De­cod­ing The Cre­ative Mind

Us­ing fu­tur­is­tic imag­ing tech­nol­ogy, a new neu­ro­log­i­cal study at­tempts to throw light on how our minds work when we are at our most cre­ative

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Front Page - by Aasheesh Sharma; photos by Mal­likar­jun Katakol

Can imag­i­na­tion spark only from the right brain? Can you ac­ti­vate par­tic­u­lar ar­eas of the brain to foster cog­ni­tion and cre­ativ­ity? A new In­dian neu­ro­log­i­cal re­search pro­ject may have the an­swers

IN A SOUND-PROOF room in Ben­galuru’s af­flu­ent Indi­rana­gar neigh­bour­hood, a tall, long­haired man sits among sheaves of pa­per filled with mu­si­cal notes that are strewn around a couch, an ar­ray of syn­the­siz­ers and a closed­cir­cuit tele­vi­sion: wait­ing for cre­ativ­ity to strike.

“Dur­ing a low, dark pe­riod of my life, I got an im­age in my head. I held on to the im­age and wrote some mu­si­cal notes on my com­puter. They stayed in a folder on my desk­top for a few weeks till I was inspired to work on them. The im­age fi­nally took the form of Moun­tain Soli­tude,” says Ricky Kej about the process of com­pos­ing a song that fa­mously found its way into Winds of Sam­sara, which won a Grammy in the Best New Age Al­bum cat­e­gory in 2015. “As cre­ative be­ings, most artistes ex­pe­ri­ence mo­ments of self doubt. But I don’t let them go waste. I write mu­sic about that emo­tion as a de­vice to move out of the dark phases. In Moun­tain Soli­tude, from the time I thought of it to the time I com­posed it, there was a clear move­ment from dark­ness to light. I was at a bet­ter time in my life.”

What goes on in the mind of a com­poser who con­jures up a tune out of thin air or an emo­tion? How about a pain­ter who stares at a blank can­vas till he sees the con­tours of his cre­ativ­ity crys­tallise into a face, fig­ure, colour or mo­tif ? Can a copy­writer or a jour­nal­ist work­ing on a dead­line af­ford the lux­ury of wait­ing for the cre­ative mo­ment? Does cre­ativ­ity flow only from the right hemi­sphere of the brain?

A five-year study by the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health and Neu­ro­sciences (Nimhans), Ban­ga­lore, com­pleted in 2015, at­tempts to pro­vide an­swers to some of these ques­tions by de­con­struct­ing cre­ativ­ity. “It is per­haps among the first few stud­ies in the world to iden­tify those ar­eas of the brain which are ac­tive while per­form­ing cre­ative tasks,” says Dr Senthil Ku­maran, ad­di­tional pro­fes­sor, Depart­ment of Nu­clear Mag­netic Res­o­nance at the All In­dia In­sti­tute of Med­i­cal Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi.

That isn’t the only rea­son that makes the study spe­cial. For a long time, neu­ro­sci­en­tists fol­lowed the Split Brain the­ory pi­o­neered by No­bel lau­re­ate Roger Sperry, which said that the left half of the brain pro­cessed in­for­ma­tion in a ra­tio­nal, an­a­lyt­i­cal man­ner while the right half was more in­volved in tasks that needed imag­i­na­tion, in­tu­ition and cre­ativ­ity. One im­por­tant find­ing of the Nimhans study is that cre­ativ­ity can flow from the left hemi­sphere of the brain as well.

The study sug­gests that a net­work of re­gions in both hemi­spheres of the brain works in tan­dem in the build-up to the Eureka mo­ment. “This is the first such study in In­dia that I’ve heard of which in­di­cates that cre­ativ­ity can flow out of the left brain too,” says Dr Shirish Has­tak of Wock­hardt Hos­pi­tal, Mum­bai. Although newer ap­proaches in the realm of cre­ativ­ity re­search are al­ways good news, but lead­ing brain sci­en­tist, Dr Pra­vat Man­dal of the Na­tional Brain Re­search Cen­tre, Gur­gaon, strikes a cau­tious note. “This cre­ativ­ity re­search hasn’t yet been pub­lished in a peer re­viewed sci­en­tific jour­nal. Re­search in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment can tend to be tran­sient. These re­sults need to be tested on com­mon peo­ple and val­i­dated at var­i­ous time points. I would wait for the study’s out­come to be pub­lished. But I wish the re­searchers well.”

