Scientists improve people's creativity through electrical brain stimulation

June 7, 2017, Queen Mary, University of London
The participants were asked to solve 'matchstick problems' to test their creative problem solving ability Credit: Dr Luft/QMUL

Scientists have found a way to improve creativity through brain stimulation, according to researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and Goldsmiths University of London.

They achieved this by temporarily suppressing a key part of the frontal brain called the left (DLPFC), which is involved in most of our thinking and reasoning.

The results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, show that participants who received the intervention showed an enhanced ability to 'think outside the box'.

"We solve problems by applying rules we learn from experience, and the DLPFC plays a key role in automating this process," commented Dr Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, first author from QMUL's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences who conducted the research while previously working at Goldsmiths University of London, with Dr Michael Banissy and Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya.

"It works fine most of the time, but fails spectacularly when we encounter new problems which require a new style of thinking - our past experience can indeed block our creativity. To break this mental fixation, we need to loosen up our learned rules," added Dr Luft.

The researchers used a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which involved passing a weak constant electrical current through saline-soaked electrodes positioned over the scalp to modulate the excitability of the DLPFC. Depending on the direction of the current flow, DLPFC was temporarily suppressed or activated. The very low currents applied ensured that it would not cause any harm or unpleasant sensation.

Sixty participants were tested on their creative problem solving ability before and after receiving one of the following interventions: DLPFC being suppressed, DLPFC being activated, and DLPFC being unstimulated. The participants solved "matchstick problems", some of which are hard, because to solve these problems, participants need to relax the learnt rules of arithmetic and algebra.

The participants whose DLPFC was temporarily suppressed by the electrical stimulation were more likely to solve hard problems than other participants whose DLPFC was activated or not stimulated. This demonstrates that suppressing DLPFC briefly can help breaking mental assumptions learned from experience and thinking outside the box.

But the researchers also observed that these participants got worse at solving problems with a higher working memory demand (where many items are needed to be held in mind at once). These problems require the participants to try a number of different moves until finding the solution, which means they have to keep track of their mental operations.

"These results are important because they show the potential of improving mental functions relevant for by non-invasive methods," commented Dr Luft.

"However, our results also suggest that potential applications of this technique will have to consider the target cognitive effects in more detail rather than just assuming tDCS can improve cognition as claimed by some companies which are starting to sell tDCS machines for home users," she added.

"I would say that we are not yet in a position to wear an electrical hat and start stimulating our brain hoping for a blanket cognitive gain."

Explore further: No evidence that brain-stimulation technique boosts cognitive training: study

More information: 'Relaxing learned constraints through cathodal tDCS on the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex'. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, Ioanna Zioga, Michael J Banissy, and Joydeep Bhattacharya. Scientific Reports.

Related Stories

No evidence that brain-stimulation technique boosts cognitive training: study

May 25, 2017
Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS)—a non-invasive technique for applying electric current to areas of the brain—may be growing in popularity, but new research suggests that it probably does not add any meaningful ...

Brain stimulation to reduce food cravings? The data so far...

July 19, 2016
Available research suggests that noninvasive stimulation of a specific brain area can reduce food cravings—particularly for high-calorie, "appetitive" foods, according to a review in the Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal ...

This is your brain on snacks: Brain stimulation affects craving and consumption

September 15, 2014
Magnetic stimulation of a brain area involved in "executive function" affects cravings for and consumption of calorie-dense snack foods, reports a study in the September issue of Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral ...

Study finds brain marker of poor memory in schizophrenia patients

April 4, 2016
A new study has identified a pattern of brain activity that may be a sign of memory problems in people with schizophrenia. The biomarker, which the researchers believe may be the first of its kind, is an important step toward ...

Stimulating the brain makes exercising the legs feel easier

November 1, 2016
Research led by the University of Kent shows stimulation of the brain impacts on endurance exercise performance by decreasing perception of effort.

Recommended for you

New neurons in the adult brain are involved in sensory learning

February 23, 2018
Although we have known for several years that the adult brain can produce new neurons, many questions about the properties conferred by these adult-born neurons were left unanswered. What advantages could they offer that ...

Do you see what I see? Researchers harness brain waves to reconstruct images of what we perceive

February 22, 2018
A new technique developed by neuroscientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough can, for the first time, reconstruct images of what people perceive based on their brain activity gathered by EEG.

Biomarker, clues to possible therapy found in novel childhood neurogenetic disease

February 22, 2018
Researchers studying a rare genetic disorder that causes severe, progressive neurological problems in childhood have discovered insights into biological mechanisms that drive the disease, along with early clues that an amino ...

Neuroscientists discover a brain signal that indicates whether speech has been understood

February 22, 2018
Neuroscientists from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Rochester have identified a specific brain signal associated with the conversion of speech into understanding. The signal is present when the listener has ...

Study in mice suggests personalized stem cell treatment may offer relief for multiple sclerosis

February 22, 2018
Scientists have shown in mice that skin cells re-programmed into brain stem cells, transplanted into the central nervous system, help reduce inflammation and may be able to help repair damage caused by multiple sclerosis ...

A look at the space between mouse brain cells

February 22, 2018
Between the brain's neurons and glial cells is a critical but understudied structure that's been called neuroscience's final frontier: the extracellular space. With a new imaging paradigm, scientists can now see into and ...

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jun 07, 2017
"The very low currents applied ensured that it would not cause any harm or unpleasant sensation."

I'm not sure if one were to apply this over long periods of time (e.g. as a 'lifestyle gadget') whether this wouldn't have (negative) lasting effects.

Don't screw with your brains. It's the only thing you cannot do without.
RealScience
not rated yet Jun 07, 2017
"The very low currents applied ensured that it would not cause any harm or unpleasant sensation."

I'm not sure if one were to apply this over long periods of time (e.g. as a 'lifestyle gadget') whether this wouldn't have (negative) lasting effects.

Don't screw with your brains. It's the only thing you cannot do without.


We screw with our brains all the time - alcohol, coffee, staying up late, etc.

But I agree that it is sensible to be quite cautious when a NEW way to alter your brain comes around. What is useful in small occasional doses may be very harmful in larger or more-frequent doses.

antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2017
"We screw with our brains all the time - alcohol, coffee, staying up late, etc."

Well, the answer is: don't - at least not on a continual basis.

That doesn't mean that the a party night or the social beer or two on occasion (or the cup of coffee every now and then) is going to be a problem.

But when you get to a place where you can't function at your best without these things (e.g. when you can't really get going in the mornings without having a coffee or when you need a cigarette/beer just to feel 'calm' ) - then the trouble starts.

The brain has some short term and long term plasticity. When you get into long term changes that rely on external stimuli you're setting yourself up for a hard fall.
henden_g
not rated yet Jun 09, 2017
The brain has some short term and long term plasticity. When you get into long term changes that rely on external stimuli you're setting yourself up for a hard fall.


No shit Sherlock. Thanks for rubbing it. Ever considered if this could actually be a way out for the "fallen?" I'm sure I'm not the only one desperate for this technology to develop.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.