended insight problem-solving task).

Moreover, cognitive flexibility (as measured by a switching task) could have a mediating impact on the association between the positive emotion and the insight problem solving, but not between the positive emotion and DT. Bledow et al. (2013) revealed a strong influence of the dynamic interaction of positive and negative mood on creativity. Extraordinary creativity, for example, necessitates that a person should experience an episode of negative affect. This episode should be followed by a reduction in negative affect and an increment in positive affect. This process is termed “an affective shift.”

Concerning mindset, regulatory focus and creativity, Bittner and Heidemeier (2013) observed that mindsets have no direct control over creativity while prevention focus decreases subsequent creativity. They explicated that a cooperative mindset activates a promotion focus while a competitive mindset activates a prevention focus. Thus, prevention focus provides the indirect negative effect of competitive mindsets on creativity ( Bittner and Heidemeier, 2013 ; Bittner et al., 2016 ).

Does Reward Matter in the Case of Creativity?

A number of researchers highlighted the strong connection between reward and creativity ( Eisenberger and Selbst, 1994 ; Eisenberger and Cameron, 1998 ; Eisenberger et al., 1998 , 1999 ; Eisenberger and Rhoades, 2001 ; Baer et al., 2003 ; Chen et al., 2012 ; Muhle-Karbe and Krebs, 2012 ; Volf and Tarasova, 2013 ; see, Figure 5 and Table 2 ). In the following subsection, we will detail this relationship. Muhle-Karbe and Krebs (2012) highlighted the impact of reward on the action-effect binding, which underlies the ideomotor theory. They defined this theory as the formation of anticipatory representations about the perceptual outcomes of an action, i.e., action-effect (A-E) binding, thus, presenting the functional basis of voluntary action control.

A startling study proposed that reward training could improve generalized creativity ( Maltzman, 1960 ; Eisenberger and Selbst, 1994 ; Figure 5 and Table 2 ). This enhancement requires the presence of a high degree of divergent thought and a reward. Eisenberger et al. (1998) argued that the assured reward improves creativity if there is an explicit positive relationship between creativity and reward (either currently or previously, i.e., it does not matter when). Besides, Eisenberger and Cameron (1998) focused on reward, intrinsic interest, and creativity. Herewith, the contribution of behavioral processes and cognitive-induced motivation represented possible determinants of the reward effects, which were crucial factors for enhancing creativity. Progressing in reward and creativity, Eisenberger et al. (1999) depicted the consequences of earlier experiences of a promised reward for creativity. They investigated how creativity (measured by a DT task) could be boosted by the distinction of a positive association between reward and creative novel performance. The demand for such novel performance in one task (whether associated with reward or not) established the promise of reward as a cue for creative performance. Herewith, the reward could either increase or reduce creativity depending on how it was supervised. As for the incremental effects of reward on creativity, Eisenberger and Rhoades (2001) questioned whether two-ways reward could enhance creativity. Based on their study, the reward required a contingent relation to creativity. This relation strengthened the extrinsic motivation. Hence, the expected reward for exceptional performance could boost creativity by enhancing the perceived self-determination and, consequently, the intrinsic interest. Later on, Chen et al. (2012) highlighted the interactive influences of the level and form of reward system design on group creativity, and how this interplay could assist in mastering the identified obstacles in the prior research.

Lastly, Volf and Tarasova (2013) argued about the impact of reward on the performance of creative verbal tasks. The promise of the monetary reward was favorable for creative thinking and original solutions. Interestingly, monetary reward-induced changes in brain oscillations, as measured with EEG, were characteristic of men but not women (i.e., a promise of a cash reward were correlated with EEG changes in men but not in women). For instance, in response to the monetary reward, men expressed an increase in both the θ2-rhythm asymmetry and the power of α rhythm. This finding reveals that women might refer to a tendency for a different effective strategy for processing verbal information to create a more original solution in the verbal task to receive a cash reward; thus, the promise of monetary reward is favorable for creative thinking and original solutions.

Where Bright Ideas Are Produced in Our Brains

Concerning the neural correlates of creative cognition, a number of studies referred to the PFC as one of the chief brain areas for new idea generation and inhibition of prevalent solutions ( Carlsson et al., 2000 ; Flaherty, 2005 , 2011 ; Karim et al., 2010 ; Krippl and Karim, 2011 ; Mok, 2014 ; Cassotti et al., 2016 ). The prefrontal brain regions are known as components of a deliberate control brain network and inhibition controller, which is considered to be a central process for problem-solving and idea generation from adolescence to adulthood ( Cassotti et al., 2016 ).

Dietrich and Kanso (2010) pointed out that creative thinking does not critically depend on a particular single mental process or specific brain region, and it is not mainly associated with right brains, defocused attention, low arousal, or alpha synchronization, as it also has often been hypothesized. Rather, Dietrich and Kanso (2010) proposed further subdividing creativity into different subtypes to make it traceable in the brain. In the same vein, a meta-analysis of 45 fMRI studies by Boccia et al. (2015) , suggested that creativity depends on multi-component neural networks and that creative performance in three different cognitive domains (musical, verbal, and visuospatial; see Figure 3 ) rely on diverse brain regions and networks. Using general activation likelihood estimation (ALE) analyses, these authors revealed creativity-related clusters of activations in all four cortical lobes while the maximum activation of the individual ALE expressed distinct neural networks in each creative cognition domain as follows:

1. Musical creativity expressed activation in a bilateral network consisting of the bilateral medial frontal gyrus (MeFG) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), left middle frontal gyrus (MFG) and inferior parietal lobule (IPL), and the right postcentral gyrus (PoCG) and fusiform gyrus (FG), as well as bilaterally the cerebellum.

2. The network for verbal creativity was left-hemispheric dominated and comprised of several activation foci in the left MFG, inferior parietal lobule (IPL), SMG, middle occipital gyrus (MOG), and middle and superior temporal gyrus (MTG and STG), and the bilateral inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and insula, and the right lingual gyrus (LG) and cerebellum.

3. Visuospatial creativity relied on a slightly right-hemispheric dominated network including activation foci in the right MFG and IFG, the left precentral gyrus (PrCG), and the bilateral thalamus.

Concerning underlying brain networks, Mok (2014) further pointed out that EEG data related to creative cognition often inferred widespread alpha synchronization (synchronized brain waves that occur at 8–12 cycles per second), particularly in posterior regions. Controlled processing may co-occur with spontaneous cognition—mediated by a subset of the default mode networks (DMNs; e.g., the angular gyrus (AnG) in the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), which has been frequently implicated in creative cognition; Mok, 2014 ). Subsequently, when the demand for controlled processing is substantially increased, the DMN may be suppressed. There is preliminary evidence suggesting an association between alpha synchronization and default-mode processing. Also, Andrews-Hanna et al. (2014) highlighted the interplay between the DMN, with the systems of executive control (EC) while regulating components of internal thought. Importantly, response inhibition (which underlies creative thought) demands dynamic interactions of large-scale brain systems ( Beaty et al., 2016 , 2017 ). Herewith the default mode and EC networks, which usually show an antagonistic relationship, tend to cooperate in enhancing creative cognition and thus artistic performance.

Regarding WM, Takeuchi et al. (2011) explored the association between brain activity during the N-back task as widely used WM paradigm ( Jaeggi et al., 2010 ) and a psychometric measure of creativity (with a DT test). Through multiple regression analysis, Takeuchi et al. (2011) reported a significant and positive correlation between individual creativity and brain activity in the precuneus (a part of the superior parietal lobule in front of the cuneus in the occipital lobe) during a 2-back WM task but not during the non-WM 0-back task. This finding was coupled with task-induced deactivation (TID) in the precuneus (as part of the DMN, i.e., the brain network that is functional during the resting state), and correlated with higher DT. Using resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC) measures, Takeuchi et al. (2012) further showed an association between the medial PFC (mPFC) and PCC as the key nodes of the DMN during DT.

Another study revealed that DT was positively correlated with the strength of the RSFC between the mPFC and the MTG ( Wei et al., 2014 ). Further, cognitive stimulation through creativity training significantly increased the RSFC between the mPFC and the MTG. Besides, cognitive stimulation successfully enhanced cognitive performance in a novelty (originality) creativity task ( Wei et al., 2014 ).

An exciting study linked psychometric measurements of creativity [both DT and CA to cortical thickness in various brain regions in healthy young adults ( Jung et al., 2010 )]. In detail, these authors suggested the following: (1) higher CA was positively correlated with volume of the lower left lateral orbitofrontal cortex (lOFC) and cortical thickness in the right AnG; and (2) a composite creativity index (CCI) was negatively correlated with cortical thickness in the LG while positively correlated with cortical thickness in the right PCC.

