Health Scan: Getting brains to think creatively

According to the researchers, creativity is our ability to think in new and original ways to solve problems – but not every original solution is considered a creative one.

January 10, 2016 03:35
4 minute read.
Brain mapping

An illustrative picture of the Neuronal Positional System used for brain mapping. (photo credit: DR. SHLOMO TSURIEL AND DR. ALEX BINSHTOK)


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Any scientist who finds a way to make ordinary brains think more original ideas will surely win a Nobel Prize; he or she “just” has to crack the connection between brain activity and creativity. Now a new study by University of Haifa psychologists Dr. Naama Mayseless and Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoori have made an interesting attempt, shedding a new, perhaps unexpected, light on our ability to think outside the box.

Developing an original and creative idea requires the simultaneous activation of two completely different networks in the brain – the associative (spontaneous) network alongside the more normative (conservative) network. The researchers maintain that “creative thinking apparently requires checks and balances.” The new research was conducted as part of the doctoral dissertation of Mayseless in collaboration with Rambam Medical Center’s Dr. Ayelet Eran.

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According to the researchers, creativity is our ability to think in new and original ways to solve problems – but not every original solution is considered a creative one. If the idea is not fully applicable, it is not considered creative but rather an unreasonable one.

The researchers hypothesized that for a creative idea to be produced, the brain must activate a number of different and perhaps even contradictory networks. In the first part of the research, respondents were give 30 seconds to come up with a new, original and unexpected idea for the use of different objects. Answers which were provided infrequently received a high score for originality, while those given frequently received a low score. In the second part, respondents were asked to give, within half a minute, their best characteristic and accepted description of the objects. During the tests, all subjects were scanned using a functional MRI device to examine their brain activity while providing the answer.

The researchers found increased brain activity in an “associative” region among participants whose originality was high. This region, which includes the anterior medial brain areas, mainly works in the background when a person is not concentrating, similar to daydreaming.

But the researchers found that this region did not operate alone when an original answer was given. For the answer to be original, an additional region worked in collaboration with the associative region – the administrative control region. A more “conservative” region related to social norms and rules. The researchers also found that the stronger the connection (the better these regions work together in parallel), the greater the level of originality of the answer.

“On the one hand, there is surely a need for a region that tosses out innovative ideas, but on the other hand there is also the need for one that will know to evaluate how applicable and reasonable these ideas are. The ability of the brain to operate these two regions in parallel is what results in creativity. It is possible that the most sublime creations of humanity were produced by people who had an especially strong connection between the two regions,” the researchers concluded.


Higher taxes and prices for cigarettes are strongly associated with lower infant mortality rates in the United States, according to a new study at Vanderbilt University and the University of Michigan recently published in the journal Pediatrics.

The association was stronger for African-American infants than for non-Hispanic white infants, which has implications for trying to reduce disparities in infant mortality between the two groups. Researchers found that for every $1 tax increase per pack of cigarettes, about two infant deaths (or 750 babies) – all associated with the tax increase – were prevented each day.

Exposure to cigarettes during pregnancy is associated with numerous health problems for newborns, including preterm birth which is the leading cause of infant mortality in the US. Taxing cigarettes helps persuade people to quit smoking or not to start. “This study helps physicians, public health officials and policymakers understand just how much benefit cigarette tax increases can have on infant health,” said lead author, Prof. Stephen Patrick.

“Our approach is a different way to think about cigarette taxes,” added pediatrician Prof. Matthew Davis. “Usually, taxes are used in public health as a way to discourage smoking and therefore improve the health of the person who previously smoked or is thinking about starting.

But connecting tax increases to smoking reductions and to fewer infant deaths brings in an entirely new type of benefit.”

At the same time, previous studies have shown that women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to give birth to infants who have health problems including low birth weight, prematurity, birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – all leading causes of infant mortality.

Higher cigarette taxes are known to be associated with lower rates of smoking during pregnancy and improvements in some birth outcomes. But no US study before has evaluated the impact of the higher taxes on infant mortality rates.

Extremely preterm infants born in the US today are far more likely to survive than they were just a few years ago.

But the US is nevertheless doing worse on infant deaths than almost all other industrialized nations. The solution may lie in public health solutions that prevent infants from being born early in the first place – like cigarette taxes, said Patrick.

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