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Roger Beaty: We track activity and communication between brain regions when people think creatively.

From where do creative ideas stem? How does the brain piece together information in new ways to solve problems? What brain regions and networks are involved in our ability to come up with new ideas? 

In the Sonophilia Foundation’s goal to answer such perplexing questions and make the study of creativity a tangible science, our partnership with Penn State University introduced us to a valuable addition to the Sonophilian family. Roger Beaty is an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State and the principal director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab. Having studied creativity for ten years, Roger is primarily interested in understanding the brain basis of creative thoughts.

“We don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that creativity is the same across the board,” Roger told Sonophilia. “Creativity’s a little different in the arts than it is the sciences, and even within the arts, there are different kinds of creativity there. We’re interested in understanding how creativity is expressed and how it’s carried out in different contexts and domains. We use various brain imaging methods to that end and mostly functional magnetic resonance imaging, so we’re tracking the brain activity and communication between brain regions when people are thinking creatively.”

Oftentimes, creativity happens when we least expect it. When our minds are at an impasse to find a solution to a problem or to make progress in a project, it often helps to step away and relax. We may be struck with bursts of creative inspiration when we’re in the shower, taking a leisurely walk, driving, or drifting off to sleep. Roger explains this phenomenon, which is known in the field as insight, to be particularly tricky to study using psychology and neuroscience tools, as it is so serendipitous. 

“There are some findings to suggest that taking a break can be beneficial to loosen the way people are thinking, let your mind wander a little bit and to come to those solutions offline when you’re not directly working on a problem,” he noted. “The source of that is thought to be a release from this fixation effect, where your thinking has been trapped in a way, or stagnant. Breaking from what you’re doing and letting your mind wander to other things can help those ideas pop into mind.”

Understanding how creativity works in the brain has countless applications and possibilities. While Roger admits it is rather difficult to wrap our heads around this concept, nearly every activity, from coming up with a new recipe to a scientific invention, could be considered creative. Much like one of the Sonophilia Foundation’s main projects, Matters.Global, where we try to map out all of humanity’s problems and their interconnectedness, Roger has found value in studying creativity using psychology neuroscience tools to give people a more concrete application for their thinking processes. 

“The more we understand how creativity works,” he said, “the more we can include creativity in education and other intervention efforts, and also just the way we think about ourselves as creative actors in the world. I think that what psychology and neuroscience has to offer is that it can map out the ways that people think creatively. What are the brain regions? What are the thinking processes that people engage in when they’re trying to solve creative problems? Once we have those mapped out, we can try to intervene to enhance them in a way.”

When it comes to our environment with relation to our creative fulfillment, there is a particular nature versus nurture approach that Roger highlights. He said, “Everyone is creative, more or less, or has what we call in the field creative potential.” One way studying creativity can be beneficial is to understand the conditions that help maximize that creative potential.

“I think about creativity as a confluence of different traits and cognitive processes. There are different personality factors and different types of thinking that are more or less conducive to creativity; we all have those to some extent. We all think differently. We all have different traits that can be brought to bear… What are the most important traits and how can we try to maximize them in society and education?”

Upon introduction to the Sonophilia Foundation’s goals and ambitions, Roger was immediately struck by the growing impact of the network and the building blocks it’s laying for the future of creative and innovative solutions. He believes he can contribute a scientific perspective on the study of creativity. More specifically, he’s eager to explore how the seemingly abstract notion of creativity can be measured. 

“How do we measure this construct and how do we quantify the creative quality of ideas? That’s one thing that I can try to bring to the table – what the scientific literature has to say so far about how creativity can be measured. [I’m bringing] the applications, connecting with the network of Sonophilians, trying to help them maximize creativity within education, public policy, and industry. [I can] bring a scientific perspective on how we can measure creativity, how we can map out the relevant constructs, and how we can assist them and enhance it in all these different ways.” 

Click here to listen to the full interview on our new podcast series.

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