Can we hack the brain to make it more creative?
I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process. That’s to say, how something unique gets created from scratch. So today I’m in a recording studio in Chester PA, with my homie Kai “Franchise” Harris. He’s the CEO of his own hip hop production company, Kpod Entertainment. Franchise notes, “I see people, diamonds in the rough, little bit of pressure, little bit of work, and it pays off, hopefully.”
We’ve got three of his artists and we’re brainstorming lyrics for a new track. Franchise and his team are constantly making songs. So I wanted to get his take on the creative process. He told me, “I think of myself as an inker. The artist comes and draws it, and you pretty much just trace and highlight what they already put there, and bring some depth to it.”
I asked rapper Quann Rakz about how he writes a verse. “I listen to the beat. I listen to the beat a couple times, I let it marinate,” he noted. What exactly happens when you let an idea “marinate?” What’s going on in the brain? Well sometimes the best way to understand a process is to study when it goes wrong.
I asked Quann and Franchise about the times when they hit a creative wall. “That happens all the time, man,” Quann said.
Franchise: “It feels like, for a hot second, you’re a fraud. That everything that you ever did was BS, and it doesn’t matter and everyone’s going to realize the emperor has no clothes on.”
“So what do you do? “I go take a break,” said Quann. “I give it some time. I can’t force it. You force something on there, I’m gonna put something on there I might not like.”
And that’s the thing about coming up with a new idea—you can’t force it. It just has to…appear. And no amount of practice or repetition can help. Here’s the beatmaker, Dirty Red: “You know you can sit outside and shoot a thousand jump shots. Maybe tomorrow, your jump shot might be a little better, but you can sit in your bedroom and put a thousand kick drums on your joint, but don’t none of em sound hot, none of em sound the way you want it to.”
Sometimes it feels like the more you really need to be creative, the more difficult it is. And then once you’ve given up, the answer will appear out of nowhere. Red agrees, “It can come from everywhere, you might be on the bus, in the shower or asleep, you know what I’m sayin? And it can hit you!”
What exactly is going on in the brain when you need to be creative? What stops a unique idea from bubbling to the surface? Can we hack the brain to make it more creative? These are the questions that bring me… here. I’m a subject in a science experiment, but this isn’t your everyday science experiment. That’s because this experiment involves sending an electric current through my brain.
I’m at the University of Pennsylvania, with cognitive psychologist Sharon Thompson-Schill. She’s interested in the part of the brain right under your forehead – the frontal lobes. Thompson-Schill states, “So my group has been studying the function of the frontal lobes of the human brain for a couple of decades now, and the best way to describe the frontal lobes is that they’re a lot like a CEO of a company. Strategy, goal setting, goal following, things like that. Another metaphor that I use in thinking about the frontal lobes that relates to what an executive does is that they help filter information. Our frontal lobes help us prioritize what we’re going to pay attention to in the world, what we’re going to think about, what we’re not going to think about.”
Having mature frontal lobes are a huge part of what makes us human. It’s the major reason we’re able to control our impulses, plan our actions, filter out all the distractions, and basically not punch people in the face every time they annoy us. “And that is obviously good,” notes Thompson-Schill. “It’s good to have a CEO of a company, it’s really good to have a central executive of your brain. Our interest was in whether there are advantages to having immature frontal lobe.”
Could it be that the frontal lobes hinder our ability to be creative? Creativity requires a certain impulsivity. You can’t be afraid of sounding crazy, you can’t filter what comes in or comes out, you have to let go. And having a CEO watching your every move… might make that tough.
“One idea we have,” says Dr. Thompson-Schill, “and this is really in uncharted territory here, is when you have to think outside the box, one of the things you have to do is turn off the normal tendency you have to quickly categorize everything as a particular object with a particular purpose.”
In other words, you need to turn down the frontal lobes. A quick and easy way to do that is to flood them with an electric current, and temporarily shuts it down. The technique is called tDCS. And that’s why we are taping electrodes to my skull. “Lets turn down the left frontal cortex, and we think it’s going to turn down your tendency to categorize things, and that then is going to free you to think more creatively,” says Schill.
Which brings us back to Dr. Thompson-Schill’s experiment. She divided participants into groups – some had the tDCS current going through their prefrontal cortex, and some had a fake electrode with no current at all. She showed them a common object, and she asked them to name the common use for them. For example an ironing board is to iron clothes. And as you’d expect, everyone did well on that across the board. But then, she asked them to come up with an uncommon use for the object. Something unique you could do with that object. I found this to be surprisingly difficult.
They measured two things. One was how long it took the participants to come up with a response and the second was how many times they failed to come up with a response. And here’s where the frontal lobe, specifically the L prefrontal cortex, showed itself. The results showed that dialing down the PFC actually made it easier to come up with a unique use for an object. Dr. Thompson-Schill notes, “We were able to cut that failure rate in half by stimulation to left frontal cortex and we shaved a full second off that response time.”
So temporarily drowning the CEO actually freed up the brain to be creative. I began picturing a day in the not too distant future, where we would have board room meetings with creative helmets. “So I just like to be careful,” Thompson-Schill countered, “this is what scientists do, in being really clear that there’s just this one aspect of creative cognition that we’re talking about.” And that’s the ability to think outside the box, and to not be so fixated on one particular categorization or association that you have.
But there’s a much bigger mystery here. Schill elaborates, “The frontal lobes develop late, and I when I say late I mean very, very late. You don’t start to see what looks like normal cortical functioning until around age 3. And you don’t start to see the frontal lobe be completely connected to other parts of the brain until around age 20 for women and, I don’t know, 42 for men. So there’s lots of un-interesting reasons why that could be. It could be some part has to be last, it just happens to be the frontal lobes, but what fueled my curiosity about this is that in nonhuman primates for which there’s so many similarities, the frontal lobes develop at the same time as other brain areas.
And the major difference between us and our primate friends? Language. “Our actual argument,” continues Schill, “is that throughout evolution there was an advantage for young humans who had a delayed frontal cortex because of language acquisition. Now we have no data on this so this is where I stop being a scientist and start being a story teller. But the story is this: that language acquisition is hindered when you have this central executive in place.”
Because language acquisition requires that you extract knowledge… from a very noisy world. Children, who have little impulse control or planning abilities, are extracting much more from their environment than we are. “I remember when my oldest daughter was about a year and a half,” Thompson-Schill recalls, “and we were walking outside and she said, ‘Plane.’ And I said, ‘No that’s a car.’ You know, there was a car right in front of me. And she said ‘plane’ again, insistently. And then at some point, when I stopped being an insistent mother and just listened, far off in the distance, there was a plane. So what was going on there? She was just as likely to notice that plane as she was to notice that car right in front of her. Whereas for me, all of that is filtered.”
In a society that puts a lot of value on the frontal lobes, maybe we should take a minute to appreciate when it’s turned down. Dr. Thompson Schill concludes, “I think it’s really important that as scientists and society that we recognize that both ends of that distribution are good. What we see is the behavior. And the behavior of people who have a revved up frontal cortex is easier to manage, it’s easier to understand, you could call it better, it feels like it’s better for lots of things. And so there’s a tendency to shift everyone to that end of the distribution. And that other half of the distribution of people who have less frontal maturity, who have less of the chemicals that our frontal lobes use, they might not sit in their chair in class, they might not do their homework. Their employer gives them some goals, they might not meet them. And so there’s this tendency to say, if we could give them a drug or give them a procedure or do something make their performance better. All I want people to think about is that maybe there’s a cost to that. There might be some reason that having people in society that have less frontal control is actually a good thing.”