Clarifying Creative Cognition

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

The Brain, Cognitive Development with Creativity

According to Daniel Pink, “Today the left brain capabilities that powered the information age are necessary but no longer sufficient. The ‘right brain’ qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness and meaning—increasingly determine who flourishes and who flounders. …[P]rofessional success and personal fulfillment now requires a whole new mind.” This concept is supported by the following statements, although the “new mind” is referred to as “the whole brain”:

Ryan Hurd, a consciousness-studies researcher living in California, explains in the article “Parts of the Brain That Influence Creativity” that many parts of the brain do this, and surprisingly, just as important are the parts of the brain that are not active during creative reverie. However, Rita Carter, author of “Mapping the Mind,” believes that more important to the creative drive is the level of communication between the two lobes of the brain. The corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the two lobes, is thicker in diameter in people who score highly on creativity tests. So, what it comes down to is the thicker the corpus callosum, the more efficiently the brain synchronizes activities. This idea, related by Joseph and Glenda Bogen in the journal Psychiatric Clinics in North America, is increasingly supported by recent brain-imaging technology. In other words, creativity is enhanced by an increased use of the whole brain.

The Role of Norepinephrine in Creativity and Cognition

Creativity is not determined by brain lateralization alone. Dr. Kenneth M. Heilman, professor of neurology at the University of Florida, notes that during creative thought, the neurotransmitter norepinephrine is greatly reduced. Norepinephrine is associated with long-term memory retrieval, so its reduction during creative thinking helps the brain to forget what it already knows. In this way, novel connections and new ideas are more likely to be discovered. Charles Limb and Allen Braud, who performed brain-imagery scans on jazz musicians when the musicians made spontaneous compositions, reported that the limbic centers of the brain are unregulated during creative improvising, providing neurological support for the role of heightened emotion during creative pursuits. Subsequently, creativity is reflected in the brain as increased lateralization, as a reduction in critical thinking, as long-term memory and as heightened emotionality.

Creativity and Cognition and Vice Versa

The idea of thought-suppression during creative times and/or limiting communication pathways to permit new thoughts posits that one is not thinking so much when being creative. If this is true, then the concept of whether cognition develops creativity or creativity develops cognition comes down to these words being interchangeable when referring to the impact of one on the other. What is most important is to know that cognition, which is thinking, and creativity, which some research evidences as there being a lack of cognitive awareness and/or cognitive functions during periods of creativity, may be exemplified as follows:

As one who has, since childhood, been labeled “highly creative,” I have found that there is an extensive amount of cognitive and meta-cognitive skill disbursement during creativity, but not necessarily on the topic at hand. One might recognize a lack of focus when actually a good deal of deep thinking is occurring on the part of the creative person. For example, a moment of creativity or creation of something may occur when in a classroom, talking with a friend or being in a small group or alone. In all but the last of these situations, the topic of a historic event is being discussed with a few questions to follow. The individual in the state of being creative is thinking most seriously about something other than the questions being presented. This may be thinking about music to be composed relating to the event, with a melody running through one’s mind, or a poem and rhyming verse having to do with that topic, or emotion about going swimming, or a painting just begun and how it’s to be completed. So, there is thinking, but not necessarily on the subject being presented.

Another example, given by artist Maritza Garcia, about what happens to her when painting: “My mind stops. Well, it doesn’t really stop, as it is concentrating solely on the painting and nothing else.” David Bunting, a teacher from Skien, Norway, explains that when he’s being creative in teaching, “I think of ways to make the project interesting, so students may explore their imaginations in inventing. I do that when I’m being creative. I’m thinking about a different way to do something, and I use my memory to do that — to create. The students then use their brains to develop ideas and thoughts upon which they’ll take action when doing a project or sharing opinions on a selected topic.”

One Personal Important Factor for Teaching Creativity

As a result of teaching creatively for many decades, I have found there is really one very important component for the practical application of cognitive creativity. In teaching, or any learning situation that results in creativity, there must be few if any restraints to embracing of open-endedness and flexibility. Also, for others observing or acknowledging this cognitive development and creativity, there needs to be the receiving of what’s presented, even though one might not have thought of it himself or herself with acceptance and valuing. These factors encourage persons of all ages, those at pre- or post-college level, or even those in the workplace, to embrace using their imaginations.

In support of cognitive development enhancing one’s creative ability is a 1968 study by George Land, which he also writes about with Beth Jarman in “Breakpoint and Beyond.” Land revealed that “… we are naturally creative and as we grow up we learn to be uncreative,” further stating that “… creativity is a skill that can be developed and a process that can be managed and begins with a foundation of knowledge, learning a discipline, and mastering a way of thinking. We learn to be creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using imagination and synthesizing information.”

By learning what one is thinking through addressing the comprehension of the thinking skills shown at the start of this article, a person is then empowered to be creative, innovative, imaginative, and certainly inspired; perhaps, as well, inspirational to others.

And yet, despite the ideas expressed in this article of cognition being closely linked to creativity and vice versa, it’s important to note the social and societal, as well as academic trends being experienced these days, past few years, perhaps decades. When one is able to connect creativity to cognitive function then it is apparently appreciated. However, with an emphasis on test scores and performance on standardized instruments to measure one’s achievement, ability or intelligence, then the opposite is observed. Low test scores equate with inability. High test scores equate with one’s being smart. Creativity is oftentimes not appreciated and/or recognized, although it will be those persons with it who will change the course of history with inventions and new ideas to further humankind.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)



  1. As a credential Career Technical Educator and patent design engineer, this article has enhanced my study of creative cognition, in efforts to educate learners on creativity and innovation to sustain workforce development in 21st century.

  2. I am so flattered that you used my article in your graduate class. It is so wonderful to read that you are using it. I am overjoyed!!! Check out Summer 2014 for my latest article: The Brain on Ecosystems and Sustainability. You will love it!

  3. Fascinating article. I am presenting to my graduate class on creativity in education. I am planning on providing a powerpoint presentation and would also love to include the photograph. If I cite Brain World magazine, may I use it? Thank you.

    I have enjoyed the articles so much, I think I will have to subscribe! :o)

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