The aca­demic de­bate aside, what does the Nimhans study mean for you and me? Hav­ing iden­ti­fied the ar­eas of the brain that are ac­tive dur­ing cre­ative tasks, the study im­plies that these ar­eas can be stim­u­lated. “Now that we have a clearer pic­ture of the parts of the brain – in both the left and right hemi­spheres – that are re­spon­si­ble for cre­ativ­ity, we can look at con­sciously ac­ti­vat­ing them. It can be done ei­ther through neuro-feed­back train­ing or through ev­ery­day tasks re­spon­si­ble for stim­u­lat­ing those parts,” says Dr Ja­muna Ra­jeswaran, ad­di­tional pro­fes­sor, neu­ropsy­chol­ogy and cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science at Nimhans.

It could be as sim­ple as learn­ing to play a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, keep­ing a di­ary or car­ry­ing out al­pha­bet can­cel­la­tion ex­er­cises de­signed for chil­dren ( see side­bar).

To un­der­stand how sci­en­tists

The study found that cre­ative peo­ple were more open to new ex­pe­ri­ences

such as Dr Ra­jeswaran are tak­ing the re­search find­ings for­ward, we head to the Nimhans cam­pus on Ho­sur Road, about eight kilo­me­tres west of Kej’s Indi­rana­gar stu­dio and meet Divya Sadana. Over the last five years, for her PhD the­sis done un­der Ra­jeswaran’s guid­ance, re­search scholar Sadana, 28, had been en­gaged in an in­ter­est­ing pro­ject. It probed the brain func­tions of peo­ple when they were as­signed cre­ative tasks. She did this us­ing a tech­nique called func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) that mea­sures brain ac­tiv­ity by de­tect­ing changes in blood flow. When a brain area is more ac­tive, it con­sumes more oxy­gen to meet its task and there is in­creased flow of blood to the area.

For the study, 30 artists, de­sign­ers, il­lus­tra­tors, mu­si­cians and writ­ers from Ben­galuru’s cre­ative hubs such as the Na­tional In­sti­tute of De­sign, the Shristi School of De­sign and the Chi­tra Kala Par­ishath were com­pared with an equal num­ber of peo­ple with sim­i­lar de­mo­graph­ics and age but with­out any proven artis­tic cre­den­tials, and another third group of 30 pa­tients suf­fer­ing from bipo­lar dis­or­der ( see box). “The idea was to see how these three groups re­act when per­form­ing cre­ative tasks in­side a brain


Dr Divya Sadana (be­low) and Dr Ja­muna Ra­jeswaran (right) of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health and Neu­ro­sciences, Ban­ga­lore, are the peo­ple be­hind the pro­ject which has iden­ti­fied those ar­eas of the brain that are ac­tive when we per­form cre­ative tasks scan ma­chine. It also helped us iden­tify cog­ni­tive func­tions that fa­cil­i­tate cre­ativ­ity,” says Sadana.


In a lab­o­ra­tory that seems straight out of science fic­tion, Dr Sadana is ma­nip­u­lat­ing a maze of elec­trodes at­tached to the scalp of Vi­nayak Kishore (name changed). When­ever Kishore con­cen­trates hard on the screen, a dol­phin on the screen moves for­ward and hits the ball. If he doesn’t, the screen goes dark. Kishore is par­tic­i­pat­ing in neuro-feed­back train­ing, a sim­u­la­tive tech­nique ad­min­is­tered at Nimhans to those seek­ing changes in their emo­tional make-up and en­hanc­ing their cog­ni­tive func­tion. “Neuro-feed­back uses al­pha and theta waves to mod­ify brain ac­tiv­ity,” ex­plains Dr Ra­jeswaran. “It makes the brain re­cep­tive to re­lax­ation. Olympic gold medal­list Ab­hi­nav Bin­dra got 25 ses­sions of this train­ing in Ger­many. The al­pha wave en­sures that you are

re­laxed and theta en­hances the cog­ni­tive func­tion. So, if you are good at mu­sic or sport or any other spe­cialised task, the pro­ce­dure can work to­wards in­creas­ing your cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties,” says the neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist.

