The Lightbulb: Georgetown Researchers Spark Creative Thinking

April 22, 2016—At first blush, it sounds like the stuff of 1960s science fiction. But as Georgetown College psychology professor Dr. Adam Green patiently explains the science — how a simple setup of two electrodes on the forehead could actually promote human creativity — you realize that this isn’t a Michael Crichton novel.

“We’re identifying exactly where and under what circumstances we see the brain respond to a cue to be creative, and we’re then ready to apply something to actually influence, to boost what is happening,” Green said.

Transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, is the subject of a new research paper authored by Green, Georgetown University Medical C­­­enter’s Dr. Peter Turkeltaub and researchers at the University of Connecticut, Northwestern University and the National Institute of Mental Health.

The technology itself isn’t new. As Green put it, electric stimulation has been in use for hundreds of years — since “[18th-century Italian biologist Luigi] Galvani was making frog legs twitch with this basic method.” And as Popular Mechanics’ David Grossman noted in his coverage, electrical stimulation has become an increasingly frequent subject of cognitive neuroscience research, often associated with treating depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.

But this is different. Green’s research isn’t a therapy for mental illness, or a reflex experiment. He and his co-authors have succeeded in inspiring creativity — that most innately human, seemingly indefinable facet of intelligence — using an external stimulus.

How? Here’s the basic protocol, which Green stresses should not be attempted outside a supervised lab environment:

Two ordinary electrodes are placed on a subject’s forehead. A safe level of electrical current runs through the electrodes into the frontopolar cortex, a region at the very front of the brain that is associated with creative thinking. This mild stimulation helps neurons to fire more readily, speeding up synaptic connections and increasing activity in the region. On a subsequent concept association test, subjects display a markedly increased proclivity for discovering meaningful connections between seemingly disparate concepts.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Green and Turkeltaub’s tDCS experiment is the nature of “creativity” it promotes. Subjects don’t suddenly begin writing music or painting abstract art — rather, they make unseen connections.

“The kind of structure that the frontopolar cortex has seems to be ideal wiring for integrating information,” Green said. “In particular, we’re very interested in analogies, seeing an abstract similarity between things that don’t seem the same.”

It’s the kind of creativity that allows Niels Bohr to realize that the structure of an atom might be similar to that of a solar system, or Lin-Manuel Miranda to see a classic hip-hop rags-to-riches narrative in a founding father’s biography. In other words, it’s the kind of creativity associated with real applications outside traditionally “creative” fields, as acknowledged by figures like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.

“It’s a form of creative intelligence, which is a little different than just off-the-wall wackiness,” Green said. “It has real potential to support learning. … If you can, by stimulating these neurons, make it easier for them to fire together during learning or training, it’s likely that you’ll be able to enhance that learning.”

If the idea that something as seemingly simple as a mild electrical current can affect something as complex as creative thinking seems unbelievable, Green reminds us that it’s all about speaking the right language — and neuroscientists are learning the intricacies of that language more every day.

“Electricity is the language of the brain,” he said. “Modifying what’s happening naturally in the brain with electric current is a hot area in cognitive neuroscience.”

- Patrick Curran

For more coverage of tDCS research at Georgetown, check out this story at the main university website.