The human brain functions on many structural levels, allowing us the ability to exploit sensory inputs like sight and sound to make simple decisions, to reason, solve problems, and to even experience complex feelings like empathy and happiness. To begin exploring how creativity functions inside of our heads, we must first look at the fundamental processing unit of the human brain – the neuron.
A solitary neuron receives and transmits information using a system of electrochemical signals. In combination with other neurons, it is able to function as part of a network which can hold and process representations of pieces of information. To be sure, a neuron, by itself, cannot hold a single thought – i.e. when you think of an apple, there is no single “apple neuron” that lights up with activity in your head. Rather, the various components related to an apple, including its sensory associations like color, smell, taste, texture, as well as experiential memories regarding its past uses, activates a distributed cluster of neurons when the thought of the sweet and delicious fruit comes to mind.
Therefore, when you think of an apple, instead of your brain selecting a neatly bound book titled “Apple” on a virtual library shelf inside your head, the particular thought activates a collage of bits and pieces of information held in disparate groups of neurons that form a particular network specific to the fruit.
The amazing ability of humans to understand and think about a particular physical object or abstract concept is made possible through the process by which one piece of information is compared and related to another along various dimensions. To visit again the previous analogy, the vivid red color that one associates with the skin of a ripe apple might come to mind when thinking about the new coat of bright red paint seen on a sighting of a passing Ferrari. While an apple and a Ferrari are seemingly disparate pieces of information, they may, to some extent, share certain conceptual features and associations. This relational process can provide meaning to newly discovered objects, and can allow us to construct new ideas from existing ones.
Relational processes have neural underpinnings. The shared understanding of the red color that applies to both the apple and the car can be thought of as an abstract feature that is also shared, to some extent, by the two networks of neuronal groups that form the respective mental representations of each object inside the brain. Even though there are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain, evolutionary efficiency causes groups of neurons that code for a specific feature of one object to also be recruited to a certain degree by other objects sharing measures of the same feature – like the color red.
Looking deep into the past, humans have had to face many adaptive survival problems that require effective problem solving skills (think creativity) while at the same time expending as little energy as possible. This optimization problem has prompted the human brain to develop an ingenious balance between cognitive power and energy savings over the course of its evolutionary development. It is this balance that ensures creativity to be a fundamental activity of normal information processing.
Think of it in the following way – if human thought developed to be as efficient as possible, each piece of information would be stored in just one neural location, taking the least possible amount of energy to activate and make use of. However, because human thoughts are and never were identical in nature, this cognitive arrangement would not allow for any associations to be made and would likely result in little to no creative thinking potential. At the other extreme, if each piece information was stored in every possible neural location, each thought would consume an immense amount of energy due to its global activation. Working through all of the possible associations would take nearly forever.
It can be said then that the balance between efficiency and the neural distribution of information is certainly one major contributing factor to the human capacity for creative thought. Shared associations between apples and Ferraris – the possibility that they share neural features – allows us, at the most basic level, to combine unusual ideas together to form novel, creative ones.
- The CINC Team
Read next time to find out how higher order structures mediate different types of associations.