“Yes and” Brain Areas Identified

By Amielle Moreno

How do you test something as transient as “creativity” when the simple act of testing someone can lead to decreases in the very thing you seek to measure? A recent study out of the Reiss laboratory at Stanford produced a creative idea of their own to test creativity. The low pressure and innovative approach in this study attempted to solve this problem with a game and an fMRI machine.

A pack of wild dogs took over and successfully run this fMRI facility.

Large pieces of machinery such as functional Nuclear Magnetic Resonance machines, carry the hefty price tag of $316 to $600 an hour per participant. The name alone scared so many hospital patients that scientists dropped the word “nuclear.” Reimbursing participants (bribing) is often necessary to get them to willingly stick their head inside the giant magnet even when you’re trying to get them to play a game in the million dollar machine.

Recent research published in Nature attempts to understand the neural correlates recruited during Pictionary. The family friendly game that you played awkwardly with your new step-mom Susana or converted into a drinking game in college/last week was used in an fMRI machine to better understand what areas of the brain are responsible for creativity. First author Saggar made the point that creativity can be considered “a driving force behind all human progress1.”

What else but creativity is responsible for the human proclivity to identify patterns in randomness, leading ancient societies to create images and fables out of the constellations?

OK, how the hell is that a lion, ancient Greek man?

Design and Methods:

Pictionary prompts such as salute, snore and vote, were selected and graded for their difficulty by one set of participants. Then, another set of participants in an fMRI machine used a magnetic resonance-safe drawing tablet to either draw illustrations of these prompts during a 30 second time block or a random zigzag during another block.

pictionary prompts
If you ask me, it’s Grampa visiting South Carolina, the beginning of a “fail” video, CIA mind control and mailing your alimony check.

By contrasting the creative versus uncreative blocks, the researchers attempted to reveal “the neural correlates of spontaneous improvisation and creativity.” Images drawn during the creative blocks were then graded on creative content and subjective ease of guessing the prompt by two Pictionary Experts. While this might also be a major offered by Sarah Lawrence College, apparently you can obtain this position after earning a degree in Graphic Design from Stanford. Resumes were updated to include “Expert Guessers in Pictionary” post-study.

The researchers were left with mountains of data and yet again these humans sought to apply order to what might appear as randomness.



All of this leads to specific advice for the art of improvisation and Pictionary:

  1. Working Memory and Attention: Perhaps the most important thing to do in any improv scene is to listen to your partner and focus on the scene you’re building. Active listening and engagement is fueled by the attention network, including the frontal-parietal connection2. This functional connectivity can “initiate and adjust control on a trial-by trial basis.” Coherence between these two regions form “the central executive and visual sketchpad of the working memory system.”
  2. Goal Direction: Prime your cingulo-operacular connectivity to maintain stable, goal directed focus during your scenes/games. Because communication between the cingulate and the area adjacent to the insula is also associated with word-recognition, it may be particularly important during Pictionary or word associated improv games3.
  3. Shut Down Task-Control: Try to go with the flow. A fine distinction between goal directed focus, task-control involves task initiation, maintenance and adjustment4. Regions of the brain involved in task-control include the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. High BOLD signals in these brain regions are associated with less creative pictures.
  4. Creativity: To be more creative, try to activate both your bilateral cerebellum and inferior temporal gyrus. The activation of the cerebellum increased linearly with increases in creativity ratings. This study’s finding that cerebral-cerebellar interactions are active during the game Pictionary, separate from motor control and learning, indicates that this interaction is active during higher order cognitive functions which could be considered “creative.”
This is your brain on Pictionary. Modulation of fMRI activation during word-drawing condition using self-reported difficulty ratings (in red-yellow color scale) and expert creativity ratings (in blue-green color scale).


Improv greats, Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. image from vanityfair.com

Anyone who’s paid to think or problem solve needs moments of creativity. This study posits that it was able to isolate creative thought and found an association between cerebral-cerebellar BOLD signal and spontaneous creativity. Two neuroscience grad students who do improv, Brendan O’Flaherty and Lukas Hoffmann, might tell you that with experience it’s possible to improve your creative performance on stage. Connections between specific brain regions need to be strengthened before you can become one of the great improvisational artists, or crush Susanna and her spoiled daughter during your next family vacation.

To strengthen your connectivity, check out Village Theatre or Highwire Comedy for classes.

1 Saggar M, Quintin EM, Kienitz E, Bott NT, Sun Z, Hong WC, Liu N, Dougherty RF, Royalty A, Hawthorne G, Reiss AL. Pictionary-based fMRI paradigm to study the neural correlates of spontaneous improvisation and figural creativity. Sci. Rep. 5, 10894; doi: 10.1038/srep10894 (2015).

2 Vaden KI, Kuchinsky SE, Cute SL, Ahlstrom JB, Dubno JR, Eckert MA. The cingulo-opercular network provides word-recognition benefit. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2013;33(48):18979-18986. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1417-13.2013.

3 Chawla D, Rees G, Friston KJ. The physiological basis of attentional modulation in extrastriate visual areas. Nature Neuroscience.1999; 2: 671 – 676 doi:10.1038/10230

4 Ptak R. The frontoparietal attention network of the human brain: action, saliency, and a priority map of the environment. Neuroscientist. 2011;18 (5):502-515.


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