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Inhibiting the Brain’s Filter Can Lead to Increased Creativity, Study Finds

Update Date: Mar 15, 2013 10:12 AM EDT

The brain is a complex organ with several different functions that all add up into making people quite unique from one another. A particular part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex has been identified as the brain's filter in that it controls cognitive thoughts, helping the brain block out irrelevant information and memories from interfering with tasks. Researchers recently found that this filter, when inhibited, can lead to increased creativity.

The researchers from the University of Pennsylvania wanted to test the effects of controlling the prefrontal cortex responsible for cognitive control, which acts as some sort of censor so that the brain does not get overwhelmed with superfluous data during a particular task. The Thompson-Schill's research team created an experiment that required participants to undergo a creative task while a machine inhibited the filtering powers of the prefrontal cortex. The creative task included looking at pictures of everyday items and activities and finding ways that these things can be used differently from their everyday functions. The researchers measured how long it took these participants to come up with an alternative function for the image. There were a total of 60 photos and each one showed up every nine seconds.

The team used a device called the transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which was attached to the participant's head and helped transmit a small electrical charge thought the brain. This charge can interfere with the cell-to-cell communication, which stops the brain from being able to filter automatically. The research team found that people who received the charge to their left prefrontal cortex had an average of more answers for the tasks. This group gave an average of 52 answers out of 60 whereas the groups that received the charge to their right prefrontal cortex or none at all only gave an average of 45 answers out of 60.

"The real takeaway is that when you give people a task for which they do not know the goal-such as showing them an object and asking, 'What else can you do with this thing'-anything that they would normally do to filter out irrelevant information about the object will hurt their ability to do the task," Thompson-Schill explained.

The research team believes that this experiment reaffirms previous studies that explained how high levels of cognitive control might not always be advantageous in all situations. Creativity is important in young children who are still developing and learning. Previous research also shows that the prefrontal cortex develops particularly slowly in humans, and this study can explain why that development is actually more beneficial than detrimental.

"We differ from non-human primate in having a long period of immaturity in our prefrontal cortex. So we started considering whether this might not be an unfortunate accident of nature but rather a feature of our species' developmental path," Thomspon-Schill suggested. "There are things that are important not to filter, in particular when you are learning. If you throw out information about your environment as being irrelevant, you miss opportunities to learn about those things."

The study was published in Cognitive Neuroscience

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