AS FAR as the internet or phone networks go, bad connections are bad news. Not so in the brain, where slower connections may make people more creative.
Rex Jung at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and his colleagues had found that creativity correlates with low levels of the chemical N-acetylaspartate, which is found in neurons and seems to promote neural health and metabolism.
But neurons make up the brain’s grey matter – the tissue traditionally associated with thinking power, rather than creativity. So Jung is now focusing his creativity studies on white matter, which is largely made of the fatty myelin sheaths that wrap around neurons. Less myelin means the white matter has a lower “integrity” and transmits information more slowly.
Several recent studies have suggested that white matter of high integrity in the cortex, which is associated with higher mental function, means increased intelligence. But when Jung looked at the link between white matter and creativity, he found something quite different.
He used diffusion tensor imaging to study the white matter of 72 volunteers. Unlike MRI, which measures tissue volume, DTI measures the direction in which water diffuses through white matter, an indication of its integrity.
The volunteers’ capacity for divergent thinking – a factor in creativity that includes coming up with new ideas – had already been tested. Jung found that the most creative people had lower white-matter integrity in a region connecting the prefrontal cortex to a deeper structure called the thalamus, compared with their less creative peers (PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009818).
Jung suggests that slower communication between some areas may actually make people more creative. “This might allow for the linkage of more disparate ideas, more novelty, and more creativity,” he says.
Other studies have hinted that white matter might be similarly affected in some psychiatric disorders (see “The brain’s other half”). So the result also strengthens the link between creativity and mental illness. One of the triggers for Jung’s study was the finding that when white matter begins to break down in people with dementia, they often become more creative.
The results are surprising, given that high white-matter integrity is normally considered a good thing, says Paul Thompson at the University of California in Los Angeles. He acknowledges that speedy information transfer may not be vital for creative thought. “Sheer mental speed might be good for playing chess or doing a Rubik’s cube, but you don’t necessarily think of writing novels or creating art as being something that requires sheer mental speed,” he says. …