A new Indian neurological study decodes the creative mind

Hindustan Times | By
Jul 25, 2015 05:47 PM IST

Can imagination spark only from the right brain? Can you activate particular areas of the brain to foster cognition and creativity? Using futuristic imaging technology, a new neurological study attempts to throw light on how our minds work when we are at our most creative.

In a sound-proof room in Bengaluru’s affluent Indiranagar neighbourhood, a tall, long-haired man sits among sheaves of paper filled with musical notes that are strewn around a couch, an array of synthesizers and a closed-circuit television: waiting for creativity to strike.

The science of creativity
The science of creativity
"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 (left) 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 (left), 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 box below).

To understand how scientists 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.

Creativity deconstructed: Dr Divya Sadana (above) and Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran (top left) 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.

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 scan machine. It also helped us identify cognitive functions that facilitate creativity," says Sadana.

Get a brain wave
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.

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 (left), 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 and restless

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 (above). 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 screen and answering open-ended questions related to creativity."

Dr Sadana points out that the creative people in the study could see patterns and rhythms where others could not.

So, even as some other members of the creative group found the powerful magnetic brain scanner intimidating, Shyam Narayan came out of it inspired. "It was an interesting set up. I was in a kind of contraption where I was pressing lots of buttons while responding to questions on creativity. But I really liked the sound that the machine was making. It was very powerful, electronic and punchy. Once you get over the oppressiveness of the environment, it starts getting musical," says Narayan.


In our own ways, each of us is creative. But neuro psychologists loosely bracket individual creativity in the categories of Mini C (those who have the innate creativity present in each of us); Pro C (creative but not established in their field) and the Big C (creative people who’ve proven their credentials).

Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran says the next stage of her project involves using neuro-feedback training to enhance creativity and help adults as well as kids become innovative using creativity enhancement tasks.

Simple exercises can strengthen the motor cortex and involve the cerebellum, which is associated with higher cognitive functions such as working memory (the ability to mentally manipulate objects and situations) and can play an important role in fostering creativity.

Open your mind: Get exposed to two new things you have never done before in your life. It could be a new auditory experience such as listening to music in another language; or a tactile experience such as creating toys with clay or sand.

Visualise: For multimodal stimulation, while listening to music, try and visualise the lyrics. When you hear Saagar kinaare, dil ye pukare, visualise the beach, the actors in the song and who has sung it. You are stimulating not just auditory but also the visual portions of your brain activity.

Pay attention: Make your child cancel alphabets in a newspaper. Make them cancel the alphabet, say M, for five minutes. See the alphabets they’ve missed out and the next day, repeat the exercise and check whether their attention is improving.

Manipulate: Solve crosswords, jumbled sentences and anagrams. Mental manipulation is one of the most important traits that can foster creativity.

Chronicle: Increase your learning and memory by writing a diary. After one month, go back to what you wrote earlier. This back and forth enhances your memory, cognition and thus creativity.

Do nothing: The creative part of your brain is active during the resting stage. Ask Paul McCartney! He emerged from his sleep and created the magical lyrics of Yesterday.

Different strokes

Conventionally, artists have relied on practice, instinct and sheer talent to draw on their creativity and arrive at the Aha moment (a moment of sudden realisation, inspiration and insight). But they devise their own unique creative mechanisms to get there.

SG Vasudev, 73, one of the most respected painters in Bengaluru, says he gets into his studio at nine every morning. "Whether I paint or not, I am in my studio at that hour. I feel it is important for a creative person to be in a creative environment with books, music, canvases and blank sheets. I paint normally for about 15 days a month. On the rest of the days, I spend my time reading, listening to music and going to watch plays or attend music concerts."

Vasudev invokes the creativity mantra followed by iconic poet-scholar AK Ramanujan, who has inspired a series of line drawings by the veteran artist. "Like Ramanujan, I don’t wait for inspiration. He used to tell me: ‘I sit in front of my typewriter every day. I write poems and rewrite them till the creative moment comes.’ An artist should keep his hands moving. It is like a musician who does riyaaz every day. Everybody has creativity in them, one should know how to use it," says Vasudev.

For Ricky Kej, striving towards the creative moment is the most important step towards creativity. In another avatar, as a successful jingle maker, where he is not collaborating with international artistes such as South African flautist Wouter Kellerman, Kej has to get his creative juices flowing on the basis of his client’s brief.

"It is like a workout. You begin with a few push-ups and then start doing more complex exercises. The creative moment happens when you crack a concept. But creativity is more than a concept. It is also about executing ideas. I know how to go about implementing things creatively. I know how my brain functions."

It isn’t clear whether Kej would undergo neural imaging at Nimhans to really get to know which areas of his brain are active when he is composing a tune. But just in case he needs assistance increasing his creativity, science can help.


Why did Dr Divya Sadana and Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran decide to include bipolar patients in a creativity study?

They did so, says Dr Sadana, because there is a precedent of highly creative people, particularly writers with a family history of mental illnesses, known in psychology as the Sylvia Plath Effect. "In scientific literature, I came across works about famous poets, musicians, artists and their tryst with mental illness (characterised mainly by phases of depression and bouts of euphoria)," says Sadana.

"From Sylvia Plath, to Virginia Woolf, many such geniuses were cursed with mental illnesses while being highly creative at the same time. In the 1960s, iconic author Kurt Vonnegut, a faculty member of the Iowa Writers Workshop, even participated in a study conducted by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen exploring the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness," she adds.

Follow @Aasheesh74 on Twitter

Photos by Mallikarjun Katakol

From HT Brunch, July 26

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    Aasheesh Sharma works with the opinion team at Hindustan Times. Over the last 20 years, he has worked with a wire service, newspapers, magazines and television. His story on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology on train writings in 2014.

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