Can we manipulate our brains and our level of creative insight?

A pilot study by Sue Langley.

Creativity is vital in business to generate innovation that will lead to competitive advantage, and leaders are under increasing pressure to deliver creative solutions under stress. Organisations require employees to solve problems every day, from small tasks that require accessing information or solutions that have been encountered, to much more complex problems that require deeper levels of creative insight and emotional intelligence.

Recent neuroscience research may provide insights into how the brain works to encourage more creativity in the workplace. Data on the impact of positive emotion on performance and creativity is significant; for example, we known from our earlier studies that positive moods seem beneficial for creative output, both quantity and quality. We also know from mindfulness experiments that experienced meditators can shift their level of brain activity around compassion, in effect, dialling up or down their activity levels. In addition, placebo effect studies tell us that belief that something will work is enough to make it work, influencing capacity to learn.

Sue Langley’s research investigated the impact that neuroscience training, attentional focus and emotional state can have on creative insight. She aimed to establish if teaching people about brain regions that fire during moments of insight, along with attentional focus in this area, could induce higher incidences of insight above what could be achieved by inducing positive mood. She also tentatively explored whether people can control brain focus to increase moments of creative insight. 
While we cannot yet conclude as a result of this research that people can deliberately manipulate their brain through learning and attentional focus, the study found brain training may have some impact on creative insight, paving the way for further research.

Summary Report
Research Report

This research is part of a series of ongoing studies that bring together elements of positive psychology and neuroscience to explore creative potential and development, was conducted by Sue Langley of the Langley Group and Emotional Intelligence Worldwide, in association with the Professional Development Foundation at Middlesex University. Findings were presented at the 2014 FENS Forum of Neuroscience, 4th Australian Positive Psychology and Wellbeing Conference and 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology.

Langley, S. (2014). The impact of brain training on creative thinking. Research presentation at the 2014 FENS Forum of Neuroscience, Milan, July.

Langley, S. (2013). The impact of emotions on creativity. Poster presentation at the Fourth Australian Positive Psychology and Wellbeing Conference, Melbourne, February.

Langley, S. (2013). The impact of emotions on creativity. Poster presentation at 3rd World Congress on Positive Psychology, Los Angeles, June.

Langley, S. (2013). The impact of emotions on creativity. Research report, Emotional Intelligence Worldwide, February.

The anterior cingulate cortex and right superior temporal gyrus, have been found active prior to moments of creative insight (Jung-Beeman et al 2004). Mindfulness experiments have shown that experienced meditators can shift their level of brain activity around compassion, dialling up or down activity levels (Lutz 2008). Positive emotions also impact cognitive processing and creative output (eg Fredrickson 2001; Jung-Beeman 2007; Subramaniam et al 2009; Caruso & Salovey 1990). This research aimed to investigate the effect brain training, attentional focus and emotional state, has on creative insight, by establishing if teaching people about brain regions that fire during insight and attentional focus in this area, could induce higher incidences of insight above what could be achieved by inducing positive mood. It also tested if people can control brain focus to increase moments of insight. The online experiment used RCT methodology, a neuroscience lesson and activity, positive mood video, CRA creative insight task and current mood assessment. Results indicated people who took brain training solved more problems correctly across each creative insight area (immediate insight, delayed insight and exploration). Differences in problems solved through insight were not significant between experimental and control groups. Mixed responses to videos and technical problems impacted results. While we cannot yet conclude people can deliberately manipulate their brain through learning and attentional focus, this research paves the way for further research. A further longitudinal intervention study targeting neuroscience training and attentional focus will be conducted.

Key words: brain training, attentional focus, creativity, insight, neuroscience.

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