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THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATIVE THINKING FOR OVERALL COGNITION AND WELL-BEING

Mya Care Blogger 10 Apr 2023
THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATIVE THINKING FOR OVERALL COGNITION AND WELL-BEING

In recent years, creativity and the ability to think creatively have both been acknowledged as important factors for health promotion and overall well-being. Creativity is central to making progress in one’s life and can also serve as a measure of mood, intelligence, connectivity and contentment.

The following article attempts to summarize current findings with regard to creative cognition and the benefits of engaging in creative activities, including appreciation of creative works. Factors that can detract from or improve creative thinking are also listed alongside tips for how to optimally unlock one’s creative potential.

Defining Creativity: Where Culture, Innovation and Intelligence Meet

Contrary to popular belief, creative thinking is not merely confined to artistry and has been heavily relied upon throughout all fields of science and mathematics. Creativity is a prominent feature of some of the greatest minds known to mankind, while the products of such minds have been foundational to our inventive (creative) progress as a civilization. On a neurological level, creative cognition has a lot in common with logical cognition[1] and can often improve reasoning skills and contribute towards intelligence overall.

Despite being unmistakable, creativity is difficult to define. Initial descriptions of creativity linked it to novel associative thinking, as seen throughout all creative works. Creative individuals are able to take seemingly unrelated concepts and connect them in a way that is unique. This is known as divergent and convergent thinking[2], which are thought to be crucial components of the creative process (as discussed later on). Whether conscious or not, creative thinking is a form of problem-solving that makes use of multiple brain areas in order to arrive at a novel conclusion.

9 Health Benefits of Creativity

Being able to think creatively is usually a sign of good health and well-being. Studies reveal that creativity may elicit the following benefits in healthy individuals:

