Unfortunately, and this is the only slip here, the authors seem to fall prey to the monolithic entity fallacy that is so common among people writing about creativity. In discussing the data, they show the tendency to write about creativity per se, as if there is only one kind. But the study’s results do not hold when generalized to creativity as a whole. The present experiment evokes only one specific type of creativity, one that is characterized by spontaneous generation and one that requires immediate expression in the form of motor output. There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that in other types of creativity the exact opposite brain pattern emerges. Increased activity in the DLPFC, the very area downregulated in Liu’s study, is upregulated in some forms of insightful problem solving. Sure, anecdotal stories abound that portray the creative process as effortless, ephemeral and unintentional. From Kekulé’s daydream of whirling snakes forming a (benzene) ring to Coleridge’s poem Kublai Khan, such flashes of insight are the very cliché of the creative genius.
But it only takes a moment’s reflection to see that the opposite also holds. For all the uplifting stories, the Einsteins riding on beams of light, the Newtons watching falling apples (a myth likely originating from Voltaire) or the Archimedeses displacing bathwater, creative ideas can just as easily be the result of laborious trial and error, which – clearly – requires the activation of executive processes in the DLPFC. What would we otherwise make of Edison’s “empirical dragnet” method that yielded a total of 1093 patents; Watson and Crick’s algorithmic approach to testing the stability of DNA base pairs; Bach’s assembly-line tactic to composing hundreds of cantatas; the imaginative ways in which NASA engineers solved the problems of the otherwise doomed Apollo 13 mission; or the countless occasions each one of us has converged on a creative solution by systematically eliminating alternative possibilities?
The deadly error here is seeing creativity as one thing, but not the other. When it comes to mechanistic explanations, the field of creativity is riddled with examples of such premature category formations. Open any source on the topic – academic or otherwise – and you will find creativity linked with, say, low arousal, defocused attention, right brains, unconscious processes, lateral thinking, altered states of consciousness, or mental illness, to name but a few popular duds. Commonsense alone tells us that their opposites are also sources of creative thinking. What has come into clear focus in recent years is that creativity is too complex, and too distributed in the brain, to be captured in a net held together by such ontological danglers. I hope we do not do this with the prefrontal cortex.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.