The secret to stimulating creativity may be to literally stimulate the brain.
In a new study, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were able to measurably increase creativity by altering electrical activity in the brain -- a finding that may have significant implications for the treatment of depression.
The researchers stimulated the brains of 20 healthy individuals with a low dose of electric currents, transmitted safely and non-invasively through electrodes attached to the scalp. Afterward, the participants performed an average of 7.4 percent better on a test of creative thinking.
The electric currents administered were designed to enhance alpha wave oscillations, naturally occurring electrical patterns that oscillate at a frequency of 8 to 12 hertz (cycles per second). When you're daydreaming or in another restful waking state, there's a good chance that your brain is in alpha mode.
"[An alpha wave pattern] essentially decouples you from the environment," Dr. Flavio Frohlich, assistant professor of psychiatry, cell biology and physiology, and biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post. "The brain at any given moment in time has to decide, 'How much energy do I spend on processing incoming input through the sensory modalities, and how much time do I spend on processing and reprocessing internally stored previous information?'"
Previous research has shown that highly creative people tend to exhibit more alpha activity, Frohlich said, and the new findings suggest these alpha waves may indeed be a critical part of the creative process.
"In a state of creativity, you need to recombine -- in different, novel ways -- previously experienced things," he explained. "You're shutting out the outside world so that you can come up with newly generated internal ideas."
Frohlich hopes that this technology can one day be used to treat psychiatric illness. Other research has shown, for instance, that people with depression exhibit deficits in alpha oscillation, so it's possible that boosting these brain activity patterns might alleviate symptoms of depression.
"The ultimate goal is to use very safe, non-invasive brain stimulation -- we use very weak electric currents that you can barely feel on the scalp -- to treat psychiatric disorders by renormalizing electric activity patterns of brain networks," Frohlich said.
Testing healthy individuals for creative thinking was the first step. Now, Frohlich has begun conducting clinical trials examining the effect of alpha wave brain stimulation on people with major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe form of premenstrual syndrome.
But if you want to get those alpha waves going without having a scientist zap your brain, try meditation. A 2010 Norwegian study found that alpha activity is significantly increased during meditation.
The University of North Carolina study was published in the journal Cortex.