  1. Creativity as a Sign of Overall Health, Vitality and Potential Longevity. Current emerging evidence on creativity suggests that it is more than just a recreational activity that can help to enhance various aspects of cognition. Creative pursuits begin to broaden the perspectives of the individual, allowing them to explore themselves in abstract ways that expand upon their personalities and cultivate unique interpersonal meaning and purpose in life. Developing these characteristics dramatically increases the quality of one’s life by encouraging optimal spiritual, mental, emotional and even physical well-being.[3] Some studies went so far as to correlate creative engagement with a reduced tendency for falls, enhanced physical balance and walking speed, which were related to the behavioral and mood improvements brought about by creative thinking. 
  2. Personal Transformation and Enhanced Recovery. Illness, injuries and major life stressors can all elicit changes in one’s personal domain that can ultimately detract from mental, emotional and physical well-being. Creative pursuits facilitate personal transformation by offering a means for self-reflectivity and re-evaluation of oneself in relation to lived experience. In this way, creative engagement is helpful for full recovery from illness, injuries or major life stressors through the advent of self-reinvention. Interestingly, the immune system itself has been shown to imbibe aspects of the creative process when generating antibodies[4], which suggests that creativity may be reflective of the health of the immune system, particularly with regard to the effect of neurotransmission on immune cells. Reviews have highlighted the importance of creative cognition as a healthy stress-coping strategy and for developing personal resilience throughout life.[5]
  3. Creativity as a Mood Enhancing Tool. Creativity is known to share a relationship with mood, being easier to facilitate when in a positive mood and promoting the same when one engages in creative activities.[6] During covid lockdowns, creativity was shown to be important for improving mood, warding off depression and enhancing personal resilience.[7] Despite the observation that negative emotion can detract from creative thinking, some of the best creative works are born of adversities. The need to express and transcend negative emotion, or a lack of motivation, can be enough of a motivational force to promote enhanced creative thinking. In this context, creativity can be viewed as a tool for overcoming negativities and enhancing one’s overall mood. Furthermore, creative achievements are known to be inspiring and rewarding, which serves to promote focus, motivation and eventual elation when creative works are completed.
  4. Enhances Focus and Attention. The practice of all artistic or creative skills requires an attentive focus. Each time one engages in them, they are developing an improved concentration.[8] Studies have supported these observations by showing the activation of brain networks in those practicing various forms of creativity, including music, art and drama. These brain areas are crucial to learning and memory consolidation and therefore indicate the importance of creative endeavors for promoting overall cognition and intelligence. 
  5. Creative Practises Facilitate Improved Neuroplasticity and Overall Cognition. All forms of creative activity are known to encourage connections between widespread areas of the brain. Creative training and practice are specifically known to stimulate connectivity between regions involved in creative processing and problem-solving, namely the prefrontal cortex and the middle temporal gyrus. [9] Creative thinking facilitates shifting between different brain networks, which effectively promotes neuroplasticity[10]. Furthermore, many creative pursuits, such as music and creating art[11], promote the development of mental and physical skills that integrate memory, coordination, and visual-spatial processing. The multiple brain areas stimulated by creative endeavors share common ground with other cognitive functions that can contribute towards applied logical thinking, planning, learning and problem-solving abilities.[12] Many top educational institutions have explored using creative training as a tool to increase the cognitive abilities of their students[13], who go on to be world-class doctors, scientists, mathematicians, physicists and so on.
  6. Enhanced Brain Matter Volume and Memory Capacity. When one engages in a balanced array of creative activities, it can increase the volume of grey and white matter in many areas of the brain.[14] The way in which creative thinking and engagement stimulate brain development varies across creative tasks. Practising music, drawing[15],painting and other similar skills are all known to promote better fine motor skills, visuospatial processing and memory function. Logical creativity is known to promote growth in other brain areas that can additively contribute towards memory function and executive control (i.e., reasoning abilities).[16] The hippocampus appears to be one prime brain area that is stimulated by imaginative thinking[17], which is inherent in most forms of creative thinking. Maintaining the size of the hippocampus is known to protect against cognitive decline seen in ageing and may be one of the main protective benefits associated with creative practices.
  7. Long-Lasting Cognitive and Emotional Reappraisal. Creative thinking and expression can lead to long-lasting positive changes that enhance personal resilience and contribute towards an improved quality of life by altering one’s perspectives through time. Cognitive reappraisal or re-evaluation has long been recognized as a vital stress-coping strategy as well as an important aspect of memory formation, learning and future-oriented thinking.[18] In this way, creative engagement (which is central to reappraisal[19]) can help to lower the volume of negative emotions that contribute towards memory recall and future perspectives, essentially “getting rid of the old to make way for the new.”[20]
  8. Creativity and Mental Disorder Risk. Being creative has been shown to have both pros and cons with respect to protecting against mood and psychiatric disorders. It depends upon the genetics and overall mental health of the individual whether enhanced creativity may be a risk or a protective factor. Having a higher IQ, better working memory and improved cognitive flexibility (which depends on neuroplasticity) have been shown to complement creative abilities by turning them into cognition-protective features. In this case, creativity can help to protect against these disorders[21] as well as help lessen the symptoms of those who already live with them. Creative engagement becomes problematic for susceptible individuals where it imbalances brain function and neurotransmitter profiles, serving to increase brain activity in selective areas that enforce symptoms such as mood fluctuations and delusional ideation. This risk can be mitigated by focusing on improving global cognition, neuroplasticity, neurogenesis and overall brain connectivity.[22]
  9. May Be Protective Against Age-Related Cognitive Decline. In preliminary epidemiological studies, creative activities, in conjunction with socializing, was shown to be associated with a reduced prevalence of cognitive decline in the elderly over a 5-year period.[23] Other studies have confirmed these findings by showing how creative interventions substantially improved results in a cognitive training program in elderly individuals over the age of 60[24].

Creating vs. Appreciation of Creative Works: Is There a Difference?

Appreciating Creativity Poses Creative Benefits. The benefits of being creative extend beyond the creative individual and can have a positive impact on those who appreciate their work. This is especially true of appreciating music, which is shown to stimulate the brain in a similar way, albeit to a lesser extent. Research has revealed that this extends to other kinds of creative work, such as art appreciation and the cognition involved in interpreting cartoons, adverts and poetry. Creative adverts were shown to be far more memorable than other kinds due to inspiring creative insight in the viewer[25], which would have also been central to the creation of the advert.

The Creative Mind Multiplies Itself Through Sharing. In this way, creative works communicate ideas to an audience and motivate the audience to engage back creatively in order to comprehend what they are appreciating. This can result in perceptual, emotional and cognitive shifts in the audience that result in a lesser form of similar brain stimulation and additionally contributes to the well-being of the viewer. Creative works can also serve as novel exposures that lead to new ideas and creative insights in the receiver.

