Using Pictionary to Study Creativity and the Brain

6-2-15 Creativity study
A study published on May 28, 2015 used a Pictionary-inspired experiment design to study the brain's basis of creativity. Allan Reiss lab/Stanford University School of Medicine

“Creativity is an elusive construct,” says Manish Saggar, a psychiatry instructor at Stanford University, principal investigator at its Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research, and teaching team member at the (formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design).

Saggar, along with Allan Reiss, the director of the Center, recently led an interdisciplinary team of researchers that attempted to track down the source of human creativity. The results of their study, published Thursday in Scientific Reports—an online, open access journal from the publishers of Nature—linked creativity with heightened activity in the cerebellum, which is usually associated with motor control. Conversely, they found that heightened activity in parts of the brain responsible for planning, organization, working memory and evaluation, like the left prefrontal cortex and the cingulate region, was associated with poorer creative performance. The study is “the first to find direct evidence” that the cerebellum is involved in creativity, according to a Stanford press release about the work.

The researchers wanted to design an experiment that would identify the neural correlates of creativity, or the brain basis of creative capacity. The participants here were not necessarily members of creative professions—unlike many previous studies, which have turned to musicians or creative writers—but people on and around the Stanford campus.

“Our goal was to design an experimental paradigm which is a more fun and gamelike without explicitly telling people to be creative,” says Saggar, who was lead author. The researchers turned to a popular game involving creativity to do so: Pictionary. They put participants in an MRI chamber and gave them 30 seconds to draw each of several words—like “levitate,” “pinpoint” and “exhaust”—using an MRI-safe tablet. As they drew, the researchers took fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans to detect which parts of their brains were active during the task.

Their instructions were not to be creative, but simply to draw whatever they thought would make it easiest for someone to guess the word. Saggar says they consciously designed the instructions to try to avoid exerting any pressure that might induce creative performance anxiety.

After participants had completed the drawings and rated the difficulty of each word post-scan, the researchers de-identified the sketches and had two experts from the evaluate them separately. Grace Hawthorne, a consulting associate professor who teaches a course designed to enhance creativity (called “Creative Gym”), and Adam Royalty, a lead research investigator at the, rated each drawing for representation, elaboration, fluency and originality. These last three characteristics were combined to produce a creativity score. Higher creativity scores correlated with higher levels of activity in the cerebellum. Drawings that earned high creativity scores also showed low activity in the executive function center.

Posing questions about creativity and attempting to answer them with neuroscience is not a new proposition, but it does require more than a little of the very thing being examined. From defining creativity to attempting to measure it to drawing widely applicable conclusions, the study of this elusive construct is a hazy labyrinth laden with obstacles.

For example, though the researchers took steps to make these creativity scores more objective—like using a sample set of drawings to measure the level of agreement between the raters—the methods used in this study underscore how difficult it is to conduct empirical studies of creativity. In the end, the raters’ scores are subjective, and based on a particular interpretation of what creativity entails.

The control condition, too, poses some problems. In an attempt to isolate the brain activity associated with creativity, the researchers designed a control condition in which participants drew a zigzag line instead of trying to depict a word. This condition was intended to match the fine-motor control and other functions required to draw an image, minus the creativity aspect. But Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies creativity at the University of Southern California, told Wired that “the main problem here is that the control task wasn’t a great control task. It’s also not matched as far as language. Pictionary is very language-driven task, and zigzag is not.”

The Stanford researchers recognized the limitations of their control task. “In retrospect we might have set a different control condition that needed a little bit more cognitive input,” says Reiss, who was the senior author on the study.

“When drawing something as simple as a zigzag, it covers the visual spatial aspect and the movement of the Pictionary task but cognitively it requires much less effort...the perfect task would have matched the cognitive load as well,” Saggar adds. In newer work, they plan to use a different condition that better matches the experimental task.

Despite the difficulties involved, the study of creativity has drawn a great deal of attention in recent years. Reiss argues that creativity is crucial far beyond childhood art projects, coming into play in every field and aspect of life through adulthood.

"Creativity is an incredibly valued human attribute in every single human endeavor, be it work or play," said Reiss, in the press release. "In art, science and business, creativity is the engine that drives progress. As a practicing psychiatrist, I even see its importance to interpersonal relationships. People who can think creatively and flexibly frequently have the best outcomes."

This latest study is part of a larger set of research projects looking at whether it’s possible to enhance creativity with a course like Hawthorne’s “Creative Gym.” In a previous study, they divided participants into two groups; one group took Mandarin lessons for several weeks while the others took Hawthorne’s course. Participants who took the “Creative Gym” class, they found, showed in behavioral assessments greater improvement in certain aspects of creativity and executive function than those in the Mandarin class.

The researchers are now trying to determine exactly what changes occur in the brain with such enhancement and whether the higher creativity sustains after some amount of time. Saggar says they are also working on an additional Pictionary-inspired study looking at creativity in teams as well as a project to study creativity in middle childhood, a time when creative capacity has been shown in previous research to slump temporarily. The researchers are now trying to quantify the phenomenon and determine what influences it.  

“There are so many different potential outputs of creativity,” Reiss says, citing creative language, mime and humor as some examples. “What we’re trying to get after is the part of the engine that drives creativity no matter what,” he adds, and “maybe this study hints at what the common denominator might be.”