Hot on the trail of the 'eureka' factor

27th April 2012 at 01:00
Further research into the brain could reveal vital clues about children's creative thinking, writes Ellie Dommett

Creativity is considered a highly desirable goal for children at school, and teachers are actively encouraged to promote it. It is generally thought of as the ability to generate new, original and appropriate thinking. "Eureka" moments have proven critical for advances in science, technology and art, to name but a few areas.1

But while a number of theories have been put forward to explain creativity, to date very little is understood about how the brain generates these new ideas and, of course, whether such brain activity, and therefore creativity, can be enhanced by specific interventions or teaching approaches.

Scanning technologies have been used by neuroscientists to investigate the brain basis of creativity. However, these studies have often resulted in conflicting findings (see panel, top left).

In addition to investigating the different brain regions involved in creativity, neuroscientists have looked into whether specific brain signalling chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, are important. In such investigations, a particular neurotransmitter called dopamine has been found to be involved. Indeed, one research group suggested that, when dopamine is less effective at binding in a region called the thalamus, information is able to flow in a less regulated and filtered fashion and that this lowering of the information threshold could underlie creativity.2

This neurochemistry of creativity is certainly an area to watch and one that may be all the more important with the increasing emergence of cognition-enhancing drugs able to modulate such neurochemicals.

At a behavioural level - and on a much lighter note - psychologists based at Lancaster University have demonstrated that exposing children to films with magical content can enhance creativity while not increasing their belief in magic. This research in 2010 established that showing four- and six-year-olds scenes from Harry Potter with magical content increased their creativity - as demonstrated by measures of fluency, originality and imagination - in a manner that non-magical scenes from the same film did not.3

While such findings have interesting future implications for home and classroom activities, they may also offer insights that can be further investigated within neuroscience laboratories.

Therefore, creativity is something that neuroscientists are taking seriously, and the data available to understand creativity at brain level are increasing all the time. But at present there is very little tangible information that can inform classroom practice. However, given the involvement of the prefrontal cortex, it is worthwhile looking at executive function - the key areas of cognition that include functions such as planning and problem-solving - as a whole. And when we turn our attention to this, there is more information from research about different practices and their effects.

For example, studies of executive-function tasks have shown that such functions can be increased in primary-aged children using various interventions.4 These interventions may involve computer training to improve working memory and reasoning, or attention tasks to improve attention ability.

Martial arts, which combine physical exercise with character development and discipline, have also been suggested to improve executive function. The flip side of this is that stress, loneliness and lack of physical fitness can impair prefrontal cortex function and therefore executive function. And, of course, these factors may be grounded outside the control of the classroom.

Neuroscience has a meagre offering to make to education when considering creativity alone. By contrast, if creativity is viewed under the umbrella of executive function, there is already information about possible interventions and practice to enhance function.

It remains to be seen what more can be gleaned about creativity and whether this can translate to a classroom setting. But it is certainly an exciting area of research.

Dr Ellie Dommett is a lecturer at the Open University and co-author of the Learning and the Brain Pocketbook

All in the mind

A number of studies have shown dominance of one hemisphere over the other in creativity, while other studies have suggested that communication between the two is critical. And a variety of specific brain regions have been posited to be important in creativity, including the premotor cortex and the parietal cortex.

There is, however, broad agreement that the prefrontal cortex is important in creativity. It is seen as the main location for the "executive functions", including planning, problem-solving and creativity.


1. Thagard, P. and Stewart, T.C. "The AHA! Experience" (2011). Cognitive Science, 35 (1), 1-33

2. de Manzano, O. et al. "Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box" (2010).

PLoS ONE, 5 (5): e10670

3. Subbotsky, E. et al. "Watching Films with Magical Content Facilitates Creativity in Children" (2010). Perceptual and Motor Skills, 111 (1), 261-77

4. Diamond, A. and Lee, K. "Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4 to 12 Years Old" (2011). Science, 333, 959-64.

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