‘Right brain thinking’ and ‘diffuse thinking’ linked as the ‘creative thinking’ style

In a recent article, Kounios, J., et al., The origins of insight in resting-state brain activity, Neuropsychologia (2007), it has been shown that creative thinking style , associated with an ‘AHA’ moment of problem-solving using insight, deploys more Right brain areas and also is characterized by a more diffused visual attention; as compared to an analytic style , which used search as a strategy and was characterized by more focussed visual attention.

As I had been linking to some articles on brain asymmetry , I found this article worth linking to. The paper basically uses self-report measures to ascertain whether an anagram ( scrambled words like XPELAME for EXAMPLE) was solved by creative insight or by analytic search. It then divided the subjects into two groups- those utilizing insight as a strategy most of the time and those utilizing search as a strategy most of the time. then they looked at the EEG activations, both prior to the assignment (when the subjects were not even aware of the purpose of the study) and while the people solved the anagrams. The first EEG measure that refers to the resting style of a person, showed clear differences between the two groups. It was found that the creatives or insight people had more diffused visual attention, while the analytic searchers had more center-increase/surround-decrease type of cortical activity whihc would be correlated with more focused attention, in both visual areas as well as semantical areas. The creatives on the other hand, had resting EEG that implicated more loose semantic associations at the periphery.

The second interesting result was regarding the overall activation of right hemisphere versus left hemispheres in the creative vs analytic groups. Here again, High Insight group showed more right Hemisphere activations across many regions of interest and on many bands (alpha, gamma etc) of EEG frequencies.

I had approached the paper with a critical bent of mind as soon as I read that they had used self-reports, but it seems that they could find some indirect evidence as to whether the self-report measure styles did correspond to the actual styles employed. They reason, and show, that if a problem is being solved by insight, then the solution would be available in a a one-or-nothing sort of consciousness of the solution; hence the creatives would do more errors of omission, where they would timeout when given a deadline to solve the problem; on the other hand the analytics would be solving the problem in a piece-meal fashion, with the solution being formed bit-by0-bit in their consciousness and are thus more likely to do acts of commissions, where when confronted with a deadline, they give a wrong response. this is exactly what they found, moreover there was no differences in response times, error rate or any other measures that could have explained things otherwise, and I find their argument convincing.

The present study demonstrates that goal-oriented, event related,cognitive processing is not completely determined by goals or task demands. Individual differences in resting state brain activity also influence such neural computations. Specifically, subjects’ preferred strategy for solving a series of anagrams (insight versus search), was influenced by characteristics of their prior resting state. This phenomenon is fundamentally different from the previous demonstration of a relationship between problem-solving strategy and transient preparatory activity immediately preceding the presentation of an anticipated problem .

The results were organized around two hypotheses. The first was based on previous research demonstrating that highly creative individuals exhibit diffuse attention allowing input of a greater range of environmental stimuli, in contrast to less creative individuals who tend to focus their attention more narrowly, thereby sampling a smaller range of environmental stimuli . It was therefore predicted that HI subjects would have less resting-state occipital alpha-band activity, reflecting less inhibition of the visual system, and that LI subjects have more occipital beta activity, consistent with heightened focused attention. These predictions were supported by the results.

The second hypothesis was that HI and LI subjects would exhibit different patterns of resting-state hemispheric asymmetry at electrodes over lateral association cortex. This hypothesis was based on prior findings that creative cognition recruits RH association areas involved in semantic information processing relatively more than does noncreative cognition . The results provided broad support for the hypothesis that during a resting state HI subjects would show generally greater RH activity and less LH activity relative to LI subjects, with the most prominent effects being greater activity for HI subjects at right dorsal–frontal (lowalpha band), right inferior–frontal (beta and gamma bands) and right parietal (gamma band) electrodes, and greater activity at left inferior–frontal and left anterior–temporal electrodes for LI subjects in the low-alpha band.

Importantly, the behavioral results demonstrated that the HI and LI groups used different cognitive strategies to solve the anagrams. Consistent with the notion that insight processing yields information about the correct response in a discrete, all-or-none, fashion, while noninsight processing yields partial response information before the processing of a problem has been completed , the present results showed that subjects who tended to solve problems with self-reported insight tended to make errors of omission, while subjects who tended to solve the problems with self-reported noninsight processing tended to make errors of commission.

As such, I am excited by this research which adds not only to our understanding of the ‘insight’ problem solving, but also adds to the knowledge base on brain asymmetry.

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