Concerning the relation between hemispheric brain lateralization and creative thinking (i.e., formulating and producing novel ideas), a meta-analytic evaluation by Mihov et al. (2010) implied relative dominance of the right hemisphere (RH) during creative thinking. However, moderator analyses revealed no difference in predominant RH activation for many creative tasks (verbal, figural, holistic, analytical, context-dependent and context-independent). Carlsson et al. (2000) also analyzed the connection between creativity and hemispheric asymmetry, by measuring regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) during rest and different creative verbal tasks. Highly creative subjects expressed bilateral frontal activation in the Brick task, a task in which participants were required to name potential uses of an object, while low creative subjects had unilateral activation. Importantly, in a word fluency test and the Brick test, the highly creative group expressed either an increase or unchanged CBF activity in the frontal region, while the low creative group showed a decrease in CBF instead.

Only a few animal studies also provided valuable insights into the link between brain and creative cognition. For example, a framework developed by Kaufman et al. (2011) suggested a three-level model of creativity (novelty, observational learning, and innovative behavior; see Figure 4 ). First, regarding novelty, the cognitive ability to recognize was proposed to be linked to hippocampal (HPC) function while seeking out for novelty could be connected to the mesolimbic DA system. Second, observational learning, which could range in complexity from imitation to the cultural transmission of creative behavior, was supposed to rely significantly, besides frontal brain regions, on the cerebellum. Third, innovative behavior such as creating a tool or exhibiting a behavior with the specific recognition that it is novel and different was described as being especially reliant upon the PFC and the balance between left-and-right hemispheric functions.

How the Neuromodulatory Systems Are Involved in Creative Performance

The dopaminergic (da) system and creativity.

The DA system is involved in various aspects of cognitive functions related to reward, addiction, attention, compulsions, and others. Recent studies imply that the DA system may act to coordinate the integration of information through selective potentiation of circuits and pathways ( Grace, 2010 ). Several lines of evidence support the crucial role of DA neurotransmission in human creative thought and behavior ( Flaherty, 2005 ; Reuter et al., 2006 ; Kulisevsky et al., 2009 ; Chermahini and Hommel, 2010 ; de Manzano et al., 2010 ; Inzelberg, 2013 ; van Schouwenburg et al., 2013 ; Lhommée et al., 2014 ; Surmeier et al., 2014 ; Zhang et al., 2014a , b , 2015 ; Zabelina et al., 2016 ; Boot et al., 2017 ; Kleinmintz et al., 2018 ), nevertheless, these studies remain sparse.

For example, Flaherty (2005) reported that novelty seeking and creative drive are influenced by mesolimbic DA. Colzato et al. (2009) measured spontaneous eye-blink rates (EBR) as a marker of central DA functioning in a stop signal task. They found that EBR predicted the efficiency in inhibiting tendencies to undesired action in this task. As these findings were obtained from patient and drug studies, the authors constrained their conclusions on a positive effect of DA stimulants on response inhibition to cases of suboptimal inhibitory functioning ( Colzato et al., 2009 ). Later, Chermahini and Hommel (2010) revealed that EBR predicted flexibility in both kinds of thinking (DT and CT) but in different ways. Notably, there was a positive correlation between CT and intelligence, but a negative correlation with EBR, proposing a correlation between CT impairment and higher levels of DA.

Furthermore, Zhang et al. (2015) investigated the relation between EBR and many EFs (i.e., mental set shifting, response inhibition, and WM updating). Their study revealed a correlation between increasing EBR (which refers to increasing DA) with a better mental set shifting and response inhibition, but poorer WM updating. The increment in EBR levels was associated with an increase in the accuracy in both mental set shifting and response inhibition related tasks; however, a reduction in the cost of mental set shifting and response inhibition was associated with a decrease in the accuracy in WM updating tasks. These findings indicate a diverse role of the central DA system in mental set shifting and response inhibition as compared to updating ( Figure 5 ; see also Zhang et al., 2017 ).

Recently, Boot et al. (2017) provided an integrative review on creative cognition and DA modulation in frontostriatal networks (see, Figure 5 and Table 2 ). Integrating results from different experimental tasks (i.e., creative ideation, DT, or creative problem-solving) and various study approaches (such as looking at polymorphisms in DA receptor genes, measuring indirect markers of DA activity, manipulating the DA system, or investigating clinical populations with dysregulated DA activity) proposed the followings: (i) creative cognition benefits from both flexible and persistent processing; (ii) an association between striatal DA, the integrity of the nigrostriatal-DA pathways, and flexible processing; and (iii) an association between prefrontal DA, the integrity of the mesocortical-DA pathway and persistent processing ( Figure 5 and Table 2 ). Altogether, while the literature indicates a functional differentiation between the striatal and prefrontal DA, it seems that the functional level of DA has to be moderate for both striatal DA and prefrontal DA to benefit creative cognition by facilitating flexible processing and enable persistence-driven creativity, respectively ( Boot et al., 2017 ).

Regional Gray Matter Volume (rGMV) of The Dopaminergic (DA) System and Creativity

Despite the existence of a consistent number of functional imaging studies on creativity, the relationship between individual creativity and volumetric morphological changes in the regional gray matter (rGMV) within the DA system has not been explored adequately until recently. Salgado-Pineda et al. (2003) reported increased rGMV in parts of the mesencephalic DA system (thalamic, inferior-parietal, and frontal cortical regions) following the treatment with of levodopa (i.e., DA replacement therapy). Moreover, different studies on patients with Tourette’s Syndrome (which is another disease associated with an excessive function of the mesencephalic DA system) described related increases of rGMV in these regions ( Shapiro et al., 1989 ; Singer et al., 2002 ; Albin et al., 2003 ). These investigations imply that the morphology of the mesencephalic DA system and associated DA function are correlated with creativity. This assumption is further supported by Takeuchi et al. (2010) who revealed a positive correlation between individual creativity (as measured by a DT task) and rGMV in particular parts of the mesencephalic DA system [i.e., the right dorsolateral PFC (rDLPFC), bilateral striata and anatomical clusters in the Substantia Nigra (STN), the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and periaqueductal gray (PAG)]. These findings resonate the core link between individual creativity and rGMV of the mesencephalic DA system. Accordingly, there is an agreement with the opinion that associates DA physiological mechanisms and individual creativity.

Artistic Style Shifts, Dopamine (DA), and Creativity

An exciting study by Kulisevsky et al. (2009) described the relationship between mental shifts and the artistic style in Parkinson’s disease (PD) focusing on the link between creativity and DA. They provided a case study with a PD patient, which reported changes in the creative artistic performance. These changes appeared to be correlated with the DA imbalance in the limbic system. When this patient was supplied with DA agonists, then, hidden creativity had been awaked. This awake led to progressive improvement in painting productivity. Then, the rebirth of artistic creativity in PD relied on sustaining DA level (see also Inzelberg, 2013 ). However, it is yet unclear whether the enhancement of the creative drive was due to the physiological regulation of DA because the underlying mechanisms remain speculative ( Inzelberg, 2013 ). It is well known that neurodegenerative diseases are characterized by reduced flexibility, conceptualization, and visuospatial abilities ( Asaadi et al., 2016 ). Although these features are essential elements for creativity, case studies revealed the evolution of creativity during PD.

Along with the same line, Lhommée et al. (2014) explained the possibility of inducing creativity through DA treatments in PD; however, this effect feasibility slowly disappeared after withdrawal of DA agonists, and only one of eleven patients remained creative after the surgery. Also, the reduction of DA agonist was significantly correlated to the decrease in creativity in the whole study population. Consequently, there is a strong link between creativity in PD and DA agonist therapy.

Genetic Research Reveals a Strong Association Between DA Activity and Creativity

One critical step towards a better understanding of creativity is to unveil its underlying genetic architectures. Many studies reported the first candidate genes for creativity ( Reuter et al., 2006 ; Runco et al., 2011 ; Zhang et al., 2014a , b ; Zabelina et al., 2016 ; Grigorenko, 2017 ; see Table 1 ).

On describing the genetic basis of creativity and ideational fluency, Runco et al. (2011) referred to Reuter et al. (2006) who defined what they called the first candidate gene for creativity. Runco et al. (2011) replicated and extended the investigation of Reuter et al. (2006) for further accurate analysis of five candidate genes, which are: DA transporter (DAT), catechol-O-methyl-transferase (COMT), Dopamine Receptor D4 (DRD4), D2 Dopamine Receptor (DRD2), and Tryptophan Hydroxylase 1 (TPH1). In the study by Runco et al. (2011) , participants received a battery of tests related to creativity. Multivariate analyses of variance indicated a significant association between the ideational fluency scores and several genes (DAT, COMT, DRD4, and TPH1). Therefore, in contrast to initial studies, the offered conclusion by Runco et al. (2011) suggested a clear genetic basis for ideational fluency. However, fluency, alone, is not sufficient to predict and guarantee creative performance.

Mayseless et al. (2013) reported an association between DT and DRD4 (7R polymorphism in the DRD4 gene). DT abilities were associated with DA activity while impaired DT has been reported in populations with DA dysfunctions. The authors concluded that individuals carrying the DRD4–7R allele scored significantly lower in DT (particularly on the flexibility dimension) compared to non-carriers of this allele.