Dr Pra­vat Man­dal of the Na­tional Brain Re­search Cen­tre says apart from ex­er­cises that in­crease cog­ni­tion, another new ap­proach to en­hance cre­ativ­ity which is yet to be ex­plored is the role of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters. It can help cor­re­late brain chem­i­cals, func­tional con­nec­tiv­ity (brain net­work mod­u­la­tion ) and neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal test­ing.

Even if they didn’t go in for me­chan­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions to im­prove cog­ni­tion and bol­ster cre­ativ­ity, most In­dian par­ents would be bet­ter off if they moved away from the anti-cre­ativ­ity ed­u­ca­tion model of rote learn­ing pop­u­lar in the coun­try and in­cul­cated the cre­ative habit in their chil­dren, says Dr Has­tak of Wock­hardt Hos­pi­tal, Mum­bai. “Stud­ies have shown that regularly play­ing a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, par­tic­u­larly the pi­ano, can im­prove the func­tion­ing of cer­tain ar­eas of the brain (such as the frontal and the fron­topari­etal re­gions) that con­trols mo­tor skills, hear­ing and mem­ory,” adds the neu­rol­o­gist.


One of the other im­por­tant find­ings of the study was to iden­tify the traits that cre­ative peo­ple dis­played. Were the minds of the cre­ative mav­er­icks wired dif­fer­ently? In the study, the cre­ative group [as op­posed to the non-cre­ative and bipo­lar groups] scored higher on cog­ni­tive func­tions such as at­ten­tion and speed of pro­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion.

They were not wor­ried about find­ing one cor­rect an­swer but were happy with mul­ti­ple re­al­i­ties. Also, they came up with quirky, out-of-the-box re­sponses to ques­tion­naires. “While most peo­ple re­sponded with the sun, moon, cha­p­ati and tyre to a ques­tion on what a cir­cle re­minded them of, Shyam Narayan, one of the par­tic­i­pants in the study, said it re­minded him of an Enso, a Zen icon de­not­ing a cir­cle in Ja­panese. Upon en­quir­ing, I learnt that an Enso has to be drawn in un­in­hib­ited brush­strokes to ex­press a mo­ment when the mind is free to let the body cre­ate. I was amazed at the breadth of Shyam’s knowl­edge,” says Dr Sadana.

Narayan, 36, who runs a de­sign stu­dio in the Gar­den City, says he joined the brain study as a part of his pur­suit to un­der­stand how peo­ple and things func­tion. “Ever since I was a stu­dent at IIT-Mum­bai’s In­dus­trial De­sign Cen­tre, I’ve been cu­ri­ous about hu­man-ma­chine in­ter­ac­tions. Now that I have a de­sign stu­dio which spe­cialises in cre­at­ing apps and user in­ter­faces, it be­comes even more im­por­tant that I un­der­stand peo­ple’s out­look to­wards con­cepts.”

It helps that Narayan is a cre­ative soul. While still at school, he formed a band called Mother Jane, which be­came pop­u­lar. “Later, the orig­i­nal mem­bers of the band, spread across all corners of the world Skyped and de­cided to stoke things up a bit with another band called Pseu­topia,” he says. What’s with the nomen­cla­ture? “Well, it is one part pseudo, one part utopia. It is part of how we see thing hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple are selling pseu­topias and peo­ple are buy­ing pseu­topias in life and in mu­sic.”


Cre­ative peo­ple are less con­sci­en­tious, more self-ac­cept­ing and some­times im­pul­sive, sug­gests the Nimhans study. Many peo­ple in the cre­ative group that Sadana worked with turned out to be mul­ti­fac­eted and open to new ex­pe­ri­ences.

Con­sider con­tent cre­ator Vishnu Rao. Rao, 30, who works with a lead­ing media buy­ing agency based in Ben­galuru, was ex­cited at the pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting his brain scanned. “I’d heard all these sto­ries about claus­tro­pho­bia and I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence it my­self. Putting my head into un­known ter­rain was un­set­tling at first, but I got used to it. Then I heard the whirr and thud of the ma­chine, which can be scary. But luck­ily with all the vis­ual clues it wasn’t dark. I was look­ing into a

The idea was to stim­u­late parts of the brain that were ac­tive dur­ing cre­ative tasks




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