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Human ingenuity can lead to many things: a symphony, a painting, a new vaccine, an elegant solution to a math problem. What ties these disparate creations together--what defines creativity--is the ability to look at a problem or situation in a new way and to come up with a novel solution or product, according to psychologist Oshin Vartanian, PhD.

Vartanian, until recently a postdoctoral researcher at York University in Toronto, is using functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify where in the brain the "creative spark" lies. Creativity might seem too nebulous a concept to pinpoint, but by boiling it down to its most basic component--flexible thinking--he and his colleagues are beginning to home in on a particular area in the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex.

"The key to creativity is conceptual flexibility, divergent thinking and not committing too early to one solution when trying to solve a problem," said Vartanian, who is now a researcher at Defence Research and Development Canada in Toronto. He described his research into each of these aspects of creativity during an address at APA's 2005 Annual Convention.

Measuring creativity

In one study, Vartanian and Vinod Goel, PhD, a psychology professor at York University, asked participants to solve a series of classic puzzles called Guilford's match problems. In one, participants see a grid of eight squares made up of 22 matches and must remove nine matches to leave three squares (see puzzle and solutions above).

The key to finding the solution is a kind of flexible thinking called set shifting, Vartanian said. The puzzle presents viewers with a set of implicit constraints--in this case, the size of the squares. To solve it, the puzzle solver must break out of those constraints and realize that the three squares don't have to be the same size. This mental flexibility, Vartanian said, is a hallmark of creativity.

In his study, published this August in Cerebral Cortex (Vol. 15, No. 8, pages 1,170-1,177), Vartanian imaged the brains of 14 college-student participants as they solved the various match problems. The researchers found that the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex was activated when people solved problems that required set shifting. This isn't so surprising, Vartanian said, because previous research had found that people with lesions in that area have a hard time solving match problems that require set shifting.

In a second study, Vartanian and his colleagues looked at a different kind of mental flexibility: the ability to come up with new ideas. They asked 16 participants to imagine ordinary objects, like "a flower that is a rose," and then to imagine incongruous objects like "a living thing that is a helicopter." The participants later sketched some of the fanciful objects they came up with inside the scanner (see pictures above).

The researchers found that the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex was activated when participants imagined the novel objects; they found no such activation when participants imagined the ordinary objects.

Next steps

There are, of course, many kinds of creativity, from visual to mathematical to verbal. And while the match problem and the novel image experiments required different types of mental flexibility, they both involved visual tasks.

So, Vartanian said, he is now looking to move beyond the visual system to verbal and other tasks. Recent results from a study using anagrams, he said, suggest that verbal creativity may also involve the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex.

Vartanian emphasized, though, that he does not think that all human creativity comes from that corner of the brain.

"This is not the only area that 'does mental flexibility,'" Vartanian said. "But it is one aspect of the neural circuitry involved."