In studies in 2009 and 2011, Sharon Thompson-Schill a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that the brain behaves differently when thinking creatively. Normally, the prefrontal cortex is engaged in focused, rule-guided cognitive activity. However, this area of the brain acts differently in a creative mental state when novel ideas are generated. As original ideas are being created, there is a lower state of cognitive control in the prefrontal cortex. In this state, rules and assumptions are not "boxing in". It was discovered that the prefrontal cortex became electrically "quiet" when the human subject thought with fewer restrictions. The prefrontal cortex was in a state of "blurred" attentional focus. The Thompson- Schiller team gave this state a name, they called it
This kind of thinking is very different from the mental state of cognitive control and focus with perimeters such as guidelines or criteria, as when one is analyzing or evaluating. Earlier studies, in the mid 1990's, supported
when brain waves were measured over the prefrontal cortex. While participants generated novel ideas, alpha waves (8 to 12 cycles per second) were recorded. The synchronized firing of the neurons in the state of defused attention and relaxed wakefulness is a state of lower cognitive control.
Alpha waves denote a synchronized firing of the neurons. Further support for the theory of "
" was found in Thompson- Schill's most recent study. In this study, participants were asked to find uses for objects. The most creative participants showed minimal activity in their prefrontal cortex but also showed activity in the posterior brain regions, areas of visuospatial skills.
These studies suggest that when there is lower cognitive control, less filtering of information, one is able to think more creatively. The state of hypofrontality allows one to be more open to possibilities without preconceived notions and assumptions that could stifle thought. In conclusion, these two mental states offer uniquely different outcomes. The mental state needed to generate novel ideas and facilitate creative thinking, is characterized as relaxed, with less cognitive control, and defused attention. In contrast, the mental state necessary to think critically is characterized as highly focused attention with cognitive control, such as in synthesizing and evaluating.
This research clearly demonstrates the importance of the mental state of hypofrontality when creative thought is needed to generate innovative ideas and since creative thinking is the highest level of cognition, there is value in teaching our students this skill and structuring learning for this opportunity. Equally important, however, is the controlled state of thinking, but this is already a common approach in education today; synthesizing, analyzing, and evaluating information. Together, however, the combination of these dual styles of thinking just might be the key to better student learning.
Furthermore, one's ability to move back and forth between these two cognitive states, from a mental state with high cognitive control to a relaxed state of diffused attention of lower cognitive control, is one's ability to be cognitively flexible; hence the term cognitive flexibility.
In a 2010 study by Zabelia and Robinson, it was discovered that the more innovative and creative thinkers showed greater cognitive flexibility in a Stroop test when measuring results of their ability " to switch from matching combinations (for instance, the word " red" appearing in red type) to a clashing one ("red" showing up in blue letters)"
on the test. The Stroop test is a test that measures cognitive control using words for colors written in the same and different colored fonts as the actual color.
However, the ability of one to switch back and for between these two states, matching combinations, and clashing ones demonstrated cognitive flexibility: flexible and controlled thought; creative and focused thought; innovation and application. Moreover, it is suggest that the most innovative and creative outcomes are when one demonstrates cognitive flexibility; able to shift between thinking modes, exercising one's ability to think outside the " box" and then build the " box," generate an ideas and then make it happen.
The implications of this research are exciting! Teaching students these two styles of thinking and their specific purposes along with the metacognitive skills to discriminate between each state, shifting from wonder to analysis, using both convergent and divergently thinking is worth exercising in our classrooms. I believe this would empower our students with an understand of their thinking well enough to adjust and change it according to the needs of the specific problem or topic, ultimately teaching independent cognitive flexibility, the ability to adapt one's thinking according to the required needs of the problems to be solved, purposefully.