Zabelina et al. (2016) observed that performance in two tests of creativity (i.e., the Torrance test and the real-world CA index) could be predicted by specific genetic polymorphisms that are related to the frontal (COMT gene) and striatal (DAT gene) DA pathways. High performance at the Torrance test was related to DA polymorphisms associated with higher cognitive flexibility and low to medium top-down control (9/9 or 9/10 DAT and Met/Val or Val/Val COMT genotypes, respectively), or, particularly for the originality component of the DT, with weak cognitive flexibility and strong top-down control (10/10 DAT and Met/Met COMT genotypes, respectively). Weak cognitive flexibility (10/10 DAT genotype) and weak cognitive control (Val/Val COMT genotype) were associated with high real-world CA.

An additional exploratory study on DA gene DRD2 and the creative potential (DT test) was provided by Zhang et al. (2014a) . This study systematically explored the associations between DRD2 genetic polymorphisms and DT in 543 unrelated healthy Chinese undergraduate students. There were significant associations between specific single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), fluency (verbal and figural), verbal originality and figural flexibility. Extending on these findings, Zhang et al. (2014b) thoroughly examined the relationship between COMT, creative potential and the interaction between COMT and DRD2. Their study provided a shred of evidence for the implication of COMT in creative potential, which suggests that DA-related genes may act in coordination to contribute to creativity.

Based on these findings, one can conclude that human creativity principally relies on the interplay among frontal and striatal DA pathways. The dynamical interaction between these two pathways might assist to explain the inconsistencies due to the independent evaluation in measuring genes and creativity during the past decade.

Other Neuromodulatory Systems and Creativity

According to Flaherty (2011) , the induction of creativity could rely on the goal-driven approach motivation from the midbrain DA system; however, fear-driven avoidance motivation could have an insignificant influence on creativity. Therefore, one could argue about the role of other neuromodulators in addition to DA regarding their influences on motivational behavior and creativity.

Researchers observed that when 5-HT and NE lower motivation and flexibility, they can inhibit creativity. For example, antidepressants (ADs) that inhibit fear-driven motivation (i.e., selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) could inhibit goal-oriented motivation as well. On the other hand, ADs that boost goal-directed motivation (i.e., bupropion) may remediate this effect. As for benzodiazepines and alcohol, they might have a counterproductive effect. Although DA agonists might stimulate creativity, their actions may inappropriately disinhibit this creative behavior through suppressing its motivational drive. Moreover, it was suggested that the presence of NE induces fluctuations in levels of other catecholamines, such as DA, which has been extensively discussed in the schizophrenia literature.

Noradrenaline (NE) System, and Creativity

The link between the noradrenergic (NE) system, arousal and the creative process has been examined either through the direct pharmacological manipulation of the NE system, or by investigating the influences of endogenous changes in the NE system (i.e., sleep and waking states) on behavior and cognition ( Folley et al., 2003 ). Also, situational stressors correlate with particular physiological responses, including an increase in the activity of the NE system ( Ward et al., 1983 ; Kvetňanský et al., 1997 ).

Experimental evidence proposed a central role of the NE system in modulating cognitive flexibility ( Beversdorf et al., 1999 , 2002 ; Folley et al., 2003 ; Heilman et al., 2003 ; Heilman, 2016 ; de Rooij et al., 2018 ). Beversdorf et al. (1999 , 2002) investigated the influence of NE modulation on the performance in various problem-solving tasks during pharmacological treatments that either increased or decreased noradrenergic activity. The authors reported better performance in the anagram task (one of the problem-solving tasks that demand cognitive flexibility), following the uptake of propranolol (peripheral and central β-adrenergic antagonist) than after ephedrine (β-adrenergic agonist). Comparing the effects of central and peripheral NE antagonists, Beversdorf et al. (2002) further revealed that NE modulation of cognitive flexibility, in particular in problem-solving tasks, occurs by a central feedback mechanism. This is in agreement with an earlier reported influence of arousal on cognitive flexibility during creative tasks through the regulation of the central NE system ( Martindale and Greenough, 1973 ). Martindale and Hasenfus (1978) provided physiological evidence about enhancing creative innovation through maintaining a low level of arousal (i.e., the significant development of alpha activity in the EEG in the highly creative group during the innovative stage). Also, the reported central modulatory effect of NE on cognitive flexibility may relate to changes in the signal-to-noise ratio of neuronal activity within the cortex by suppressing the intrinsic excitatory synaptic potentials relative to the evoked potentials by external direct afferent input ( Hasselmo et al., 1997 ; Usher et al., 1999 ).

In light of the findings described previously ( Hasselmo et al., 1997 ; Beversdorf et al., 1999 , 2002 ; Usher et al., 1999 ), one could evaluate the dependency of problem-solving on the regulation states of the NE system. The first state refers to situations up-regulating the NE system, which diminishes cognitive flexibility while the second state relates to situations down-regulating NE system, which enhances cognitive flexibility.

For example, NE upregulation by increased situational stress could weaken cognitive flexibility and thus creativity ( Beversdorf et al., 1999 , 2002 ) while people seem to be highly creative during relaxation as compared to when they are stressed ( Faigel, 1991 ).

Recently, de Rooij et al. (2018) explored the function of the LC-NA system in creativity using pupillometry. LC is a brain area which contains noradrenergic (NE) neurons that project to the frontal lobe modulating the frontal lobe’s activity ( Arnsten and Goldman-Rakic, 1984 ). Accordingly, elevation in LC activity is correlated with increasing levels of cortical NE. de Rooij et al. (2018) now examined whether tonic pupil dilation and phasic pupil dilation (as proxies for measuring tonic and phasic LC-NA activity, respectively) could predict performance on divergent and CT using both psychometric and real-world creativity tasks. During DT, the tonic pupil dilation predicted the generation of original ideas in both creativity tasks while phasic pupil dilation predicted the generation of useful ideas only in the real-world creativity task. Nevertheless, during CT, tonic and phasic pupil dilation did not predict creative task performance in both creativity tasks. Hence, tonic and phasic LC-NA activity differentially predicted the generation of original and useful ideas during creative tasks that require DT.

Serotonergic (5-HT) System and Creativity

The neurotransmitter serotonin [5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT); Walther et al., 2003 ] is causally involved in multiple central nervous facets of mood control and in regulating sleep, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, food intake, and sexual behavior ( Veenstra-VanderWeele et al., 2000 ). Volf et al. (2009) provided one of the earliest reports on a significant association between the polymorphism in the human serotonin transporter gene [i.e., serotonin-transporter-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR)] and CAs (i.e., figural and verbal). Up to now, however, there has not been sufficient evidence to conclude on a direct connection between 5-HT and creativity, but there has been between 5-HT and reward. Kranz et al. (2010) presented an argument regarding 5-HT as an essential mediator of emotional, motivational and cognitive elements of reward representation. Consequently, one could claim that 5-HT is of a similar value to DA for reward processing; nevertheless, it is mostly ignored in the studies related to creativity.

Brain Illness and Creativity

Accumulated evidence suggests a strong connection between developing the drive of creativity and a number of brain illnesses (i.e., depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, PD, temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), frontotemporal dementia (FTD), and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs); see Flaherty, 2011 , see also Flaherty, 2005 ; Carson, 2011 ; Abraham et al., 2012 ; Mula et al., 2016 ), other studies questioned the relation between madness and genius ( Kyaga, 2014 ).

Flaherty (2005) tested a wide range of subjects from normal to several pathological states and proposed a three-factor model to predict idea generation and creative drive. This model focused on the interactions between temporal lobes, frontal lobes, and the limbic system, in which the frontotemporal and DA control represents the source for idea generation and creative drive. The author summarized her findings as follows. First, the generation of the progressive idea (sometimes at the expense of its quality) is associated with alterations in the activity of the temporal lobe (i.e., hypergraphia). Second, deficits in the frontal lobe might diminish idea generation due to the rigid judgments about the value of the idea. These observations were most visible in verbal creativity, and approximately resemble the constrained communication of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), mania, and Wernicke’s aphasia, rather than the sparse speech and cognitive inflexibility of depression, Broca’s aphasia, and other frontal lobe lesions. Third, patients with FTD expressed an enhancement in non-linguistic creativity. Lastly, the mutual inhibitory cortico-cortical interactions mediated the proper balance between temporal and frontal activity ( Flaherty, 2005 ).

Abraham et al. (2012) examined distinct facets of creative thinking in many neurological populations as compared to matched healthy control participants. They reported a dissociation between patient groups with frontal, temporoparietal, and basal ganglia (BG) lesions for diverse aspects of creativity. The temporoparietal and frontolateral groups expressed lower overall creative performance while the temporoparietal group demonstrated reduced fluency in the AUT and a creative imagery task. On the other hand, the frontolateral group was less proficient at producing original responses. In contrast, BG and frontopolar groups showed remarkable performance in the ability to overcome the constraints demand by salient semantic distractors during generating creative responses.

