Creative thought requires that we break away from more obvious ideas, but how this actually happens in the brain has remained a mystery.

Now scientists from Queen Mary University of London and Goldsmiths, University of London, have discovered that alpha brain waves play a vital role in suppressing our habitual thinking modes in order to allow access to more unusual ideas.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that these brain waves — alpha oscillations in the right temporal area of the brain — increase when we need to suppress obvious and misleading associations during creative tasks. This can occur in both convergent thinking (systematic and logical) and divergent thinking (free flowing and spontaneous).

The research team found that when they stimulated the right temporal part of the brain in the alpha frequency, it increased the brain’s ability to override more obvious associations in both types of creative thinking. They did this by applying an electrical current to the brain through a non-invasive technique called transcranial alternating current brain stimulation (tACS) which causes minimal to no side effects or sensations.

“If we need to generate alternative uses of a glass, first we must inhibit our past experience which leads us to think of a glass as a container,” said lead researcher Dr. Caroline Di Bernardi Luft from Queen Mary University of London.

“In order to understand the processes underlying the production of novel and adequate ideas, we need to break down its constituent processes, dissecting creativity as much as possible at first, and then analyzing them in context, before putting them back together to understand the process as a whole.”

The team demonstrated the neural mechanism responsible for creativity by looking at the brain’s electrical activity through an electroencephalogram (EEG) which picks up electrical signals through small sensors placed on the head. Using tACS also enabled them to study the waves’ causal role.

The researchers investigated how the brain tackles a series of creative tasks such as finding words that link to one another. For example, every time we search for concepts associated with a word we start from stronger associations and move progressively towards weaker or more remote ones (e.g. cat > dog > animal > pet > human > people > family).

Previous research has shown that some people are more creative because they are able to avoid strong associations in order to reach more remote ones, and this study demonstrates that the alpha brainwaves are crucially involved in this process.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference,” wrote poet Robert Frost. “Taking a less traveled route is needed for thinking creatively, and our findings provide some evidence on how this is done in the brain,” said co-author Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya from Goldsmiths, University of London.

Source: Queen Mary University of London