Different parts of the brain function to create new ideas and problem solve, while other parts are a type of 'check' on the system screening out noise and irrelevant ideas, perceptions and memories so that they do not interfere with the task at hand. Researchers wanted to know what effect temporarily disabling this filter would have on the creativity of people and if it could help with tasks where creativity was advantageous.
Previous research in the field showed that the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, is important in cognitive control. Dr. Sharon Thompson-Schill and her team from the University of Pennsylvania speculated that if they could inhibit this specific section of the brain they might be bale to make people more creative in certain tasks.
The team used a non-invasive method called transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. The device used in this method sends a weak electrical signal through the skull to the brain aimed at a particular part of the brain in order to affect behavior. This electrical disruption influences the electrical signals that individual neurons send to each other and can diminish cell-cell communication in those areas.
They focused the device on part of the prefrontal cortex and participants in the study were shown everyday objects and asked to quickly come up with a use for the object that was out of the ordinary. For instance, participants would see a picture of a hat and could come up with a use for it such as a water pitcher. 60 objects would each be seen for 9 seconds each and would be rated on how long they took to come up with the use, if they could do so at all.
"When we use objects in daily life, our cognitive control helps us focus on what the object is typically used for and 'filters out' irrelevant properties," Dr. Chrysikou who was a researcher on the study said. "However, to come up with the idea of using a baseball bat as a rolling pin, you have to consider things like its shape and the material it's made of."
"The real takeaway," Dr. Thompson-Schill said, "is that when you give people a task for which they do not know the goal - such as showing them an object and asking, 'What else can you do with this thing' - anything that they would normally do to filter out irrelevant information about the object will hurt their ability to do the task."
The device did not affect the abilities of participants recalling series of numbers, a task that is not controlled by the prefrontal cortex.
Dr. Thompson-Shiller concludes, "There are things that are important to not filter, in particular when you are learning. If you throw out information about your environment as being irrelevant, you miss opportunities to learn about those things."
To see some examples of the objects used in the test and test your creativity, click here.
The research published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience can be found here.