In the last 50 years there has been increased focus on the scientific study of daydreaming. Most researchers identify similar themes: the striking continuity between night dreaming and day dreaming and the ability of creative people to harness this continuity. Neuroscience has allowed us to take this research to new and creative heights by identifying what actually occurs in the brain of day dreamers and it’s links to creativity.
As we drift off to sleep, our working memory network, consisting primarily of the lateral frontal and parietal cortices, switches off. This brain network is the one that involves attention to the outside world, immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing. Once this brain network deactivates our default brain network takes over; also referred to as the resting brain. It involves aspects of our self, such as our self representations, dreams, imagination, current concerns, autobiographical memory and perspective taking ability. The default network involves our most inner streams of consciousness. Interestingly, those with higher default brain network activity during rest have a tendency to day dream more frequently.
When most of us awaken, our working memory brain network re-engages, and our default brain network withers into the background. In most people the working memory network and default network ‘anti correlate’ with each other, meaning that when one network is activated the other is deactivated. This is definitely a good thing! Proper connectivity between the two networks allows people to know when to distinguish between pure fantasy (their inner stream of consciousness) and reality (the external world). But that’s most people…
Schizophrenics tend to have an overactive default network. Creative folks also exhibit an overactive default network. Prior research has suggested that the thing that seems to differentiate creative but functional individuals and those with mental illnesses is that creatives have the ability to engage their default network and working memory network simultaneously. Those who lose grip on reality and become paranoid and delusional have let the floodgates down, so to speak, letting too much of their default network control their attention.
Researchers investigated the functional brain characteristics of participants while they engaged in a working memory task. No participants had a history of neurological or psychiatric illness, all had intact working memory abilities. They administered two different versions of the same working memory task during an fMRI scanning session, one vision requiring much more concentration than the other. The more difficult working memory task required constant updating of information in memory while having to resist distraction.
They also explored creativity and the default brain network by asking participants to display their creativity in a number of ways. They had to generate unique ways of using a typical object, imagine desirable functions in ordinary objects and imagine the consequences of unimaginable things happening. These tests have previously been linked to openness to experience and frequency of visual hypnagogic experiences (e.g. Lucid dreaming, hallucinations) which in turn have been linked to vividness of mental imagery.
The researchers found that the more creative the participant, the more activity in their default mode network was altered. Particularly, creative individuals had difficulty suppressing the preceneus area of their default network while engaging in the more effortful working memory task. The preceneus is the area of the default network that typically displays the highest levels of activation during rest (when a person is not focusing on an external task). Creatives exhibit more activation in this area than those that are not, and so do those with schizophrenia. The preceneus has been linked to self-related mental representations and episodic memory retrieval.
How is it conducive to creativity? Researchers state that an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks. Intriguingly, prior research has shown a similar inability to deactivate the default network among those with working memory deficits, as well as schizophrenic individuals and their relatives (who are more likely to have schizotypy). The key to functional creativity then seems to be the ability to keep ones internal stream of consciousness ‘on call’ while being able to concentrate on a task.
Jonah Lerner discusses the importance of daydreaming and distractions for creativity. He mentions a recent study showing that A.D.H.D. is associated with creative acheivement. A Harvard study found a sample of high I.Q. individuals that were eminent creative achievers were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition. Latent inhibition is a filtering mechanism that we share with other animals, and it is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine. It involves the ability to consider something as relevant even if it was previously tagged as irrelevant. A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novelty, no matter how many times we’ve seen it before.
However, latent inhibition is not related to cognitive style; intelligence and latent inhibition seem to be independent abilities. Those with a reduced latent inhibition have more confidence in their intuitions! This is likely down to the fact that those with a reduced latent inhibition actually have more accurate intuitions. It is not a measure of distractibility, latent inhibition tasks measure a form of mental flexibility. It’s not that people who have a reduced latent inhibition always treat the irrelevant as relevant; it’s just that they consider everything as potentially relevant. And this is conducive to creativity because sometimes the seemingly irrelevant is relevant.
How can this research impact our lives? We need to broaden our definition of ‘productive’ thinking. For too long we’ve assumed that every thought process that is not focused attention is a waste of time. We have trained our children to believe that the only way to succeed is to stare at the blackboard or to fixate on the lesson plan. That may not be the way.
It’s reflected in how teachers view their students. A study showed that although teachers said they wanted a classroom full of creatives they were mistaken. In fact, when the teachers were asked to rate their students on a variety of personality measures – the list included everything from ‘individualistic’ to ‘risk-seeking’ to ‘accepting authority’. The traits most closely aligned with creative thinking were also closely associated with their least favourite students.
Judgements for the favourite students were negatively correlated with creativity; judgements for the least favourite students were positively correlated with creativity
The classroom then is not designed for impulsive expression – that’s known as talking out of turn. Instead it’s all about obeying group dynamics and paying strict attention. Those are important life skills of course but psychological research seems to suggest such skills have little to do with creativity.