Consequently, the lesion area posed selective obstacles to the ability to generate novel (original) responses in distinctive contexts, but not on the ability to generate relevant responses (which was compromised in most patient groups). Thereby, Mula et al. (2016) discussed FTD and bipolar cyclothymic mood disorder as clinical conditions that are assisting to unravel the underlying neuroanatomy and neurochemistry of human creativity. They described the emergence of artistic talent in a subset of patients with dementia who developed incipient and impassioned abilities in visual arts. Earlier, Miller and Miller (2013) stated that in addition to the emergence of visual artistry in such patients, new onset creativity occasionally extends to obsessions with word punning and poetry. These recently compelling artistic and creative behaviors have been noticed initially in non-Alzheimer’s dementia, specifically, those with primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a particular form of FTD ( Wu et al., 2015 ; Mula et al., 2016 ). Furthermore, de Souza et al. (2014) reported a series of clinical observations about patients with neurodegenerative diseases affecting PFC (i.e., FTD) and the facilitation of artistic production.

On the link between creativity and bipolarity, researchers aimed at dissecting principal components of mania showing that feeling creative is usually told by patients with bipolar disorders ( Cassano et al., 2009 ; Mula et al., 2016 ). These patients often express themselves as very artistic and creative with bursts of inspiration or creativity and mentally very sharp, brilliant and talented. Remarkably, specialized studies that focus exclusively at creativity in patients with mood disturbances explicated that even when using quite a broad definition of creativity, no more than 8% of patients with bipolar or unipolar disorders could be considered creative ( Akiskal et al., 1998 ; Mula et al., 2016 ).

On the association between creativity and psychopathology, Carson (2011) provided an advanced model of a shared vulnerability to intensify creative ideation. This model suggested an interaction between the biological determinants, presenting the risk for psychopathology, and the protective cognitive factors. The elements of shared vulnerability included the following: (1) cognitive disinhibition (it brings more stimuli into conscious awareness); (2) an attentional style (which is driven by novelty salience); and (3) a neural hyperconnectivity (which may increase associations between diverse stimuli). These vulnerabilities interact with superior meta-cognitive protective factors (i.e., high IQ, increased WM capacity, and enhanced cognitive flexibility) to maximize the range and the depth of stimuli. Hence, stimuli, which are acquirable in conscious mindfulness, could be manipulated and integrated to form novel (original) ideas.

Open Questions and Future Directions

The PFC, which is considered to play a critical role in creativity, has been extensively involved in the cognitive control of emotion; however, the cortico-subcortical interactions that mediate this capability remain elusive, in particular when it is related to creativity. Previously, Wager et al. (2008) declared that prefrontal-subcortical pathways mediate effective emotion regulation. This regulation was associated with the activity of the right ventrolateral prefrontal area (vlPFC) as a response to diminished negative emotional experience during cognitive reappraisal of aversive (i.e., unpleasant) images. Following this initial finding, researchers implemented a unique pathway-mapping approach to map subcortical mediators of the association between vlPFC activity and reappraisal achievement (i.e., a decrease in the expressed emotion). Their data proposed two distinct pathways that collectively defined half of the revealed variance in self-stated emotion. The first pathway [which was through nucleus accumbens (NAc)] anticipated more reappraisal achievement while the second pathway (through ventral amygdala) anticipated reduced reappraisal achievement. Here, one could ask whether the interaction between emotion and creative cognition could be predicted through similar pathways.

Regarding providing an overarching experimental model for creative performances, one should consider the interactions between the factors described in this review (cognition, emotion, mood state, reward, and neuromodulators) and whether such interactions could mark creative signatures of individuals. In other words, getting more insight into the creative thinking and ideation necessitates the ability to identify: (1) the core cognitive, motivational, and emotional processes underlying creative thought; and (2) the brain circuitries and neuromodulators underlying the creative ideation.

Prospective research should further specify the neural mechanisms by which the neuromodulator systems influence the creative process. Particularly their modulatory effect on the creative cognition and the creative drive in pathological conditions such as depression, bipolar disorders, PD and schizophrenia remains elusive. DA requires additional exploration regarding the interplay between frontal and striatal DA pathways, the underlying genetic architecture and CAs in healthy and pathological conditions. On the other hand, research on creativity and the noradrenergic (NE) system is implicated in the stress-related modulation of cognitive flexibility in problem-solving, however there is a prominent demand to determine the range of cognitive tasks modulated by the NE system more precisely. Also, studies on the relation between the fluctuations in the level of NE, the level of arousal and its modulation signature on the creative process before and after treatment in pathological conditions such as depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia remain dispersed and isolated. Concerning 5-HT, there is an ultimate need for elaborative research on the relationship between 5-HT and CAs since it is a fundamental mediator of emotional, motivational and cognitive elements of reward processing and representation.

In summary, advancing the research on creativity demands providing an integrative framework assembling the neural, cognitive, motivational, and emotional correlates of creativity. Furthermore, computational approaches such as neural network models could assist to provide a predictive perspective for this integrative framework for creativity ( Perlovsky and Levine, 2012 ). Although these models are not likely to be achieved merely, computational approaches to particular emotional processing could be both plausible and useful to develop the integrative framework model. For instance, Levine and Perlovsky (2011) proposed a dual-system approach to integrating emotional and rational decision making while Perlovsky and Levine, 2012 suggested a model of DA influences on creative processes. Thus, extending these computational models would be beneficial as a predictive approach to our proposed integrative framework for creativity.

In this review, we outlined how three factors crucially shape the creative mind: (1) creative cognition and the associated neural systems in human and animal models; (2) creative drives such as mood states, emotion, motivation and regulatory focus and how their interactions could shape the creative performance; and (3) the impacts of three central neuromodulator systems, i.e., DA, NE, and 5-HT, on the interplay between creative cognition and creative drives.

Specifically, we detailed how according to the dual pathway model ( Nijstad et al., 2010 ; Boot et al., 2017 ; Lu et al., 2017 ) the nigrostriatal and mesocortical DA pathways, influence creative drives ( Baas et al., 2008 , 2013 ; De Dreu et al., 2008 ) and creative cognition, see Figure 5 and Table 2 . As implicated by the dual process model, both pathways affect creativity via their influence on resistance and cognitive flexibility ( Cassotti et al., 2016 ). The prediction of creativity through EFs (i.e., shifting, inhibition and WM; Benedek et al., 2014 ; Radel et al., 2015 ; Zhang et al., 2015 ; Fleming et al., 2016 ) demands an optimal balance between deliberate (controlled) processing and spontaneous processing ( Mok, 2014 ). On the other hand, there is a link between reward (i.e., promises, training, and intrinsic interest; Maltzman, 1960 ; Eisenberger and Selbst, 1994 ; Eisenberger and Cameron, 1998 ; Eisenberger et al., 1998 , 1999 ; Eisenberger and Rhoades, 2001 ; Baer et al., 2003 ; Chen et al., 2012 ; Volf and Tarasova, 2013 ) and creativity through the action effect binding ( Muhle-Karbe and Krebs, 2012 ). Both mindset (cooperative and competitive; Bittner and Heidemeier, 2013 ; Bittner et al., 2016 ) and cognitive resources ( Roskes et al., 2012 ) have moderating effects on creative drives (i.e., mood, motivation, and emotion). Moreover, we discussed potential candidate genes for creativity.

Herewith we presented our perspective to advance our knowledge about creativity research through evaluating an overarching model of the interactions between creative cognition (i.e., cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, WM updating, fluency, originality, and insights) and creative drive (i.e., emotion motivation, reward and other factors such as mood states, regulatory focus, social interaction), and the underlying neuromodulator mechanisms ( Figure 1 ).

Lastly, we highlighted the possibility of implementing a neural network model as a predictive tool for the suggested integrated framework of creativity. For more insights on the computational model of creativity and emotion, see Perlovsky and Levine (2012) and Levine and Perlovsky (2011) , respectively.

Author Contributions

RK and BG outlined the structure of the review and wrote the manuscript. AK participated in the conceptualization of the manuscript and the final editing.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


We acknowledge the support by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and Open Access Publishing Fund of the University of Tübingen. This study was partly funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (D.27.14841).


5-HT, serotonin; ADs, antidepressants; ALE, activation likelihood estimation; BG, basal ganglia; BVSR, blind variation and selective retention; CAQ, Creative Achievement Questionnaire; CCI, composite creativity index; COMT, catechol-O-methyl-transferase; DA, dopamine; DAT, Dopamine Transporter; DMN, default mode network; DRD2, D2 Dopamine Receptor; DRD4, D4 Dopamine Receptor; DT, divergent thinking; EBR, spontaneous eye-blink rates; EFs, executive functions; FTD, frontotemporal dementia; mPFC, medial prefrontal cortex; mTG, middle temporal gyrus; NAc, nucleus accumbens; NE, noradrenaline; PCC, posterior cingulate cortex; PD, Parkinson’s disease; PFC, prefrontal cortex; RSFC, resting-state functional connectivity; STN, Substantia Nigra; TID, task-induced deactivation; TPH1, Tryptophan Hydroxylase; vlPFC, right ventrolateral prefrontal region; VTA, tegmental ventral area; WM, working memory.

