Cerebellum may be site of creative spark

Playing Pictionary linked to boosted activity in workhorse region of the brain

pictionary drawings

DESTINATION IMAGINATION  As participants came up with creative ways to draw verbs, brain activity in the cerebellum increased. 

M. Saggar et al/Scientific Reports 2015

Creative sparks may fly from the brain’s cerebellum. Activity in that part of the brain, once thought to be a plodding, steady workhorse, increased as people inside an fMRI scanner created Pictionary drawings, scientists report May 28 in Scientific Reports.

While other scientists caution that the brain scan results lack the precision to say that cerebellum activity tracks with creativity, the study hints that the region plays some role.

“These are intriguing results, and it will be interesting to see how this relationship of cerebellum and artistic and intellectual creativity plays out in future studies,” says neurologist Jeremy Schmahmann of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in the study. He says his clinical observations support the results: Two of Schmahmann’s patients were artists who had their creativity sapped by strokes that damaged the cerebellum.

In the study, 30 participants drew images meant to convey words such as “levitate,” “exhaust” and “whisper” while undergoing brain scans. The more creative the drawing (rated by assessing originality, complexity and attention to detail), the more activity in the cerebellum, Manish Saggar of Stanford University and colleagues found.

Other brain regions involved in planning and organizing, including the cingulate and part of the left prefrontal cortex, seemed to get in the way of drawing images that conveyed words, the team found. Higher activity in those brain regions was linked with worse drawing performance, results that may help explain why trying too hard can sometimes seem to dry up creative juices.

The cerebellum, a structure that sits at the base of the brain, is known for its role in controlling movement, a process that often happens without conscious effort. The cerebellum might also help generate ideas subconsciously, forming “part of the engine that pushes creativity,” says study coauthor Allan Reiss, also of Stanford.

Other scientists urge caution in interpreting the results. Creativity is “quite difficult to capture in the wild,” says neuropsychologist Rex Jung of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. It’s possible that the cerebellum’s activity might actually be tied to differences in movements of drawing elaborate scenes, not necessarily creativity, he says.

Neuroscientist Chris Miall of the University of Birmingham in England agrees that processes other than creativity might explain the results. The cerebellum activity detected could reflect differences in attention, word processing and working memory, he says. 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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