Rules of the Game: How Structure Spurs Creativity

September 26th, 2016 No Comments Creativity, Features

creativity brain
Creativity can seem mythical to us. It’s apparent even in the language we use to talk about it. When we refer to creativity, it’s most often in the context of how fleeting, unknowable, and impossible to harness it appears. When a great idea hits, it seems like a chance occurrence never to be replicated, because doing so feels as unlikely as “capturing lightning in a bottle,” as the saying goes. We frequently imagine creativity as a muse, a mystical being whispering in our ears, but one that we can never summon on our own terms. It seems to come out of nowhere, giving us something where there once was nothing, seemingly out of thin air.

But is it really thin air that breeds creativity? Most of us can probably call to mind memories of overly-restrictive project guidelines or school assignments that we felt were the death knell for our own creative forces. “Why learn to write sonnets when I can create my own, more unique poems with free verse?” we may have thought. “Why do I have to learn scales when I can just play the music I feel? Why does this essay have to be exactly 1,000 words?” Our creative juices may seem like a wild force not to be tamed, but how often have we also stared at a blank page, or an instrument, or an engineering problem, not even knowing where to start?

Wide-open spaces might be the best places to attract lightning, but creativity is a different story. It’s not as unpredictable and fleeting as lightning; it’s a cognitive skill that can be cultivated and nourished, and the most fertile breeding ground for creativity might be a little less wild than you think.

Creativity: Two Contrasting Brain Regions Working Together

Researchers at the University of Haifa recently explored what the brain actually looks like when it’s coming up with novel solutions or ideas, an act we describe as “creativity.” In a 2015 study conducted by Dr. Naama Mayseless, along with Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory from the Department of Psychology and Dr. Ayelet Eran from the Rambam Medical Center, subjects were given 30 seconds to come up with new and original uses for a series of different objects. Their answers were given a creativity score based on frequency, with answers that were frequently given by subjects scoring low on creativity and answers that were more rarely given scoring higher. The subjects then had 30 seconds to give what they felt was the best description of the objects based on their accepted characteristics (as creativity is not just about forming an original idea or solution, but one that is fully applicable and reasonable). During both portions, they were monitored by functional MRI (FMRI) technology to get a real-time picture of what portions of the brain were active during the exercises.

The results showed two very different regions of the brain working together when subjects gave highly creative answers. On the one hand, researchers saw increased activity in the associative region of the brain (including the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and ventral anterior cingulate cortex), which we use when we’re thinking but not actively concentrating—for instance, when we’re daydreaming. However, while the associative region was churning its gears, so was the left-occipital temporal region, the more conservative part of the brain associated with cognitive control and inhibition. This is the part of the brain that allows us to integrate rules and norms into our thought processes.

So what does this mean? It means that in order to come up with a truly creative idea—a novel solution that’s fully functional—we need both uninhibited free-association as well as the ability to monitor our own ideas and place them in the context of the rules surrounding them, whether it’s the context of a specific problem to be solved (put a man on the moon, paint an emotionally moving painting) or the rules by which the world operates (like the laws of gravity when designing a rocket, or the rules of visual perception in a painting).

Strengthening Creativity By Following the Rules

The findings of this study make sense: rule integration has long been the cornerstone of exercises designed to increase the brain’s adaptability to new and unfamiliar situations. The ability to produce novel solutions to unfamiliar problems while incorporating feedback from environment in order to change or develop one’s ideas and strategies is a concept referred to as “cognitive adaptability,” according to researchers at the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative. The skills it requires—such as cognitive flexibility, working memory, and planning—are ones that are not only tied closely to creativity, but often severely stunted as a side effect of schizophrenia as well as traumatic brain injury. It’s because of this that Dr. Til Wykes of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London and Dr. Clare Reeder of Oxleas NHS Trust have devoted much of their careers to the study and development of Cognitive Remediation Therapy, a therapeutic program designed to improve those cognitive skills seen as crucial to adaptability and creative problem-solving through a series of cognitive exercises.

A key component of these exercises? Detecting and responding to rules.

For instance, the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test has long been used to strengthen subjects’ abilities to detect the unstated rules by which a problem must be solved, and then to question their assumptions, and thus their solutions, when the matching rules change without warning. In this exercise, a subject is told to match sets of cards of various shapes, colours, and numbers, but not by which feature to match them—only whether a match is wrong or right. The subject may first figure out that they are supposed to match by colour, but the administrator of the exercise can then switch the matching rule to shape without explicitly saying so, only continuing to affirm which matches are correct or incorrect, and the subject must detect the new rule on their own.

Similarly, the Stroop Colour Test requires participants to read aloud the names of colours spelled out in text coloured either similarly or differently to the word it represents (e.g., the participant may be asked to read aloud the word “green,” which may be printed in yellow ink), or to name the colour ink a word is printed in (which could be the colour blue, spelling out the word “red”). This measures and strengthens a subject’s directed attention, or their ability to filter out irrelevant information or impulses (like the knee-jerk reaction to say the word “yellow” when we see the colour yellow, regardless of what we’re supposed to be naming) in favour of the information relevant to achieving their goal within a set of rules.

