Creativity and the Brain
By Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D.

Creativity involves many parts of the brain.

Key points

  • The book The Creative Act argues that creativity is a skill we can all use daily.
  • Creativity is complex and involves multiple brain regions.
  • School experience can influence creativity.
I recently finished reading an interesting book by Rick Rubin, The Creative Act: A Way of Being. (I was not paid and never met the author.) One of the clear messages of this book is that creativity belongs to everyone, not only to artists, and that we can be creative many times in our everyday lives. I agree. For example, right now, I am “creating” a new post.

This book inspired me to find out what is going on in the human brain that results in creativity. As I started reading research papers, it turned out to be a very complex and complicated subject. That is mainly because it is difficult to define creativity clearly. It is a rather subjective and multidimensional field. Also, many research papers study different kinds of creative processes, such as visual art, music, creative thinking, etc.

It is impossible to cover such a complex subject in one post. Coming from the field of cognitive processes, I decided to concentrate on research related to brain activity involved in creative thought processes. Most of the time, cognitive creativity involves testing the person’s divergent thinking (generating possible solutions to the problem) or convergent thinking (finding a single, correct solution to the problem). Brain activity is usually measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which looks at the function of the brain.
Image by David_SMC/Pixabay
Image by David_SMC/Pixabay

In a Canadian study (Sunavsky, A. and Poppenk, J. 2022), 69 participants ages 22-35 were administered visual and verbal tests of divergent thinking, creative achievement, and behavior inventories. The participants also had a whole-body MRI scan and FMRI. The results indicated that the cerebellum (this is an interesting finding because the cerebellum mainly coordinates body movements) and parahippocampal gyrus (involved in memory encoding and retrieval) are involved in creative processes. Also, the executive control network (in simple terms, it involves planning, organizing, problem-solving, and decision-making) and the default mode network (areas of the brain that are activated when we are letting our minds wander at rest) interactions facilitate creative processes.

In a French study (Ovando-Tellez, M. et al. 2022), the researchers investigated the neural and cognitive basis of creative behavior in real life. The 94 participants, ages 22-37, completed fMRI while performing semantic relatedness judgment tasks. They judged the relatedness between all possible pairs of 35 words (595 ratings). The subjects also completed an inventory of creative activities and achievements.

One of the findings of this elaborate study indicated that efficient and denser functional connectivity between the default, control, salience (this network is involved in the awareness of the feelings associated with rewards), and visual network predicted a more integrated semantic memory structure and more creative behaviors. Generally speaking, creative thinking and creative abilities are related to the organization of associations in semantic memory. Simply, it includes memories of general knowledge, i.e., how to use a phone, facts, names, and concepts. Creative people easily link distant concepts.

A study (Beaty, R.E. et al. 2018) was completed at the University of North Carolina (UNCG). The 163 participants (mean age 22.5) were engaged in a creativity task (divergent thinking task, imagining a new and unusual use of the common object) and control task while the fMRI was completed. The results indicated that high creativity is related to functional brain connectivity within the default, silence, and executive brain systems.

The above research data brings us to the question of whether the creative thinking process can be taught. A study from Switzerland (Duval, Ph. E. et al. 2023) tried to answer that question. The researchers assessed creative thinking in 75 children (4-18 years old) enrolled either in Montessori (it promotes independence and holistic development) or traditional schools. The children performed a creativity task (convergent thinking task, integrating objects to make a drawing) and a six-minute resting state MRI scan. The research indicates that school experience does play a role in creativity development. Montessori-schooled children consistently scored higher on a creativity task. The study also unveiled the important role of the salience network (SN) in the creative thinking processes across development.

In summary, creative thinking (convergent and divergent thinking) requires the coordination of multiple brain regions, mainly the executive control network (it involves planning, organizing, problem-solving, and decision-making), default mode network (areas of the brain that are activated when we are letting our minds wander at rest) and salience network (involved in the awareness of the feelings associated with rewards) but obviously other parts of the brain are also involved and this depends on the specific goal or outcome that we want to achieve.

How to be more creative? Well, this is a subject for another post.

About the Author

Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.

Dr. Barbara Koltuska-Haskin has received her first foreign translation. How My Brain Works was recently translated into Polish and published in Poland.



Rick Rubin “The Creative Act: A Way of Being”. Penguin Press, NY 2023.
Sunavsky, A & Poppenk,J. “Neuroimaging predictors of creativity in healthy adults” Neuroimage, Vol. 206, Feb. 2022
Ovando-Tellez, al. “Brain connectivity-based predictors of real life creativity is mediated by semantic memory structure.” Science Advances, Vol 8. Issue 5, 2022.


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