How Does Creativity Work? The Neurobiology of Creativity and Its Impact on Intelligence

Creativity begins with the idea that typically encourages the exploration of novelty. The desire to pursue something new is associated with dopamine release, motivation, and stimulation of the reward pathway, which all propel the creative process forward. [26]

Cognitive Flexibility and Persistence. The study of creativity has proven to be paradoxical. It consists of a fine balance between cognitive flexibility and persistence. Cognitive flexibility involves shifting perspectives, immersing in new ideas, and forming original associations. Often, this part of the process involves working memory and unconscious brain consolidation. When ideas begin to converge, one or more available options emerge that the creative individual can begin to follow up on. This is the basis of cognitive persistence, which demands thoughtful effort, methodological evaluation and exploration of possibilities, as well as the refinement of them. Once an option has been fully explored, it can require more cognitive flexibility that allows for new ideas to be pursued that can expand on the creative work.

Exposure, Memory Consolidation and Creative Thinking. In many instances, new ideas only arrive after giving the mind a break from its pursuit. It was shown that recognition of new ideas (novelty) was predominantly a function of the hippocampus and working memory, while seeking out novelty is a function of the brain’s reward pathway (dopamine-mesolimbic system). When fully motivated, the creative seeks out novelty but may not be able to recognize it at first. This usually surmises the start of the creative process in which the creative immerses in new ideas, exposures and stimulation, engaging in divergent thinking. As the recognition of novel or original (creative) ideas is a separate process that involves working memory, it can take some time and memory consolidation for a creative idea to form properly and then continue to be pursued. Giving the mind a break or even sleeping on it can enhance the creative process and help to facilitate convergent thinking.

Dopamine is Essential for Creativity. In general, increments in brain dopamine are connected to enhanced divergent thinking and lower brain dopamine levels are associated with convergent thinking and memory consolidation. Flexibility and divergent thinking were shown to be linked to dopamine release in the striatal and nigrostriatal dopamine brain pathways, while persistence was more associated with dopamine release in the hippocampus, working memory and motivation pathways. Despite these findings, excessive dopamine can hinder creative thinking as much as a dopamine deficit.[27]

Emotion Type, Approach and Creative Thinking. As creativity is largely linked to the pursuit of novelty, dopamine, motivation and the reward pathway, it is logically deducible that emotion has a marked effect on creative thinking. Positive, energetic emotions such as happiness, love, passion and excitement tend to stimulate novel ideas and more expansive creative thinking than negative emotions. The reason for this is that negative effects arguably give rise to less mental flexibility than positive effects where someone is approaching a problem for a solution rather than avoiding it. Negative emotions can still elicit creative outcomes if they are motivating, while any mood that detracts from motivation, such as depression, sedation or complete relaxation, is far less associated with a creative pursuit.

Creativity Pertains to Brain Balance, Not Right Brain Dominance. While some studies have revealed a mild link between right brain dominance and creativity, it is not entirely accurate to link creativity with right brain dominance. Many studies have revealed that creativity bears a far greater association with brain communication between both hemispheres, as well as blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. Following this, divergent thinking, flexibility and novel (spontaneous) idea generation has been linked with brain processes that move from the bottom-up, known as default processing. Convergent thinking, (deliberate) idea evaluation and cognitive persistence are shown to be a product of top-down thinking, known as control processing. These two types of brain processing have also been shown to correlate with our ability to create a “train of thought,” which may be verbal, pictorial or musical.[28] Creative thinking styles have been linked with default and/or control processing dominance, as opposed to brain hemisphere dominance.

Factors that Affect Creative Thinking and Ability

The more creativity is studied, the more it is understood how everyone can realize their full creative potential. The below factors are known to impact one’s ability to be creative as well as affect one’s creative style.

Genetics. Early observations from the 80s on genetics and creativity have suggested that higher degrees of creativity may run in families alongside diseases that are associated with higher creative engagement. A number of preliminary studies have begun to uncover the genetics underlying both exceptional and a lack of creativity. Several genes have been identified to date, most of which pertain to dopamine function.

Findings reveal dopamine-related genetics can contribute towards creativity and creative styles in a number of ways:

  • DA transporter (DAT) and COMT (catechol-O-methyl-transferase). Variations in relation to prefrontal COMT and striatal DAT genes have been shown to underpin different creative profiles across individuals. Those with 9/9 or 9/10 DAT and Met/Val or Val/Val COMT are better at creative tasks that involve cognitive flexibility, divergent thinking and weak to the medium top-down control of brain centers. Those with Met/Met COMT and 10/10 DAT were shown to be better at highly original divergent thinking and this was associated with strong top-down control of brain centers. The 10/10 DAT and Val/Val genetic profiles were associated with less cognitive flexibility but a higher degree of creative achievement, indicative of improved convergent thinking. Other studies have supported these findings by relaying COMT expression with enhanced dopamine transmission and varying creative potentials across individuals.
  • D4 Dopamine Receptor (DRD4). A specific variant of this gene, known as the DRD4-7R, allele was shown to be associated with greatly reduced divergent thinking when compared to individuals without this allele.

