Participants in a study of creativity had their brain activity recorded while drawing words, examples of which can be seen above, or a zigzag line. (Image: Courtesy of the Reiss lab/Stanford University)Trying to be creative may actually inhibit your ability to do so, according to a new study by researchers at Stanford University.

The study, published this week in Scientific Reports, tested 14 men and 16 women in a Pictionary-style game, while recording brain activity in an MRI chamber.  Participants were asked to either draw a word, or a zigzag line (for comparison) on an MRI-safe electronic tablet. Time to complete the task was limited to 30 seconds, to find a balance between a long enough scan, but short enough for a spontaneous response.  

After, results were rated on a five-point scale, including things like if the word was accurately depicted, and how many elements the drawing had.  The findings were surprising - higher creativity scores were associated with higher activity in the cerebellum, an area in the back of the brain traditionally viewed as a movement-control center.  Participants who rated the word as more difficult, showed higher activation in the executive function region in the brain, while high creativity scores were associated with lower activity in this area.

“Our findings represent an advance in our knowledge of the brain-based physiology of creativity,” senior author, Allan Reiss, M.D., professor of radiology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said in a press release.

So telling yourself something is difficult is associated with enhanced executive function, but this may inhibit activity in the cerebellum, which the study showed for the first time to be associated with creativity.

“As our study shows, sometimes a deliberate attempt to be creative may not be the best way to optimize your creativity,” he said. “While greater effort to produce creative outcomes involves more activity of executive-control regions, you actually may have to reduce activity in those regions in order to achieve creative outcomes.”

Read More: Electric Brain Stimulation Has Mixed Effect on IQ

A previous study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) found a low dose of electric current could boost creativity by an average of 7.4 percent in healthy adults.

The proof-of-concept study, published in the journal Cortex, used a 10Hertz current run, to enhance natural alpha wave oscillations that were reordered on an EEG of 20 healthy adults.  

“We provided the first evidence that specifically enhancing alpha oscillations is a casual trigger of a specific and complex behavior – in this case, creativity,” senior author Flavio Frohlich, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, cell biology and physiology, biomedical engineering, and neurology at UNC, said in a press release.  “But our goal is to use this approach to help people with neurological and psychiatric illnesses.  For instance, there is strong evidence that people with depression have impaired alpha oscillations. If we could enhance these brain activity patterns, then we could potentially help many people.”

While an electric current might bump creativity, Frohlich conducted another study to see how transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS) affected IQ scores, which was met with mixed results.  Patients who had experienced full tDCS, consisting of a 20-minute blast of a weak electrical current, had much lower scores in the area of perceptual reasoning compared to those in the placebo group, who received a quick shock.

Contributing Editor/Science Writer