These may seem like the most granular breakdown of rule-tempered problem solving. But on a fundamental level, exercising our ability to develop solutions within a set of rules (sometimes changing or unknown ones), to question our fundamental assumptions or instincts based on our observations, and to evaluate whether our solutions are viable, even on a small scale, can help us improve the mental skills that lead us to novel solutions—and ones that work. After all, the challenge of that aforementioned, accursed sonnet lies in how you can dream up a meaningful way to express unique thoughts within the confines of a prescribed rhyme scheme, meter, and line limit. Those restrictions, in turn, force you to reach for word choices and even thematic constructions you may not otherwise have thought of had you not been pushed to do so by the mandates of the form. It’s in this way that rules provide the resistance against which we strengthen the cognitive components of our creativity.

Luckily, there are opportunities in our everyday lives to practice these skills and strengthen our creative cognition—and they might be more fun than you think.

Looking to Boost Your Creativity? Games May Be the Key.

There may be no more perfect microcosm of real-world creative problem-solving than those activities we’ve been instinctually drawn to since we were children: games. Games provide us with a scaled-down world that operates by a set of rules and prescribed circumstances, within which we have to operate to achieve a goal (with the reward often ultimately being to “win” the game).

The Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative, under the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, has taken particular interest in the concept of how games can help foster creative, adaptive thinking, and recently set out to see whether video games in particular could help strengthen these skills. Drawing from the work of Cognitive Remediation Therapy to help improve cognitive flexibility and problem-solving skills, as well as research on the cognitive components of adaptability and creativity, they formulated five tenets of video game design that might help increase adaptability and creative problem-solving. These included implicit rule sets, implicit shifting of rule sets (as in the Wisconsin Card sort test), dynamic and shifting environments, some degree of open-ended gameplay (though all games will have some rules, by nature), and implicit reinforcement for actions to lead to a goal (i.e., a player is not told every step of the way whether their individual decisions were right or not; they have to look at the big picture results of their actions and figure out what worked and what did not).

And in the Xboxes and PCs of young people the world over, researchers found a seemingly magic bullet that hit all five design tenets: Portal 2, the open-ended strategy game developed by Valve Software that requires players to solve and apply a variety of different physics-based problems in a game world whose laws of physics are ever-changing, with the goal of escaping a certain room or building in each level. There’s no one, specific correct course of action a player has to take to solve the problem in each level, but a variety of creative solutions that can be put to use, using a myriad of tools and environmental features, operating under the mechanics of the game world.

In a study conducted at Sheppard Air Force Base, playing Portal 2 correlated with increases in several of the cognitive function tests in a battery developed with Cambridge Cognition that together measured adaptive cognition and creative problem-solving. Portal 2 players, as opposed to those playing basic Microsoft games like minesweeper and solitaire, saw gains in both rapid visual information processing and spatial span. But interestingly, it wasn’t just Portal 2 that boosted subjects’ creative abilities. High levels of prior video game play in general correlated with higher scores in spatial working memory, spatial sequencing, and cognitive planning. “In other words,” writes Dr. Shane Gallagher of the ADL Initiative, “this means that playing video games seems to enhance spatial abilities such as remembering and tracking objects in space—i.e., creating a cognitive map—as well as the processes involved in the formulation, evaluation, and selection of a sequence of thoughts and actions to achieve a desired goal.” Cognitive planning, in particular, is important to creativity as one “tries out” a variety of potential actions and solutions mentally when brainstorming.

How to Jumpstart Your Creative Thinking

Next time you’re stuck on a problem, or have no idea where to begin when generating an original idea, it may be useful to step away from the specific thought process you’re stuck in and let your associative brain breath for awhile—while doing some activities to get the cognitive muscles that help focus your ideas working.

1. Question your assumptions and switch up the rules.

If rules force us to reach for creative solutions we may not have otherwise found had we not been prompted to look in certain places, changing the way we frame a problem may lead us in even more unexpected, novel directions. For instance, if you’re having trouble reaching a solution or an idea, trying questioning not how to get there, but what it is you want to accomplish in the end. If you’re asking yourself, “How can I write something meaningful?” try asking “What do I want the person reading my words to think and feel?” or even “What about a thought has meaning or resonance when communicated?” Then try switching up how you accomplish it. If the underlying idea is solid, maybe it works better in a different format—what started as a poem might work best as a story; what started as a lecture might work best as a round-table discussion.

2. Daydream while you work.

There’s a reason many people prefer to study with music on. Feeding your brain stimuli it can pick up and process while performing a seemingly unrelated task can engage that “daydreaming” portion of your brain and spark associations you may not have otherwise made. If you’re finding your thoughts to be too narrow and limited, a little background noise might be the solution.

3. Try a game.

Play a card game that forces you to recognise and group various suits and colours quickly into units of meaning (like a flush or full house). Or a game like chess that requires you to hold in your mind a map of multiple objects’ locations on a board, and plan their movements several steps ahead. Or maybe pick up a video game controller and try your hand at using only the visuals on the screen to figure out the physics of a strange, unfamiliar world. Flex the cognitive components of your creative skills and let your mind wander in the background. See what it comes up with when the “Game Over” screen flashes.


Shenan Prestwich worked for a number of years performing primary and secondary research for the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative under the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense. Her research primarily centered on cognition and the use of advanced technology in instructional design, particularly how video games can be used to improve cognitive functioning. Her educational interests include creativity, instructional design, and the cognitive underpinnings of learning processes and skills. She received her B.A. in anthropology and archaeology from James Madison University and her M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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