How do scientists capture the euphoric flights of creativity? The answer to this question led to surprising, some might say shocking, evidence of the human brain's capacity for invention, and quite possibly reinvention. The cerebellum, long considered a drudge-like region of the brain, performs its own unique dance in the creative process, say researchers from Stanford’s School of Medicine and the d.school (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design). Their new study also suggests that trying too hard can block, rather than increase, the inspirational flow.

You can’t exactly command people to alight on an original thought or two while they lie on a cold, hard MRI bed. Considering this problem, Dr. Manish Saggar, a co-author of the study and instructor at the d.school, figured it would be best to simply trick people into revealing their imaginations. With this in mind, he borrowed an idea or two from Pictionary, a game that requires players to draw instead of say words, when designing his experiment.

After selecting a few verbs, Saggar and his colleagues tracked the brain activity of 14 men and 16 women who drew the words while lying in an MRI chamber. For each word, participants improvised an illustration in the allotted time of just 30 seconds — time enough for a decent brain scan but not enough time for anyone to get bored. For comparison, participants also drew a quick zigzag line, an action requiring fine-motor control but minimal creativity. When finished, participants rated the difficulty of drawing each word.

When the experiment concluded, the researchers gathered all the drawings and rated each on five-point scales of appropriateness (the accuracy of depiction) and creativity (elaborateness and originality of design).

Finally, the researchers sat down with drawings and scans and began to compare and discuss, review and analyze. Meanwhile, the hands on the clock spun round and round and the number of coffee rings increased beside the half-eaten sandwiches littering the desks.

Curiouser and Curiouser

A number of brain areas showed more activity when subjects drew words rather than the simple zigzag lines, the MRI scans indicated. In fact, peak activation occurred in the cerebellum and regions of the prefrontal cortex.

The difficult words, as rated by the participants, correlated with increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which is involved in attention, evaluation, and executive function (including decision-making and control of emotions).

Meanwhile, the highest scores for creativity (as assigned by the raters) linked to low activity in this brain region along with greater activation in the cerebellum. The cerebellum, which means "little brain" in Latin, accounts for about 10 percent of the total brain’s volume while containing more than half the total number of neurons. Considered a motor structure, the cerebellum does a lot of unglamorous work, such as helping us maintain our posture and balance.

The cerebellum's unexpected contribution to creativity astonished the researchers.

Perhaps they should not have been so surprised by the Cinderella cerebellum. After all, recent research indicates the cerebellum connects not only to the motor cortex, but also to other areas of the cortex. For this reason, Saggar and his colleagues speculate the cerebellum may act as the coordination center, allowing other brain regions to be more efficient. As the front cortical regions of the brain make initial attempts to acquire a new behavior, the researchers theorized, the cerebellum may take over and begin to model and perfect the new behavior, relieving the cortex of that burden and so freeing it up for new challenges.

Considering all the evidence, Saggar highlighted the results from the zigzag line comparison. The effort required to produce a creative outcome definitely involves more activity in the prefrontal cortex, but, as the highest scores for creativity showed, too much activity in those regions did not achieve the most imaginative results.

“The more you think about it, the more you mess it up,” Saggar said in a press release. Moral of the story: never, ever force it.

Source: Saggar M, Quintin EM, Kienitz E, et al. Pictionary-based fMRI paradigm to study the neural correlates of spontaneous improvisation and figural creativity. Scientific Reports. 2015.