How can we be more creative? Maybe letting go of cognitive control is a way. One region of our brain, the left pre-frontal cortex, is associated with cognitive control and is active during planning and problem solving tasks. It focuses our attention and filters thoughts, memories and perceptions irrelevant for the current task. Current research now suggests that inhibiting this region in the brain and thus loosening our cognitive control is likely to make our thinking more flexible.
For inhibiting certain regions of the brain, transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, is often used nowadays. It involves passing a weak electrical charge through the brain in such a way that it intersects with areas associated with an ability or behavior and thus inhibits the function of these areas. In their study, Evangelia G. Chrysikou from the University of Kansas and her colleagues made use of this technique. They showed participants pictures of everyday objects such as a baseball bat and asked one group to give the common use of these objects, while the other group was asked to give uncommon uses of the objects. Both groups were split up into three sub-groups: One was exposed to tDCS to their left prefrontal cortex (the region associated with cognitive control) while completing the task, another received it to their right prefrontal cortex and a third was given a placebo stimulation. The authors found that those who had received tDCS to their left prefrontal cortex and thus those whose cognitive control had been suppressed did significantly better on the uncommon use generation task than the other two groups. There was no difference in the common use generation task. This means that loosening our cognitive control may facilitate flexible thinking and thus creativity!
The original study will be published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience and is available on study co-author Sharon L. Thompson-Schill’s homepage. There is an outline of the study on the homepage of the University of Pennsylvania and on PsychCentral.
Now the question is: What does this mean practically? What can we do in order to loosen our cognitive control? Researcher Evangelia G. Chrysikou gives some practical advice on Think Jar Collective. The basic idea is to shake up your typical ways of thinking. Rethink the way you categorise objects or describe them in an unusual way. For example, break your descriptions down further and further. A candle can be described as wax and wick or as string and cylindrically shaped lipids. Or perform common tasks in an uncommon way. For example, make your sandwich in a way you usually don’t prepare it. Finally, when thinking about the solution to a certain problem, take a break and do something else in between, or go to sleep.
Thus, there seem to be quite a few ways of enhancing our creativity – just try them out!