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Keywords: creativity, cognitive flexibility, persistence, artistic shifts, emotion, reward, brain illness, neuromodulators

Citation: Khalil R, Godde B and Karim AA (2019) The Link Between Creativity, Cognition, and Creative Drives and Underlying Neural Mechanisms. Front. Neural Circuits 13:18. doi: 10.3389/fncir.2019.00018

Received: 04 June 2018; Accepted: 04 March 2019; Published: 22 March 2019.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2019 Khalil, Godde and Karim. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Radwa Khalil, [email protected]

This article is part of the Research Topic

Neuromodulation of Circuits in Brain Health and Disease

The Hidden Secrets of the Creative Mind

Innovation requires no special thought processes, says an expert. creative people just work harder at it.

creative mind university reviews

What is creativity? Where does it come from? The workings of the creative mind have been subjected to intense scrutiny over the past 25 years by an army of researchers in psychology, sociology, anthropology and neuroscience. But no one has a better overview of this mysterious mental process than Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of the new book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (Oxford; 336 pages). He's working on a version for the lay reader, due out in 2007 from Basic Books. In an interview with Francine Russo, Sawyer shares some of his findings and suggests ways in which we can enhance our creativity not just in art, science or business but in everyday life.

Q. Has the new wave of research upended any of our popular notions about creativity?

A. Virtually all of them. Many people believe creativity comes in a sudden moment of insight and that this "magical" burst of an idea is a different mental process from our everyday thinking. But extensive research has shown that when you're creative, your brain is using the same mental building blocks you use every day—like when you figure out a way around a traffic jam.

Q. Then how do you explain the "aha!" moment we've all had in the shower or the gym—or anywhere but at work?

A. In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we're doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn't in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another. If we're lucky, in the next context we may hear or see something that relates—distantly—to the problem that we had temporarily put aside.

Q. Can you give us an example of that?

A. In 1990 a team of NASA scientists was trying to fix the distorted lenses in the Hubble telescope, which was already in orbit. An expert in optics suggested that tiny inversely distorted mirrors could correct the images, but nobody could figure out how to fit them into the hard-to-reach space inside. Then engineer Jim Crocker, taking a shower in a German hotel, noticed the European-style showerhead mounted on adjustable rods. He realized the Hubble's little mirrors could be extended into the telescope by mounting them on similar folding arms. And this flash was the key to fixing the problem.

Q. How have researchers studied this creative flash?

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  • Published: 31 October 2017

The creative mind: cognition, society and culture

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This article provides an overview of the main tendencies and ideas in the embodied mind paradigm in the expanding field of modern cognitive science. The focus is not on the biological and neurological aspects of cognitive science, rather the article demonstrates how basic concepts and theories from cognitive science have influenced linguistics, sociology, the understanding of art and creativity, film and film perception, as well as our understanding of historical film narratives and mediated memories. Although these areas of humanities and social science may seem unrelated, this article demonstrates how the embodied mind paradigm has actually forged links between separate scientific disciplines. Cognitive science and the embodied mind theory have created a stronger interdisciplinary connection between cognitive understanding in social science and humanities. Metaphors and image schema, the way our brain relies on narrative structures, the dynamic ability of the brain to blend old and new schemas, and the unparalleled creativity of the brain are all part of the approaches of the cognitive social science and humanities to social interaction, communication and creativity described here. The article also discusses the relationship between the more universal dimensions of the human mind and the question of cultural and social variations. The argument here is that a cognitive and more universal theory of human beings is not the same as determinism. On the contrary, when we understand our universal commonalities and the basic functions of our embodied mind we will also be better placed to understand cultural and social differences and variations.


It ought to be an established fact in all sciences that human beings are the result of a long evolutionary development with interaction between our biology and the social and cultural conditions under which this evolution has taken place. Yet, in some sciences to point to biology, genes and the way our brain is basically constructed as part of an argument of social interaction or culture and creativity can still raise anger and controversy. The fact that our mind is embodied, that our language, way of thinking, our way of interacting with each other, our gender is firmly based in our bodies and our brain can still lead to heated discussions in some branches of academia. Yet, all important forms of cognitive science have clearly pointed out that it is not a question of biology and human nature against culture and society. It is in fact a question of understanding the very complex interaction between nature, society and culture—in line with a pretty long tradition from Darwin onward (see Bondebjerg, 2015 ).

Mapping the field of cognitive science

In one of the early, seminal books on cognitive science, Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch’s The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience ( 1991 ) even the title indicates this. From the first sentences of the introduction they state that their aim is to define cognitive science as something that combines an understanding of the lived human experience—following the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty—with a biological understanding of the brain. The main point is that we need to:

(..) see our bodies both as physical structures and as lived experiential structures—in short, as both ‘outer’ and ‘inner’, biological and phenomenological. The two sides of embodiment are obviously not opposed. Instead, we continuously circulate back and forth between them” (Varela et al., 1991 , p 15).

When writing this, the three authors make a statement, which they at the same time see as criticism of a dominant tendency in early forms of cognitive science to largely ignore this interaction between cognition, society and culture. This fundamental interaction is however also absent from most forms of human and social sciences, where a strong tendency towards social constructivism has dominated for decades. Taken to a just as fundamentalist level as early cognitive science, social constructivism tend the claim that all social and cultural phenomenon are constructions, that in other words cognition and the embodied mind means very little. What Varela, Thompson and Rosch intend to do with their book is in their own words not to

(…) build some grand unified theory (…) our concern is to open a space of possibilities, in which the circulation between cognitive science and human experience can be fully appreciated” (Varela et al., 1991 , p 18).

Varela, Thompson and Rosch map the field of cognitive science by pointing to five main areas (Varela et al., 1991 , 7): Neuroscience, the central medical science area, Cognitive psychology, Philosophy and Artificial intelligence linguistics, and philosophy. So even at this early stage of mapping a relatively new field, we see the merging of disciplines across natural and medical sciences and social sciences and humanities. It takes at its starting point the fundamental structures of our brain and how it works and combines it with the interaction between brain and body in the world of human experience, interaction, and communication. So even though basic neuroscience and artificial intelligence could seem to generate the image of cognitive theory and the human mind as a computer this is quite wrong. As both neuroscientist themselves and the uses of basic cognitive theory in social sciences and the humanities demonstrate, our brain and the way it interacts with culture and society is amazingly creative and flexible.

Metaphors we think with and live by

Today the fields of cognitive studies described by Varela et al. would have to be expanded because communication sciences in a broad sense, film and media studies and studies of art and literature has now been directly inspired by cognitive psychology and science. This can partly be explained by the influence of Gerorge Lakoff and Mark Johnson beyond linqustics, but also by cognitive studies of creativity, aesthetic and the arts. Varela et al.’s book is already quite unusual as a basic introduction to cognitive science by including phenomenology and aspects of non-western philosophy, especially the Buddhist notion of mindfulness (Varela et al., 1991 , 23f). Very neurological representations of the brain and how it works is combined with more experiental dimension of our mind. But such dimensions also link to Lakoff and Johnson’s seminal founding of a cognitive linguistics in which traditional understandings of language are replaced by an embodied theory where language is seen as part of an embodied mind.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnsons book Metaphors we live by ( 1980 ) is a very early and extremely important book, because it turned linguistics and thus central parts of the humanities completely upside down. There is a direct link to Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s basic attempt to move cognitive science towards the study of the interaction between basic cognitive and embodied structure and our lived experience. Taking metaphor away from just poetic language and into the centre of everyday language and ways of thinking, Lakoff and Johnson not just went against traditional linguistics but also against the sharp line between rationality and emotion in Western thought and philosophy. What the book suggested was that our language and our way of thinking was embodied, and in some of their later writings this notion was further expanded through the discovery of the role of mirror neurons, and the role they play in explaining how language and metaphors were indeed embodied, changed and developed into networks of meaning structures (Lakoff, 2008 ).

Just as Varela et al. start from a computational understanding of the brain, Lakoff and Johnson use this, not just to anchor the understanding of language in our brain but to demonstrate how very basic neural mechanisms serve pretty complicated mental and linguistic processes that dominate in both everyday language, poetic language and more abstract thinking and reasoning. “We think with our brains. There is no other choice. Thought is physical. Ideas and the concept s that make them up are physically ‘computed by brain structures. Reasoning is the activation of certain neuronal groups in the brain given prior activation of other neuronal groups (Lakoff, 2008 , p 17) The neurological starting point allows Lakoff to describe more precisely how connectivity via the brain works in our language and way of thinking. The brain is a complex of regions and neurons that structure input and output, and as Lakoff points out “neurons that fire together, wire together (Lakoff, 2008 , p 19). This basically means that metaphors and metaphorical networks are built in our mind in such a way that certain metaphorical connections are stronger than others, although it also means that in our everyday interaction with the world, metaphors are constantly changed, developed or modified.

