The Neuroscience Behind the Creative Brain
When we think about the brain and how it works, we often think about the hemispheres. One of the first questions that comes to mind is, “Are you left brained or right brained?” In fact, just searching the term on the internet will give you an onslaught of personality tests to learn your “predominant hemisphere” better.
You’ll know if you use your brain mostly through a creative or imaginative drive or through analytical reasoning and logic. Because once you know that, you’ll be able to know how to learn better, teach better, and harness your cognition, right? Nope, not quite. However popular this train of thought is, it is not entirely accurate.
If you read this blog frequently, you already know that using both hemispheres together is the way to go, inside and outside of the classroom. Crossing the corpus callosum engages the full brain to increase focus, memory, creativity, problem solving skills, and more.
(see these posts for more on that):
Genius is often most associated with having this type of brain. But does that mean that only creative brains can be genius and good at all things? What exactly does it mean to have these types of neuroconnections? Early psychologist and researcher, Frank X. Barron decided to try and tackle these questions in a historical study at the University of California - Berkeley campus. Here were some of his findings:
● IQ alone could not explain the creative spark
● Creativity uses a host of intellectual, emotional, motivational and moral characteristics
● A preference for complexity and ambiguity
● An unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray
● Ability to extract order from chaos
● Willingness to take risks
Barron realized that creative brains had a mixed bag of traits, he concluded, “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person” (source).
So, what is the neuroscience behind this creative brain?
There are many facets to creativity and that’s why it is a process that utilizes your entire brain. Another psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, spent more than 3 decades studying it. He concluded “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’” Different neural networks are activated when different tasks are being completed. However, a more creative brain accesses each one a little differently.
Executive Attention Network
Since it's recruited when the brain requires attention that is highly focused, this network is most likely active when concentrating on complex problem solving, listening to a challenging lecture, or heavy reasoning (most math classes!)
This network is involved in using personal past experiences to create mental simulations, thinking about the future and general imagination of possible scenarios that occur in daily life. Also, it is used in social cognition when we’re trying to assess what someone else is thinking.
We need to constantly monitor the external events of our lives with our steady internal stream of consciousness. Depending on what information is the most salient to solving the task at hand, this network takes the reigns.
This effect is similar to the effect that coloring, doodling, and sketching while learning a new math concept can offer. Strategies like doodle notes and other visual note-taking methods help student brains to shift between these networks. We can activate neurons from each category to increase the brain’s effectiveness and give student creativity a boost.
Of course this is just a tip to the iceberg of understanding the depth of our creative cognitive abilities. It’s still good to know that our creativity has better roots than just one side of our brain. It takes both sides of brain, working together in networks to have creative thought.
And sometimes, those same creative minds lead us to the most fundamental discoveries in geometry, physics, and more.
This is why we should not hesitate to teach math creatively! Allow students to tap into the different levels of thinking.
Check out these resources that cross the two hemispheres of the brain and incorporate these neural networks to maximize creativity, learning, and retention (click the images for links):