Zap! Sparking the Brain Stimulates Creativity

An artist's image of a creative mind
(Image credit: agsandrew/

That spark of creativity you crave might begin with a tiny zap.

In recent experiments, researchers delivered gentle, targeted electrical impulses to 31 young adults who volunteered to have their brains zapped in the name of science. Results showed an in increase in creative thinking after the zaps, demonstrating for the first time that electrical stimulation can enhance creativity, the researchers said.

Far from science fiction, the technique has the potential to help anyone think more creatively, be it for art, science or business, the researchers said. The method is also promising for people who have speech and language difficulties: A targeted brain zap might enable those individuals to think of new ways to express their thoughts, the researchers said.

But before you try the DIY route by licking your finger and sticking it in a socket, the researchers warned that they are in the early stages of understanding how electrical stimulation may enhance thought. You can hurt yourself if the stimulation is done improperly, they said. These scientists use specialized equipment that can accurately control the strength and direction of the electrical stimulation. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain]

The researchers, co-led by Adam Green, a psychology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., discussed this technique in a paper published online April 13 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Green said no single task encompasses all types of creative thinking, but one important form of creative intelligence is the ability to find new connections between concepts that seem far apart. His research group's earlier work determined a location in the brain that appeared to support this kind of creativity. The region is called the frontopolar cortex.

In the new study, the researchers used Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) to stimulate this region while volunteers received verbal cues to think more creatively. If brain activity in frontopolar cortex is indeed a driver of creativity, then boosting this brain activity with electric current would shift creativity into overdrive, the team predicted.

"Just zapping the brain is easy. The tricky part is knowing where and under what conditions it is likely to work," Green told Live Science. He added that his team's objective was to "tickle it and see if it laughs," referring to the frontopolar cortex.

Green said the study participants were told to "put on their thinking caps," both figuratively and literally. They were asked to think creativity while wearing networks of electrodes across their skulls that produced electrical current for about 20 minutes.

Sometimes the electrodes stimulated the frontopolar cortex, but other times, they stimulated regions of the brain not thought to be related to creativity, as a control. When the participants were zapped in just the right spot, the frontopolar cortex, they experienced a burst of creativity and could make more creative connections between concepts in word-association and analogical-reasoning tasks.

Green said the experiment demonstrated that creativity is malleable, unlike IQ. Green said that researchers have for years experimented unsuccessfully with ways to improve a person's innate intelligence, or IQ. By contrast, creativity appears to be a nonstatic feature of the brain that really can burst to higher levels, Green said.

The tDCS promoted the firing of nerve impulses in the frontopolar cortex. This effect on the brain faded within about an hour after the tDCS was complete.

Dr. Peter Turkeltaub of Georgetown University Medical Center, the other lead investigator on the study, said the tDCS could one day be used to help people with aphasia, a communication disorder in which a person has difficulty speaking, reading and writing. The condition often results from a brain injury.

"Enhancing creative analogical reasoning might allow them to find alternate ways of expressing their ideas using different words, gestures or other approaches to convey a similar meaning," Turkeltaub said. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]

Green said the effects of tDCS differed from those of hallucinogens, which some have claimed can also enhance creativity. Although hallucinogens might induce imaginative imagery, there's no evidence the drugs can make someone more creative in the sense of helping them produce ideas that are not just novel but also meaningful and useful, Green said. Moreover, hallucinogens don't target the frontopolar cortex.

"The most effectively creative people have a big menu in the back of the brain and a discerning palate in the front of the brain," Green said. "You've got all these wild ideas, and you've also got the frontopolar cortex that's putting them together in a meaningful way."

Green said that Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, Inc., was the type of person who could connect those wild ideas — ingredients, if you will — and produce something tasty in the kitchen of his frontopolar cortex. Neuroscientists are just starting to understand this process, and that that's really exciting, Green added.

Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of "Food at Work" and "Bad Medicine." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.