In 1980 when Metaphors we live by came out neuroscience and cognitive psychology was not as far advanced as today, where the mapping of the brain and how the embodied mind functions has taken giant leaps. The move towards a stronger embodied mind theory of linguistics was however taken quite a bit further in Mark Johnson’s The Body in the Mind. The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason ( 1987 ). Here the criticism of traditional objectivist linguistic theories of meaning went even deeper and they formulated a broader, embodied theory of imagination, metaphor and meaning. The theory of imagination, metaphors and image schema in linguistics point to communication and film studies and there are clearly many interdisciplinary dimensions in Lakoff and Johnson’s writings. We find the same kind of theoretical main focus in for instance David Bordwell’s seminal book Narration in the Fiction film ( 1985 ) in which cognitive schema theory is used to explain different narrative structures in film and how viewers actively perceive a film. Also here the embodied mind theory is crucial. In Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (1999) they argue for an embodied philosophy, and in George Lakoff’s Moral Politics. How Liberals and Conservatives Think ( 2016 ) he moves into media and political communication.

Lakoff and Johnson’s intervention into linguistics, communication and philosophy illustrate the potential strength of cognitive science to form a basis for ways of articulating, analysing and understanding central areas of society and culture in different disciplines. Their study of metaphor and the whole embodied dimension of language and thought again underlines the interaction between our bodily capacities and the sensori-motoric aspects of our embodied mind and the context we act in. There is therefore a clear link between cognitive linguistics and the basic dimensions in cognitive science as such. In their description of cognition as embodied action Varela et al. call such cognitive theories another way of avoiding the chicken-egg paradox of cognition: the world does neither exist out there with pre-given properties, nor is the world just a projection of our internal system. The interaction between world (chicken) and embodied mind (egg) is such that the interactions forms a new whole:

Cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with sensorimotor capacities, and second that these sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context (…) sensory and motor processes, perception and action, are fundamentally inseparable in lived cognition (1991, 172f).

Cognitive sociology: the perception of self and others

In cognitive science the relation between the brain, the body and the social and cultural context is crucial, it is the interaction between the embodied human mind and our everyday experience, which is in focus. This means that our interaction with other humans is crucial, and the way we understand and experience our own self and that of others of equally strong importance. Such questions are classical questions in philosophy, which have taken new forms in both philosophy and in psychology and sociology under the influence of cognitive science.

Psychology and psychoanalysis have, since the days of Freud and Jung, been a varied, scientific field of their own, but have also inspired other areas—especially in the social sciences and humanities. With the vastly increased empirical and clinical data on how the brain and the embodied mind work, the field that used to be social psychology has moved in the direction of a broader field of cognitive sociology—and so has psychology in general. In one of the first major books aiming at changing the focus of traditional psychology, Marvin Minsky’s The Society of Mind ( 1985 ), even the title indicate that the study of the mind is seen metaphorically as a both physical and social construction. In his postscript Minsky defines the central concept of the book as being “that the mind is a society of many smaller mechanisms’ (Minsky, 1985 , p 323), mechanisms that work together to create for instance memory, learning sensory experiences or our understanding of ourselves as a self and our understanding of others.

Minsky’s background is artificial intelligence at MIT, and the way he writes about the mind is clearly influenced by thinking in practical terms about models that could be implemented in computers to simulate the human mind. The two authors of one of the most used textbooks in cognitive sociology Social Cognition (1984, 5th edn, many revised new editions), Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor, came out of mainstream American psychology, and the book was written explicitly to counteract the dominance of behaviourism. In the introduction the two authors define the field of social cognition as “the study of how people make sense of other people and themselves. It focuses on how ordinary people think about people and how they think they think about people” (Fiske and Taylor ( 1991 , p 1). The book goes through attribution theory, that is how we ascribe value, meaning and causality to social events, through the important social categories and schemas we use in a top down way to understand both others, ourselves and social actions. There is a focus on how we perceive our selves and the role of memory and emotions and the forming of attitudes. Compared to traditional psychology cognitive processes play a fundamental role, although the book was written at a time where modern neuroscience and cognitive studies was not as advanced as today.

Fiske and Taylor’s book on social cognition is part of a wider move towards what you might call a more universal cognitive sociology. At least that is what Eviatar Zerubavel ( 1997 ) argues for in his short but interesting book, Social Mindscapes. An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology . He argues that in light of the new developments in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, we need to stress “the cognitive commonality” between all human beings. The cognitive trend, as Zerubavel points out, moves away from the almost romantic notions of the specificity of the individual towards an endeavour to “discover universal patterns in the way we form concepts, process information, activate mental ‘schemas’, make decisions, solve problems, generate meaningful sentences from ‘deep’ syntactic structures, access our memory, and move through the various stages of our cognitive development” (Zerubavel, 1997 , p 3).

However, Zerubavel also warns against a too strong and rigid cognitive universalism, and argues for the interaction between what he calls the collective subcultures linked to social and cultural structures, which influence the way we think. In the same way he argues for a stronger focus on also cognitive individualism. His aim is clearly to link the understanding of the individual cognitive mind and the social cognitive mind with the more universal mind that are common to the whole of mankind. In this sense he continues the trend in cognitive studies to undermine any simple determinism in the understanding of the relation between our universal mind and the social and cultural context this mind of ours is living. Zerubavel wants us to pay more attention to “cognitive diversity” and “cognitive subcultures”.

We must be aware of universal commonalities based on how our mind and body function, no matter who we are and where we are. At the same time we must not ignore that the process of “cognitive socialisation that allows us to enter the social, intersubjective world” (Zerubavel, 1997 , p 15).

Such studies have in fact already appeared, for instance Nicholas Christakis and James Fowlers fascinating study of social networks, Connected. The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives ( 2009 ). Based on rich data on how people on social networks connect, they clearly show how technologies in general are built on the same principles as those we know real life and traditional theories and studies of cognitive sociology. Connections and networks are based on social and cultural proximity and similarities, and very often emotions pay a central role. Our contacts are based on mirror-acts, and the fundamental way we form networks, even in this hi-tech complex world of ours, are deeply structures by rules and mechanisms that have evolved over a long time of genetic evolution. In their book they exemplify this by studying political networks in several parts of the world. Looking at for instance the Iranian political blogosphere and the American we find exactly the same structure. The networks on the social media in both countries are similar to social and political networks in real life. We connect and talk to those we are alike and agree with already, so social networks only to a very small degree expand our network to people we do not know or already agree with (Christakis and Fowler, 2009 , 172ff)

Networks, according to Christakis and Fowler, may therefore seem very creative and different from the kinds of networks we have seen before, but in reality they are expansions and variations of rather fundamental, evolutionary mechanisms of social interaction:

We deliberately choose to form social connections with specific individuals, with whom we share greater or lesser intimacy and affection, for brief or lengthy periods of time. And unlike other social species, we have a special capacity to imagine what others are thinking and feeling, including what they are thinking of us. Our embeddedness in social networks means that we must cooperate with others, judge their intentions, and influence or be influenced by them (Christakis and Fowler, 2009 , p 214).

Blending theory and our creative mind

Cognitive science is perhaps often seen as a rather simplifying theory and way of understanding humans and the way humans interact with the world and each other. However, as we have seen with cognitive linguistics and sociology, the basic cognitive understanding of communication and social encounters is clearly used to develop quite complex and dynamic models of the human mind and human activities. The fundamental call for a combination of a neurological and biological understand of the embodied mind with the human experience in all its dynamic cultural and social experience and diversity we find in Varela et al. and in many other hard core books on cognitive science is developed fully in other areas where a cognitive approach is used. One of the most interesting developments in creative theory that builds of basic cognitive science is Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnnier’s theory of conceptual blending in thinking in general and production of art specifically. There is a direct link between Varela et al.’s general cognitive theory and Lakoff and Johnson’s cognitive linguistics. The basic principle of blending is connected to the theory of neurological metaphorical networks and to schema theory in the sense that blending theory is trying to explain how basic schematic structures make very complex and dynamic variations possible.

As Turner and Fauconnier point out, humans have developed an exceptionally flexible and creative mind and many aspects of the working brain and the embodied mind cut across different activities in our everyday life and work. However, recently special attention has been paid to the creative brain, more specifically in art, film and media. If art and creativity is about creating something new, this must in some way activate many and also different part of our brain and the ways of thinking we have already embedded in our brain. We know that part of our mind works top down to activate established schemas, which can help us solve specific problems or interpret a concrete social event. We use what is already stored to navigate our reality. However, creativity is also about creating new schemas and combining schemas we already have in new ways. Fauconnier and Turners main point is in fact that all humans are constantly developing the conceptual neural networks we already have.

