How creative you are hinges on brain connectivity, semantic memory structure

For the first time, a new study identifies a link between creativity, semantic memory structure, and the brain’s functional connectivity. The results indicate that creativity is dependent on an individual’s unique differences in semantic memory organization. The brain’s functional connectivity can predict these unique differences. 

Creativity is a cognitive function that we use continuously in daily life. Problem solving, innovation, and adapting to change all have elements of creativity. In neuroscience, creativity applies to producing something new, appropriate to a specific context. We apply this capacity in diverse and countless activities, such as visual arts, sciences, music, or writing.

Creative thinking, according to the associative theory of creativity is, in part, a function of the organization of associations in semantic memory. This type of long-term memory consists of the ability to recall words, concepts, or numbers, essential for using and understanding language. If diminished or lost it causes problems with knowing everyday objects and communicating, with associated emotional distress. 

“Hence, the organization of connections in semantic memory may determine our ability to link distant concepts in novel ways and may vary across individuals. Yet, the brain mechanisms underlying the link between semantic memory organization and creativity remained to be explored,” explains the study’s lead author, Marcela Ovando-Tellez, of the Paris Brain Institute, in a statement.

Ovando-Tellez is part of a group led by neurologist Emmanuelle Volle, a tenured researcher at the institute. The group, along with international collaborators, used a semantic-relatedness judgment task for the study. Participants rated the semantic relationships between multiple pairs of words. Based on these ratings they built individualized maps of paired semantic associations, called semantic networks. The organization of the semantic networks were evaluated using network-based tools associated with creativity.

Participants were also asked to respond to a questionnaire about their creative activities and achievements in eight domains. These domains include literature, cooking, music, sports, performing arts, sciences, and engineering.

The results show that the organization of semantic memory networks predicted individual  creativity. This indicates that participants with higher creative activities and achievements had semantic memory networks that were less segregated and more efficient.  

The scientists also evaluated the brain functional connectivity during the task and identified patterns that predicted the semantic network organization which generated creativity – less segregated networks. Such individual semantic network organization mediated the link between brain connectivity and creativity.

“The originality of our study is to link three levels of investigation, behavior, cognitive processes, and the brain, by combining recently developed computational approaches to predict complex cognitive functions from brain connectivity and to explore individual semantic networks” adds Volle.

Taken together, these results provide a new understanding of some of the individual neurocognitive mechanisms underlying creative behavior.

The group at the Paris Brain Institute collaborated with Mathias Benedek, University of Graz, Austria, and Yoed Kenett, Israel Institute of Technology, Israel. 

The study is published in Science Advances.

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About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Faith A. Coleman MD
Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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