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Cognitive Analysis of Neural Mechanisms That Support Divergent Thinking

By: Sai Srihaas Potu

Prior research has indicated that brain regions and networks that support semantic memory, top-down and bottom-up attention, and cognitive control are all involved in divergent creative thinking. Recent evidence suggests that neural processes supporting episodic memory—the retrieval of particular elements of prior experiences—may also be involved in divergent thinking, but such processes have typically been characterized as not very relevant for creative output.

Divergent thinking is the ability to generate creative ideas by combining diverse types of information in novel ways and is one facet of creative thinking that has been linked to real-world creative achievement. The dominant contemporary view in the cognitive neuroscience of creativity is that semantic memory is a key source of divergent creative thinking.

A meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies indicated that activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex underlie component processes of divergent thinking, which are typically thought to include semantic retrieval and expansion, inhibition and cognitive control, and cognitive flexibility.

While much research has been justifiably devoted to these behavioral and neural underpinnings, a small but growing number of studies also suggest a meaningful role for episodic memory in divergent thinking that may point to the need to reconsider the dominant contemporary view. Episodic memory is a neurocognitive system that is classically characterized as supporting the recollection of past experiences specific to a time and place. Strikingly, during the past decade, episodic memory, and the neural processes that support it, are thought to be engaged in the retrieval and reconstruction of episodic details for completion, such as future thinking or simulation, decision making, and problem-solving.

Recent research has proved that brainwaves can foster our creativity through the suppression of obvious ideas. Creativity requires us to break away from more common and easily reached ideas but we know little about how this happens in our brain. This research proved that brainwaves play a crucial role in inhibiting habitual thinking modes to pave the way for our minds to access more remote ideas.

Higher levels of alpha brainwaves enable people to come up with ideas that are further away from the obvious or well-known uses. The researchers show that stimulating the right temporal part of the brain in the alpha frequency increases the capability of inhibiting obvious links in both types of creative thinking. This was demonstrated by applying an electrical current to the brain through a non-invasive technique called transcranial alternating current brain stimulation which causes minimal to no side effects or sensations. The findings have implications for how we understand creativity and opens up potential ways of affecting the creative process.

Brain oscillations represent the combined electrical activity of neuronal assemblies and are usually measured as specific frequencies representing slower (delta, theta, alpha) and faster (beta, gamma) oscillations. These oscillations are thought to play a critical role in both the recording and recall of declarative memory and emotional limbic circuits. The speed of the oscillations correlates to the relevance of the neural processes for memorization. The use of fMRI technology plays a pivotal role in identifying neural activity changes which will not only correlate to the oscillation size of the waves but also to the suppression of obvious ideas that foster divergent thinking.

Previous studies have claimed that episodic memory and semantic memory play an integral role in the cognitive control of divergent thinking. With this research, scientists can see a clear correlation between brainwaves and divergent thinking. Brainwaves can guide and boost memory formation. These oscillations reinforce the correct guesses while repressing the incorrect guesses, helping the brain learn new information. The rhythmic control behind the oscillations of the brainwave signal the importance of neural processes that are relevant for memory. Brain oscillations act on specific neural mechanisms affecting the formation, maintenance, consolidation, and retrieval of memories.

Memory is a fundamental component of daily life. We rely on it so heavily, that it is not a stretch to say that life without memory would be close to impossible. Memory has a fundamental role in life, reflecting the past as the past, and offering the possibility of reusing all past and present experiences. Memory is an active, subjective, and intelligent reflection process of our previous experiences. But, memory disorders can be some of the biggest medical problems in our society today. Investigating how specific neural mechanisms are affected by brain oscillations will be vital in developing effective treatments for memory-related disorders in the future.


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