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner have worked intensely with this and what they call “conceptual blending”, especially in their book The Way we Think. Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities ( 2002 ). Their claim is in fact that approximately 50,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic period, a spectacular change took place, during which human beings “developed an unprecedented ability to innovate. They acquired a modern human imagination, which gave them the ability to invent new concepts and to assemble new and dynamic mental patterns” (Fauconnier and Turner, 2002 , p 5). This ability, called conceptual blending, is thus a general feature of the modern human brain and mind, it is what makes it possible for humans to develop large and very complex conceptual networks, and also to develop, change and renew them. In their understanding, this is not just central to art, but something that underlies all our mental activities from language, art and science and down to basic everyday social skills.

In a later edited book by Mark Turner, The Artful Mind. Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity ( 2006 ) focus is on how specifically to understand creativity in art forms, and how this is related to our general ability to deals with quite complex neural networks in our life in general. In all articles in the book we find a clear tendency to unite universal cognitive patterns with more group based, even individual forms of social and cultural cognition:

The individual human being, in form and movement, in thought and action, is a seamless intersection of powerful histories—phylogenetic history, individual development, and social and cultural history—all profoundly influential. A human being is a unified agency of biology, psychology, and social, environmental and cultural patterns (Turner ed. 2006 , p 16).

Therefore, even though all humans come with a body and a brain which has a lot of pre-installed ‘hardware’ based on a long evolutionary development, even though we are not in that sense socially and culturally constructed, the bottom line in the theory of the creative mind and blending theory is that we develop new networks all the time. The fundamental dimensions of language, of telling stories and making pictures, which is part of our evolutionary history, is all there in our embodied and creative mind from the day we are born. Yet, we do not all become great artists, authors or filmmakers. The mix of genes, biology, evolution and our social and cultural history as individuals and in families and cultural groups is what shapes and forms a creative mind in such a way that this individual changes history and our way of looking at ourselves, others and the world. This is the magic of the creative mind, the magic blending of the embodied mind, society and culture.

Film, narrative and cognition

Fauconnier and Turners theory of blending and creative work is in many ways exemplified by the way in which cognitive film theory developed from the 1980s and on. Until then film theory was mostly influenced by structuralism or more classical aesthetic approaches to the historical and genre based study of film. However, almost at the same time as Lakoff and Johnson started changing our fundamental understanding of language by combining cognitive theory and more formal and structural forms of understanding, David Bordwell combined formal analysis and cognitive psychology in the study of film. In Narration in the Fiction film ( 1985 ) Bordwell discussed classical theories of film narration with a new focus on the psychology of film perception and cognition. The inclusion of the viewer perspective was important and novel for film theory because Bordwell clearly pointed out that a film is both made by the director and other creative people and the viewer, and that the system behind film narration and the viewers perception is based on perceptual and cognitive dimensions of a more general nature. Watching a film was in Bordwell’s theory of narration a cognitive and emotional process and experience, and using a just formal-aesthetic approach to film was not enough.

Bordwell’s way activating the process of viewing film was a direct critique of the dominant film theories which tended to talk about film that positioned the viewer in a specific ideological way. Instead Bordwell saw the film as a way of cueing the spectators, creating an active interaction between our already existing mental schemas and the specific film. Narration thus became an intense meeting point between a film and a viewer, based on a series of psychological and cognitive procedures:

The fabula is thus a pattern, which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences. It is the developing result of picking up narrative cues, applying schemata, framing and testing hypothesis (…) The viewer builds the fabula on the basis of prototype schemata (identifiable types of persons, actions, locales etc.), template schemata (principally “the canonic story”) and procedural schemata (a search for appropriate motivations and relations of causality, time and space) (Bordwell, 1985 , p 49).

Bordwell combined this more formal, structural, psychological and cognitive approach to film with a more concrete historical definition of basic forms of narration: Classical narration is basically the Hollywood mode of narration and at the same time a rather canonic form with a strong position as universally understandable; Art cinema narration on the other hand is a historical type of narration, which challenges the canonical form of narration. Bordwell also discussed other forms like Historical-Materialist narration in early Soviet cinema, and what he called parametric narration. Again we see a combination of more basic cognitive forms of psychology and concrete historical and aesthetic analysis situating the cognitive dimensions in a social and cultural context.

Bordwell is a founding father in cognitive film theory, building connections to also more aesthetic and historical forms of film theory and film history. Today cognitive film theory has developed into the most comprehensive theory of film. Another important figure is Torben Grodal whose work is based on an evolutionary understanding of how film genres interact with our emotional and cognitive structures. His two books Moving Pictures. A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition ( 1996 ) and Embodied Visions. Evolution, Emotion, Culture and Film ( 2009 ) are both key texts in modern, cognitive film theory. Grodal’s first book was in many ways similar in general approach to Joseph Anderson’s The reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory (1996) in the sense that they draw on the large scale evolutionary perspective. Here the premise is that the narrative and other schemata we use in film viewing have an effect on our general real life experience:

(..) the schemata we bring to films are those we bring to other experiences in the world and when the viewing experience modifies those schemata (as all perceptual and cognitive cycles do) it has in some ways change the way we interact with the world (Anderson 1996, p 155).

The cognitive theory of film and film narratives see the filmic form and filmic genres as specific domains of art and communication. Genres are—as Grodal point out in his works—ways of integrating human characters, actions and emotions, which can be seen as film forms and filmic representations of real life. Genres are however also modalities of narration and emotions that build on and interact with real life experience and draw on our embodied mind structures. Melodrama is quite distinct from romantic comedy or from action-adventure movies for instance, however the narrative and emotional structures point us back to networks of meaning and experiences in our embodied mind. Just as Bordwell stressed the relation between film form and genre and the cognitive aspects of the spectator, Grodal already in his first book pointed to

(..) a systematic relation between the embodied mental processes and configurations activated in a given type of visual fiction and the emotional ‘tone’ and ‘modal qualities of the experienced affects, emotions and feelings in the viewer. Prototypical genres of visual fiction will evoke typical tones and modalities (..) (Grodal, 1996 , p 3)

Putting the embodied mind in the context of film viewing therefore also leads to an alignment between cognitive structures and emotions in reality and in film. As Lakoff has pointed out (Lakoff, 2008 , pp 27–28, see also Bondebjerg, 2014 ) narratives, even complex narratives, are not just something we find in language, film and literature, they are in fact central cognitive structures of the world of fiction and non-fiction and our way of experiencing our everyday reality. Frames and scripts are cognitive schemata, and they are used all the time to structure mediated experiences and real life events. Narrative then, is in fact also a result of evolution, it is a cognitive schema we all possess and which is part of the way we understand reality and create meaning based on characters, space, events, time and causality. Life around us, the people we meet and the actions and events we are involved in are constantly interpreted by our narrative ‘gene’ to make stories of others, just as our own life and self is reflected in a constantly updated self-narrative (Bruner, 1996 and 2002 , Gottschall, 2012 ).

History, memory and film

Memory is one of the most debated issues in cognitive theory, and in memory studies more broadly. The cognitive procedures and functions of memory are crucial to our way of experiencing a coherent self over time and for our ability to navigate in the present. In a paradoxical way then, the past is in many ways a very important part of the present. Memory researchers like José van Dijck ( 2007 ) and Astrid Erll ( 2011 ) point out that our brain stores data on the past from both fiction and non fiction sources, from real life experience and mediated experience in such a way that they are mixed or interact in various ways. Stories affect our minds and memories, fiction teaches us facts about the world, and as Gottschall states: ‘fiction has probably told us as much about the world as anything else’ (Gottschall, 2012 , p 149).

Fiction needs to be taken seriously as a factor influencing the human mind and our individual and collective memory. But looking at the concept of memory, we can even take this much further. First of all, memory is extremely important both on and individual level and a collective social level. Without memory we loose feeling of who we are and our social ability to navigate in society disappears. In José van Dijck’s Mediated Memoirs in the Digital Age ( 2007 ) he simply states that:

Remembering is vital to our well-being, because without our autobiographical memories we would have no sense of past or future, and we would lack any sense of continuity. Our image of who we are (…) is never stable but it is subject to constant remodelling because our perceptions of who we are change along with our projections and desires of who we want to be (Dijck, 2007 , p 3).

He combines this observation with a reference to Susan Bluck’s ( 2003 ) definition of the three main functions of autobiographical memory: preserving the sense of being a coherent person over time; strengthening social bonds by sharing personal memories; and using past experiences to construct models to understand inner worlds of self and others.

As we all know from experience, memory is imperfect, seen from an objective point of view. We constantly forget things and happenings in the past, or we interpret the same things differently. As Gottschall formulates it: when we try to recall something in the past we are not just simply “queuing up a videotape; we recall bits of data from all around the brain. These data are then sent forward to the storytelling mind (…) who stiches and pasts the scraps and fragments into a coherent and plausible re-creation of what might have occurred’ (Gottschall, 2012 , p 169). In other words the past as it is represented in our mind is a ‘mental simulation’—not mere fiction, not without a firm base in actual past experiences, but a narrative, a ‘fictionalisation.’ The neurological, biological background for this can be found in the fact that memory is not located in one specific part of the brain, as Dijck points out:

The establishment of memory depends on the working of the entire brain network, consisting in turn of several memory systems, including semantic and episodic memory, declarative or procedural memory (…) the brain is thus the generator of reflexes, responses, drives, emotions and ultimately, feelings; memory involves both the perception of a certain body state and a certain mind state’ (Dijck, 2007 , p 31).

