This study explains why humans are creative

Being creative has been a defining characteristic of humans since the beginning of time. Our natural predisposition towards creativity can be traced back to prehistoric cave drawings and ancient stories and myths predating even Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Mankind has always been driven to create; whether that be through song, art, storytelling, or innovation. It isn’t a stretch to say that civilization, in general, wouldn’t be possible without creativity. From the design and structure of buildings to indoor plumbing, none of it would exist without someone looking at a problem and constructing a creative solution.

From a survival perspective, however, creativity is hardly a necessity. There are plenty of animals that have survived just as long, if not longer, than humans that aren’t creative in the least. Horseshoe crabs are believed to have inhabited the Earth for around 445 million years and they don’t seem all that creative. Begging the question: why are humans creative in the first place?

What does science say about being creative?

After performing a series of neurological experiments, researchers from Drexel University believe they’ve found an answer. Creative epiphanies, or “aha!” moments invoke the same activity in some people’s brain reward centers as delicious food, addictive substances, and sexual pleasure. While this discovery doesn’t clear up the entire mystery, it definitely provides some evolutionary insight. Human’s brains evolved to reward creativity. Simply put, many of us feel good when we’re flexing our creative muscles.

Even if you’re not exactly Picasso or John Lennon, everyone has experienced that rush of relief after an “aha!” moment. That wave of happiness one feels when they crack a riddle, finish a puzzle, solve a confusing math problem, write a few lines of poetry, or create a new rift on the guitar. Our brains reward us for thinking outside the box.

Certain people, though, appear to reap more pleasure from these creative moments than others.

This helps explain why some people, quite literally, become addicted to creativity. So many times when individuals become embroiled in a creative activity they find it difficult to stop. The starving artist who avoids meals for hours on end while painting, or the dedicated novelist who stays up all night writing.

“The fact that evolution has linked the generation of new ideas and perspectives to the human brain’s reward system may explain the proliferation of creativity and the advancement of science and culture,” comments John Kounios, Ph.D., a professor in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of its Creativity Research Lab, in a university release.

Researchers focused specifically on these “aha!” moments, or as they called them “sudden experiences of non-obvious perspectives, ideas or solutions that can lead to inventions and other breakthroughs.”

As a group of participants completed a series of anagram puzzles, researchers recorded their brain activity using high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs). The puzzles asked each player to sort through a set of letters to discover a hidden word and were thought to be a suitable small-scale model for more complex forms of creativity and creative problem-solving. Along the way, the study’s authors were also careful to differentiate between puzzle solutions that were achieved through creative insights and solutions that were arrived at via more monotonous trial and error.

After playing with the puzzles, each participant filled out a survey intended to gauge their “reward sensitivity,” defined as a personality trait illustrating how motivated one typically is to earn a reward.

Across the board, players who had an “aha!” moment while solving the puzzles exhibited high-frequency bursts of “gamma-band” brainwaves. However, certain participants, those who scored especially high on the surveys measuring reward sensitivity, also displayed a second burst of high-frequency gamma waves a tenth of a second after the first. That second wave was traced back to the orbitofrontal cortex, an integral part of the brain’s reward system.

In summation, these findings strongly indicate that some people are born with a predisposition to associate creativity with intrinsic pleasure.

Now, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t get a rush of pleasure from creativity, don’t feel discouraged. Study participants who didn’t experience that second rush of brain wave activity still displayed the same levels of creativity throughout the puzzle tasks. Just because some don’t derive the same satisfaction from creativity, that doesn’t make them any less capable of it.

Evolution is still very much a mystery, but this study makes a strong case that humans evolved to derive pleasure from creativity. Why that occurred is still up for debate, but perhaps all it’ll take to find the answer is a little creativity.

The full study can be found here, published in Neurolmage.