Collisions of Creativity

The capacity to generate original ideas is, arguably, the most important cognitive trait that human beings possess. No wonder more neuroscientists and psychologists are working to understand it better.

Illustration by Malin Rosenqvist

Even Sigmund Freud, the modern world’s best-known investigator of the mind, admitted he was befuddled by human creativity. His colleagues and those who followed in his footsteps agreed that creativity was something mysterious and out of reach.

But today’s scientists are not giving up so easily.

Neuroscientists, psychologists, and others are probing as never before the mechanisms that underlie those “eureka!” moments of creativity. These range from the most momentous, like the moment when some unknown Paleolithic genius discovered how to light a fire, to the most routine, such as when your third-grader announces he needs a dinosaur costume for school tomorrow and you come up with a bedsheet-and-hanger T. rex.

Early research on the neural basis of creativity focused on what scientists call “small-c creativity,” the kind that allows you to crush that dinosaur assignment. To probe small-c creativity, researchers monitor people’s brains when, for instance, they search for a word that goes with sauce, pine, and crab. (That would be “apple,” by the way.) But that kind of creativity isn’t necessarily predictive of “big C creativity,” the kind that brings forth math proofs and maps of Middle Earth. Big C had long been out of reach, scientifically: it’s…