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Creativity explained through cognitive science

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

The concept of creativity in psychology and in neuroscience was mainly approached in the 20th century. It is defined as the ability to produce a work that is both original (new, unusual, unexpected) and of quality (useful, good, suitable) (1,2). In this sense, creativity can be manifested in several daily life activities. We can be creative by changing the function of an object, by dancing hip hop to classical music, or by solving a problem. Due to this definition, it is important to separate the concept of creativity from art.

Creativity for human

But are we all equal toward creativity? Is it possible to measure our capacity to be creative? The well-known theories on creativity formed the basis for numerous tests (2,3,4,5). These tests take the form of problem solving and assess the creative score of each participant. Thus, it is possible to measure such an abstract concept.

The theory of Mednick - a famous scientist in psychology and psychiatry - is one of the key theories in the field of creativity. Creative thinking is described as the formation of associative elements in new combinations (2): these new combinations must meet the requirements of a context and / or must be useful. To create these new combinations, we engage "an associative thought": in other words, we associate several elements together. The creativity tests based on Mednick's theory take the assumption that creative people are better for breaking stereotypical associations (i.e. the concept of “woman” is linked to “man”) in order to produce more distant but still consistent associations (ie “woman” could be related to “apple” relatively to Adam and Eve). Consequently, according to Mednick, the ability to produce original and useful work is based on the ability to link several distant elements and to get rid of strong and pre-established associations.

One of the tasks developed by Mednick to assess creativity is the “Remote Associate Task” or RAT. In this task, the subject is asked to provide a word related to three given words. For example, the subject will provide the word "television" after reading the words "set, program, cable". What about "Coin, Quick, Spoon"? The answer remains quite simple: "Silver". But the greater the semantic distance between the three words, the more difficult the task, and the more its success reveals a high level of creativity. For example, would you be able to find what brings together the following words: "Illness, Bus , Computer" and "Piece, Mind, Dating"? (Answers at the end of the article).

Now, you know what creativity is and how to assess it. However, there is one last question to investigate: how does creativity take form in our brain? To answer this question, I worked with Emmanuelle Volle and the FrontLab team within the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris.

Our hypothesis was the following: the most creative people use their brains in a different way in comparison with less creative people (that is to say: the most creative people are differently "wired" in comparison with less creative people). Therefore, understanding the difference in brain activity between creative and less creative people helps defining the key regions and the neural networks responsible for creativity. Briefly (but very briefly), it is thanks to this difference that we based our results. For example, if you want to understand why a hare runs faster than a turtle, you will study the morphological differences that reside between these two species!

First, we must distinguish creative people from less creative people. To do this, we calculated the creativity scores of each individual using an improved version of the RAT task. Once we separated creative people to less creative people, we had to understand where this difference comes from thanks to brain imagery. The brain imaging method we used to measure brain activity was fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). To establish the link between "creativity" and "brain activity", we correlated (i.e. associated) the creativity scores of each individual to their fMRI results. In the first place, fMRI allows to spatially identify activated brain regions. Secondly, scores allow us to assess the creative capacity of each individual. The result of this correlation will give an answer about where the creativity is located in the brain.

It turns out that a lot of regions are involved in creativity. Each region interacts and activates simultaneously: this is called a neural network. This can be explained by the fact that being creative requires several cognitives functions as a good memory, a good cognitive flexibility, or a good ability to synthesize. However, certain networks seem to be more activated such as the fronto-parietal network (frontal and parietal cortex), temporal network (associated, for example, with language) and the default mode network - a network which is activated when our brain is not engaged in a specific task (6). These results were confirmed by the publication of a scientific paper (7). Two neural networks have been targeted to explain the creative process: the frontoparieto-temporal lateral network and the default mode network. The first network (frontoparieto-temporal network) controls our thoughts and our behaviors in order to filter the most relevant ideas. The second network (default mode network) is responsible for spontaneous thinking: it would allow us to spontaneously associate two ideas. Thus, creativity is distributed in the brain and takes the form of neural networks. So I ask you to forget the following sentence: the right hemisphere is responsible for creativity.

Default mode network and Frontoparietal network

The Mednick test, in all its forms, is a good support to identify the mechanisms of our brain that underlie creative thinking. However, we must keep in mind that Mednick's theory and its task is still questionable as every scientific theory! No doubt we should have tested the RAT against well-known ingenious brains from our last centuries: would Van Gogh or Descartes be creative?

Lydia Bessaï

NB: Do you want to know more about creativity? I organize and lead creativity workshops to give you theoretical and practical keys to be more creative! Go to the "Creativity Workshop" tab. (For the moment, this section is in french. However, if you are interested in english workshop, please do not hesitate to contact me).


1. Dietrich A. (2004). « The cognitive neuroscience of creativity ». Psychon. Bull. Rev. 11, 1011–1026.

2. Mednick S. A. « The associative basis of the creative process ». Psychol. Rev. 69, 220–232 (1962).

3. Torrance E. P. « Predictive Validity of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking ». J.Creat. Behav. 6, 236–262 (1972).

4. Guilford J. P. « Creativity ». Am. Psychol. 5, 444–454 (1950).

5. Guilford J. P. « Intelligence Has Three Facets. There Are Numerous Intellectual Abilities, but They Fall Neatly into a Rational System ». Science (New York, N.Y.) 160, no 3828 (10 mai 1968): 615‑20.

6. Smith S.M., Fox P.T., Miller K.L., Glahn D.C., Fox P.M., Mackay C.E., Filippini N., et al. «

Correspondence of the Brain’s Functional Architecture during Activation and Rest ». Proceedings

of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no 31 (8 avril 2009): 13040‑45.

7. Bendetowicz D, Urbanski M, Garcin B, Foulon C, Levy R, Bréchemier ML, Rosso C, Thiebaut de Schotten M, Volle E. Brain. "Two critical brain networks for generation and combination of remote associations". 2017 Nov 22.

Answer of the Creativity test:

"Illness, Bus, Computer": Terminal

"Piece, Mind, Dating": Game



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