Creativity Can Seem Like Magic

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Problems that seem impossible can sometimes be solved with a flash of insight:

Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounios has identified where that flash probably came from. In the seconds before the insight appears, a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity. This region, located on the surface of the right hemisphere, excels at drawing together distantly related information, which is precisely what’s needed when working on a hard creative problem.

Interestingly, Mr. Beeman and his colleagues have found that certain factors make people much more likely to have an insight, better able to detect the answers generated by the aSTG. For instance, exposing subjects to a short, humorous video — the scientists use a clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up — boosts the average success rate by about 20%.

Alcohol also works. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and intoxicated students. [...] Drunk students solved nearly 30% more of these word problems than their sober peers.

What explains the creative benefits of relaxation and booze? The answer involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention.

When we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking, we’re often right:

If there is no feeling of knowing, the most productive thing we can do is forget about work for a while. But when those feelings of knowing are telling us that we’re getting close, we need to keep on struggling.

Creativity can seem like magic, Jonah Lehrer says, but it’s not. I’m not sure how he can conclude that there’s no such thing as a creative type though.


  1. Kent says:

    Not sure what humorous videos and Robin Williams have to do with each other.

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