More research is required to illustrate further genetic factors that can impact one’s creative ability and life quality.

Illness can both enhance and detract from creative thinking, with the result being largely dependent on the individual’s state of neurotransmission and genetics[29]. Illnesses known to affect creative ability include:

  • Mood Disorders. Several studies have revealed a connection between affective disorders and creativity, with mood disorders being more common among poets, artists, musicians and writers as compared to the general population. These populations are prone to mood fluctuations and related neurotransmitter imbalances, which often lend themselves to bouts of enhanced creative cognition. Some reviews have suggested that full-blown mood disorders can detract from creative activity, while those with mild mood disorder traits may have a creative advantage. Creative expression may additionally help those with full-blown mood disorders to manage their symptoms.
  • Neurodegenerative disorders can both contribute and detract from creative abilities. Those with frontotemporal dementia and multiple sclerosis have been shown to have an enhanced ability for divergent thinking, and this is thought to be a result of compensation, where neural structures that have not been damaged are relied upon more for thinking to occur. In the case of Parkinson’s disease, dopamine is known to be unable to bind to various receptors, which specifically affect movement but can also affect creative thinking. The use of dopaminergic medications in those with Parkinson’s has been shown to spark sudden artistic abilities that advance at a rapid rate.

Stress. While complete sedation detracts from creative thinking, too much arousal and stress are also not conducive[30]. Stress and excessive noradrenaline release, which is known to accompany it, have been proven to diminish one’s ability for flexible and divergent thinking. It also enhances blood flow to the extremities and detracts from blood flow to the organs, including the brain. One small study revealed that excessive stress primarily prevented divergent thinking and novel idea creation, as well as narrowing the differences between creative individuals and their styles.[31]

Stress also gives rise to two distinct creative styles that are linked with lower creative output. These include:

  • Fixation and Loss of Novel Pursuits. Creative individuals can hit a stumbling (creative) block if they do not allow for enough flexibility and start to fixate on one idea. Cognitive fixation appears to detract from the creative process by preventing new ideas from arising and therefore standing in the way of progress. Stress can promote fixation by limiting emotional processing and closing the mind off from new ideas. As previously explained, the pursuit of novelty encourages dopamine release and can be viewed as goal-directed action. Once an idea loses its novelty, there is no longer an obvious direction to take with an obvious goal or destination, resulting in motivation loss. Fixating on the idea perpetuates resistance towards newer, better ideas, which more cognitive flexibility can help to remedy. Stress is one factor that can increase cognitive fixation and limit one’s ability for divergent thinking.
  • Competitive Thinking and Imitation. Competitiveness is associated with a focus on prevention and limitation that is seen to detract from optimal creative thinking and is often linked with stress. In contrast, a cooperative mindset helps to facilitate creative flexibility and originality. Those with a competitive mindset may be prone to express creativity through imitation (competing within the scope of a creative idea or domain) as opposed to an original invention which requires more divergent-convergent thinking.

Age. Healthy aging is associated with reduced cognition and physical activity, both of which can have an effect on creative ability[32]. Deeper investigations have shown that while creative thinking is often reduced in the elderly, age-related cognitive decline only affects specific aspects of creative ability, such as abstract reasoning.[33] Other risk factors for cognitive decline can indirectly affect creative thinking, such as reduced sleep quality, lower neuroplasticity, hippocampal volume decreases, and inflexibility of thought. Despite these findings, some reviews have shown that creative engagement can help to mitigate some of these cognitive aspects of aging and improve the quality of life in the elderly.[34]

7 Tips for Facilitating Optimal Creativity

It is not always easy or possible to be creative, especially if trying to be on demand. The tips discussed in this section are usually implemented intuitively by creatives for facilitating perpetual creative thinking, and may be useful for those new to creative living for improved well-being.

