“Taking a less-traveled path” is often considered an effective approach to creativity (i.e., creative thinking calls for a break from habitual thinking and associations), yet little is known about its underlying neural mechanism. In a series of four independent experiments involving electrophysiological and brain stimulation methods we provide evidence that this process is mediated by the right temporal alpha oscillations. Alpha oscillations are known to represent a process of active inhibition to suppress irrelevant information, such as inhibiting distractions during visual search. Through monitoring the brain’s electrical activity during different creativity tasks and by stimulating the right temporal brain region at the alpha frequency we show that a similar process of active inhibition is also key to creative thinking.
Creative cognition requires mental exploration of remotely connected concepts while suppressing dominant ones. Across four experiments using different samples of participants, we provide evidence that right temporal alpha oscillations play a crucial role in inhibiting habitual thinking modes, thereby paving the way for accessing more remote ideas. In the first experiment, participants completed the compound remote associate task (RAT) in three separate sessions: during right temporal alpha (10 Hz) transcranial alternating current brain stimulation (tACS), left temporal alpha tACS, and sham tACS. Participants performed better under right tACS only on RAT items in which two of the three words shared misleading semantic associations. In the second experiment, we measured EEG while the participants solved RAT items with or without shared misleading associations. We observed an increase in right temporal alpha power when participants correctly solved RAT items with misleading semantic associations. The third experiment demonstrated that while solving divergent thinking tasks participants came up with more remote ideas when stimulated by right temporal alpha tACS. In the fourth experiment, we found that participants showed higher right temporal alpha power when generating more remote uses for common objects. These studies altogether indicate that right temporal alpha oscillations may support creativity by acting as a neural mechanism for an active inhibition of obvious semantic associations.
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