Memory is not just individual, it has a clear collective dimension and social function. This collective and social form of memory has always been around, but since this form of memory to a large degree includes mediated forms, the rise of audio-visual and digital media with vast archive functions have changed our access to collective memory. In an article with the title ‘ A Cognitive Taxonomy of Collective Memory’ the two cognitive psychologists David Manier and William Hirst ( 2008 ) divided the forms of collective memory into three: collective-episodic memory , the form of collective memory shared by a specific social group (including families); collective-semantic memory , the form of collective memory persons or groups can have about past and historic events and times they do not have personal experience of themselves, but where the memory is based on narratives from others and mediated narratives; Collective-procedural memory , the form of collective memory which is situated around collective and institutional rituals and thus connected with traditions of remembrance. This distinction between individual and collective memory and the different forms of memory is of course not a sharp division. The different domains and forms of memory interact in any individual’s memory. As individuals we are part of a broader social and cultural context, and collective memories—for instance in the form of mediated collective narratives—mingle with personal memories.

In modern times, after the rise of television, film and new digital media, one could argue that mediated forms of memory has become so important that it is necessary to define a new mode of public cultural memory. This is precisely what Alison Landsberg has argued—following the already mentioned work of José van Dijck—and she calls this “prosthetic memory” in her book Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (2004). She defines this form of mediated memory as something emerging “at the interface between a person and a historical narrative about the past” (Landsberg, 2004 , p 2) and she elaborates further on the nature of this merging:

In the process I am describing, the person does not simply apprehend a historical narrative but takes on a more personal, deeply felt memory of a past event through which he or she did not live. The resulting prosthetic memory has the ability to shape that person’s subjectivity and politics (ibid.)

The understanding of the brain and the biology behind the concept of the embodied mind is no longer a case for the medical sciences, for neuroscience and medicine, nor for the high tech versions of artificial intelligence. If the understanding of a cultured person used to be one that knew history, literature and the arts, one might suggest that today more than ever, we also need to know the basics of how our mind and body work. From linguistics to the creative arts, from psychology to sociology, from history and memory studies to studies of mediated networks and communication, the insight of cognitive theory has made a deep impact on traditional areas of research.

The impact of cognitive theory on for instance the humanities and social science is still heavily debated, and many researchers tend to see cognitive theory as reductionist and deterministic in the understanding of culture and society. Although such positions can be found in cognitive theory, my presentation of main tendencies in the development of the theory of the embodied mind clearly shows a different picture. It seems that most of the prolific researchers in this tradition are very much aware of the dynamic relations between the brain, the mind, and the body as a biological phenomenon and the cultural and social context. There is in fact a very nuanced understanding of the way rather firmly, evolutionary elements in our body and brain has been influenced and is constantly influenced by evolution and by our individual and group oriented cultural and social actions and experiences. Needles to say, that such a fundamental understanding of the interaction between body, brain and our social and cultural environment is based on the understanding of evolution, Darwin started. It is probably the best supported scientific hypothesis in modern history.

To just ignore cognitive and evolutionary theory would be a major mistake, the embodied mind theory is in fact one of the most promising theories in a long time. It is a theory that has the potential to make researchers from very different disciplines speak on the basis of a common framework for the understanding of man in culture and society. It is not the grand theory to end all other theories, but it is theory that in many ways celebrates and explains why humans have what Fauconnnier and Turner has described as a fantastic creative mind, and what can make the neuroscientist Anton Damasio become quite poetic:

And what is the ultimate gift of consciousness to humanity? Perhaps the ability to navigate the future in the seas of our imagination, guiding the self craft into a safe and productive harbour. The greatest of all gifts depends once again, on the intersection of the self and memory. Memory, tempered by personal feeling, is what allows humans to imagine both individual well-being and the compounded well-being of a whole society, and to invent the ways and means of achieving and magnifying that well-being (Damasio, 2012 , pp 296–97).

Cognitive science has developed into one of the most important core sciences for the understanding of the embodied, human mind. Step by step neurology uncovers new aspects of how the brain works and how the different regions and part of the brain collaborate. We know by know that it is an extremely complex, dynamic and creative brain evolution has given us, and we also know that ancient ways of understand the relation between mind and body, and between rationality and emotion can no longer be sustained. This means that cognitive science has already had fundamental influence on how we look at humans and consequently also how humans, culture and society interact. Cognitive science and the embodied mind theory has been very influential in creating link across various academic disciplines—although it is also still controversial in some parts of humanities and social science.

In this article I have tried to give an overview of basic elements in cognitive science with a special focus on key concepts like schemata in social and communicative interaction, metaphors and neural networks, narrative, creativity and memory and historical narratives. Taken from basic cognitive science such concepts have played an important role in changing the way social sciences and humanities look at culture and society. A main point in this connection is that cognitive science does not rest on a deterministic notion of the human brain, on the contrary. Cognitive science and modern neurology consider the interaction between the embodied mind and the social and cultural context to be of extreme importance. It is a highly dynamic interaction in which pre-established structures of the brain ‘negotiate’ with and constantly change and develop in connection with the experiences we have as individual, human beings in a specific cultural and social context.

As the leading American neurologist, Antonio Damasio, has stated:

Naturalising the conscious mind and planting it firmly in the brain does not diminish the role of culture in the construction of human beings, does not reduce human dignity, and does not mark the end of mystery and puzzlement. Cultures arise and evolve from collective efforts of human brains, over many generations, and some cultures even die in the process. They require brains that have already been shaped by prior cultural effects. The significance of cultures to the making of the modern human mind is not in question (Damasio, 2012 , p 29).

Data availability

Data sharing is not applicable to this paper as no datasets were analysed or generated.

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Published : 31 October 2017


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Eastern Washington women take over first place in Big Sky with 67-42 win over Northern Arizona

Four weeks after losing on the road to Northern Arizona, that defeat was still on Jamie Loera’s mind as Eastern Washington prepared for its rematch on Thursday in Cheney.

“You don’t forget the losses, for sure, but we were ready to move on,” the EWU senior said. “That game didn’t define us.”

This game, however, might have done just that.

Eastern set a program record by earning its 22nd victory of the season, dominating Northern Arizona 67-42 in a battle for first place in the Big Sky women’s basketball standings.

“That’s something you’ll always be able to cherish,” EWU coach Joddie Gleason said of setting the program record for victories in a season. “We’re not done, though.”

With four games to go, the Eagles (22-5, 12-2) have a one-game lead over the Lumberjacks (19-8, 11-3), who won the first matchup between the teams 89-81 earlier this season in Flagstaff.

The Eagles won with smothering defense, holding the Lumberjacks to season lows in points, field-goal shooting (20.9%) and assists (four).

NAU sophomore Sophie Glancey, a three-time Big Sky Player of the Week who had scored in double figures in nine of her past 10 games, scored a season-low three points and failed to make a shot from the field (0 for 7) for the first time this year.

The Lumberjacks didn’t score until 6 minutes into the game, and their 18 points in the first half were their fewest of the season. Nyah Moran led NAU with 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting from the field.

“It’s something we’re focusing on right now: throwing the first punch,” Loera said. “Our defensive stops in the first couple of minutes showed how ready we were for this game.”

Loera led the Eagles in points (15), assists (five) and steals (two). She was one of five Eagles with at least five rebounds (Loera had eight), helping the Eagles win the rebounding margin 52-42.

EWU junior Jaydia Martin grabbed a season-high 10 rebounds and finished one point shy of a double-double.

Ahead by eight at halftime, the Eagles pushed their lead to double digits in the third quarter, during which they made 7 of 13 shots from the floor and 3 of 4 3-pointers. The final shot of the quarter came from Martin, who took a cross-court pass from Loera and drained a 3 from the wing a few seconds before time expired.

That gave Eastern a 52-34 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Lumberjacks made just 3 of 20 shots from the floor over the final 10 minutes.

Gleason credited senior center Milly Knowles (four points, seven rebounds) for spearheading Eastern’s defensive effort.

“Milly is just really active,” Gleason said. “She does a nice job of meeting the post early. One of our keys was keeping them out of the lower box. If you’re closer to the basket, it’s easier to score. It seems easy, but it’s not.”

Eastern had a 30-14 scoring edge in the paint and made 15 of 16 free throws.

The Eagles are home again Saturday against Northern Colorado (13-12, 8-6) before playing at Montana (18-7, 10-4) and Montana State (14-13, 8-6) next week. They close out the regular season at home against Sacramento State on March 4.

“We’re going to celebrate today. We’re excited about this win and evening out the record with NAU,” Gleason said. “But we know we have four more really tough games.”

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