  1. Perceiving Problems as Creative Opportunities. A positive approach to one’s problems is ideal for creative thinking and the application of one’s creativity. A lack of resources for inhibition has been found to excite the mind and promote more creative ideas.A problem can be seen as a stimulus for pro-activity (inspiring goal-directed action and reducing inhibition) and thus a creative opportunity with the potential for creative reward. In this regard, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Learning to identify problems with this mindset can help to facilitate creative thinking and to generate better solutions.
  2. Developing Artistic Skill Sets. The practice of any creative skill tends to lend itself to more creative output in the long run. Practicing the skills necessary for creative pursuits helps the brain to train and build upon the complicated networks required for creative performance[35]. After time and integration, the connectivity between these networks improves, allowing for “higher degrees” of creative pursuit and the exploration of (more advanced) novel creative terrains. There are usually two components to creative skills development: a cognitive aspect and a physical aspect. Cognitive, creative skills can be developed by identifying problems to which one needs to generate creative solutions through brainstorming ideas and through engaging in imaginative thinking. Physical skills depend on the creative pursuit and pertain to the fine coordination required for them, such as drawing, painting, crafting and playing a musical instrument.
  3. Building Upon Working Memory and Other Aspects of Cognition. Aside from artistic skill sets, developing logical skills and reasoning abilities also helps to bolster creativity. In this sense, it is a good idea to whole-heartedly pursue learning of any kind that may pique one’s interest. Learning new languages, frequently embarking upon skills development courses and engaging in problem-solving activities can all serve to promote overall cognition that can facilitate creative thought.
  4. Immersing in Novel Ideas and Experiences. Novelty is essential for both divergent and convergent thinking, as it helps one to create new ideas and connect them together in innovative ways. Exposure to new situations, people, concepts, activities and experiences can help to expand one’s potential for generating original ideas. This extends to learning new skills and traveling to new places, even if these seem completely unrelated to one’s creative pursuits.
  5. Breaks for Set Shifting. Following on from the above point regarding novelty, creative thinking and overall cognition benefit from taking breaks both mentally and physically[36]. Exploring new experiences can count as taking a break that shifts one’s perspectives and mindset on a given creative pursuit, allowing for new ideas to occur. Physical breaks can give the brain a chance to consolidate upon information learned through the creative evaluation of new ideas. Sleeping is an especially powerful tool for digesting information and improving upon creative thought processes, as the majority of our memories and ideas are consolidated when we are asleep.
  6. Exercising Regularly. Exercising on a regular basis is known to be one of the most potent promoters of overall health and well-being available to anyone. As creativity can be seen as an overall marker of health, it is not surprising that physical activity can promote optimal cognition, inspire creativity and enhance creative performance, irrespective of one’s mood[37] [38]. Diminished blood flow to the prefrontal cortex has been linked with a lack of creative ideation. Exercise gets the blood moving, increases the metabolic rate and optimizes brain oxygenation. It is known to directly increase the volume of the hippocampus and several other brain areas that are central to creative thinking and reasoning. In one study assessing the impact of walking on creative ability, divergent thinking was shown to be enhanced by as much as 81% during and after walking, while convergent thinking showed a 23% enhancement.[39] Other studies suggest that the creativity-enhancing effects of exercise are additive and that they become more pronounced with consistent effort over time.[40] Physical activity is also known to regulate neurotransmission, and emotional states of being as well as protect against mental disease onset. These traits suggest that exercising is complementary to creative engagement for preserving cognition during aging, as physical activity can serve to reduce the risks associated with creative pursuits while expanding on their benefit.
  7. Meditation has been shown to enhance connectivity between multiple brain areas[41], many of which share a great degree of overlap with creative and logical cognition.[42] [43] One of the neurological hallmarks of creativity would be the ability to shift cognitive processes in mind (between default and control modes) in order to facilitate both divergent and convergent thinking. Meditation has been shown to reduce default mode thinking, mind-wandering, and divergent thinking when one is focused on another cognitive task. When combined with the added benefit of enhancing mode switching, these findings suggest that meditation can help to improve overall cognition and facilitate the creative process by reducing mental distractions. Other studies have shown that meditation can be used as a tool for maintaining optimal working memory, attentional focus and cognitive control, all of which aid creative thinking and problem-solving.[44] While the effects of meditation are accumulative over time, inexperienced meditators have been shown to receive immediate benefits from a few days to a month of meditation training.

Conclusion

Everyone relies on their creativity to a certain degree in order to make progress in their lives as well as to enjoy and appreciate life at large. The creative process itself is reflected throughout our lives, from historical innovation to the inner workings of the immune system. In terms of mental well-being, creativity can be seen as a measure of our mood, intelligence, and overall health. Creative cognition is important for developing problem-solving skills, as well as for coping with stress, developing a resilient personality and enhancing life satisfaction by promoting a sense of meaning and purpose. The creative process promotes optimal connectivity between multiple brain areas and creative engagement is often tasking on both brain and body, uniquely supporting their cohesion. Physical activity and meditation are two potent activities that directly improve our creative abilities, while rest, novelty and appreciation of creative works are known to inspire new creative ideas and aid the creative process.

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