Human creativity and the beautiful neuroscience behind it

Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

One of the key drivers of my work in Artificial Intelligence is to simulate patterns in human intelligence on a computer to help people become more creative. So, to understand creativity, me and my peers took a step back to understand what makes people creative and do some things seem creative to some people and not to others.

What we learned is just amazing.

One way is to channel sad thoughts, which I wrote about in an earlier article. A portion of the brain called the Precuneus shows high levels of activations when you are mentally ill and those high levels of activations drive creativity. It is interesting because not all people with mental health issues show high levels of creativity, but only those who consciously channel their thoughts towards a creative task can express themselves differently.

But what we also understood was that creativity isn’t constrained to mental health and that the Precuneus can show high levels of activations when you are doing anything creative; even when you are daydreaming or just surfing on social media. To understand this, we must first understand the decision-making capability of our brain and how a person perceives another person’s creative work.

One of the reasons why we’ve made great strides in Artificial Intelligence in the past decade is because we’ve tried simulating the workings of our brain on a computer. In the current research, the common denominator in everything AI is something known as pattern recognition. And that is how the brain functions too. Every second you are alive, your brain is receiving information from the various sensory organs and changing the way the neurons are connected to each other. This is known as neuroplasticity. The term is counter-intuitive because the brain isn’t plastic, but rather keeps continuously changing itself. The intensity of change differs based on what information the brain is currently receiving from the outside world and based on what information you have previously received throughout your life, which is known in the neuroscience community by the term perception.

By measuring this change, we can understand what is going on in your brain when you are doing any activity and that is the base of most research in neuroscience today.

Every time you do something, internally your brain asks a bunch of questions and receives its answer based on your previous experience, i.e, your perceptions and previous assumptions. This involves simple actions like moving your legs to take a step forward to move from one room to another. But you aren’t consciously aware of that.

So, the brain can be defined as a very fast prediction machine that can answer some questions based on your perception and allows you to make conscious decisions. Every time you make a conscious decision, it involves a thousand other decisions made by the brain, but you are not aware of it. These decisions taken by the brain is based on the previous data retrieved from your sensory organs.

Let’s take a simple example to understand it concretely. When you move your legs, your brain tries to answer questions like ‘Am I going to fall down?’, ‘Is there a hole there?’, ‘Is that area hard enough to withstand my weight?’, etc. The brain tries to answer questions like these based on your previous assumptions and you never consciously know that your brain is doing something like that. Remember, your brain asks questions like these even for simple tasks like these and I can only imagine the kind of questions your brain tries to answer during much more complex tasks.

Before we move towards understanding creativity, we need to understand other behaviour of our brain.

Based on many experiments, we’ve come to know that the brain hates uncertainty. Everything that we do today is to ensure that we move from a more uncertain terrain of thoughts to a more certain terrain of thoughts that your brain is comfortable with. Your brain feels comfortable when it is presented with information that aligns with our previous assumptions and perception. When your brain is confronted with uncertainty, i.e, when your brain is presented with information that doesn’t align with your previous assumptions and perception, your brain works strangely to ensure that it can move towards a more certain terrain of thoughts.

This explains why we are against politicians who change their viewpoints based on evidence because we hate this uncertainty. But, can the brain be so elastic that people can make huge changes in their viewpoints and perception based on a shred of single evidence?

The answer is no. We need to talk about pattern recognition and the brain’s cohesiveness towards uncertainty together to understand creativity.

Creativity is when you see something different from a different perspective right? But, if every question and every decision that your brain takes is based on your previous assumptions, then how can your brain understand something from different perspectives. That is why creativity begins when you are ready to challenge your assumptions with questions.

Every creative thought begins with a question like, ‘What if?’ or ‘Why not?’ or ‘Why can’t it be this way?’. However, this places us in a conundrum because questioning your assumptions places your brain in an uncertain terrain which causes the brain to behave in some unpredictable manner.

A simple example of this is confirmation bias. When you read something that challenges your previous assumptions, you place your brain in uncertain territory and a quick way for it to move towards a more certain territory is to make you gather the information that can try to confirm your existing biases. Only when the brain is unable to convince itself to move towards a more certain terrain with new data, it reorganizes certain neurons to change its perception. If that is so, can I present scientific evidence that disproves a popular misconception, will their brains immediately rewire its perception?

The answer is no, again. The brain can only make incremental changes to its realm of thoughts and perceptions. If you want to get from one end of the room to the other end, you can’t just directly teleport, you can only take incremental steps and move. Similarly, the brain requires data to be fed incrementally to the brain for it to rewire itself. This is one of the key properties of the brain and neuroplasticity.

Remember, the amount of data required for someone to question themselves and get a new perspective for a specific question, varies from person to person. And that depends on their earlier perceptions and their previous encounters to data that they have been fed.

The previous three paragraphs are important because it tells us that the neuronal connections in the brain differ from person to person, and we perceive things differently because we consumed different information from different sources throughout our lives. Let’s place all that I just explained together and see what we get.

Please pay more attention when you read the next set of paragraphs (you might even have to read it twice).

Any creative process starts with us looking something from a different perspective. And, for us to look at anything from a different perspective, we need to question our assumptions. By questioning our assumptions and perceptions we think and generate new data which reorganizes the neurons in our brain. However, remember that the brain can only make incremental changes to itself. So, by questioning your assumptions you slightly modify your neuronal connections and finally, you can do something that is assumed to be creative. I’ll explain why I used the word ‘assumed’ later.

Here is where things get interesting. Assume that a person wrote a poem. For the person who wrote that poem, it might not seem like a huge accomplishment because that person just took an incremental step towards understanding something from a different perspective. For that person, moving from perspective A to perspective B after questioning their initial assumptions is just an incremental step in modifying their assumptions, which is quite normal.

However, this isn’t the same for someone else reading the same poem. The neuronal connections in the brain of the reader vastly differ from the person who wrote it. And the reason behind this is, as explained before, we all learn and retrieve various kinds of information and hence the way our neurons are connected in the brain vary drastically. For the reader, reading the poem isn’t a simple incremental step from perspective A to perspective B because the reader’s initial assumptions and perceptions are much different. When you are presented (here, it is the poem) with something that varies too much from the way that your brain is wired, your brain is now placed in a very uncertain region, making it unstable. To get back to its more stable region, your brain awes at the ‘creativity’ of the person. However, for the person who wrote that poem, it was just an incremental step in modifying his/her perceptions and views. That is the big reveal ;)

Yeah, thats all creativity is about. Remember I used to word ‘assume’ before? I used it because, for the person who is doing something creative, their work isn’t a huge accomplishment at all. They have just made an incremental step after questioning their own assumptions. However, for a person who is looking at someone else’s creative work, it only seems creative because of the variations in the neuronal connections in the brain.

When I read about this almost a year and a half ago, I was baffled. It is one of the most interesting things that I have ever read in Neuroscience.

In the next article, I’ll discuss more about neuroplasticity and how understanding neuroplasticity can create huge opportunities not just in the medical field, but also in other fields as well.

Educator. Opinionated. INFP/INTJ.

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Praveen Benedict

Praveen Benedict

Educator. Opinionated. INFP/INTJ.

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