Creativity Issue

Yes, Artists' Brains Are Different Than Everyone Else's: Study

Illustration By Zohar Lazar

Chief of medical psychology and neuropsychology Robert Bilder at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience reveals brand-new findings on how artists' brains (and relationships) are different from everybody else's and debunks the notion of the "mad scientist."

There has been very little research to actually understand the biology of creativity. So in November, with support from the John Templeton Foundation, we presented the results of our Big C project to the Society for Neuroscience of Creativity. (“Little C” creativity can be found in nearly all people; “Big C” creativity is relatively rare, involves breakthrough thinking and can be associated with greatness.) The Big C project studied differences in creativity between internationally renowned artists and scientists who have been acknowledged by their peers as showing high levels of innovation in their work. We studied 30 people in each of three groups: scientists, artists and a control group — people recruited from around UCLA who are very smart but not selected for being particularly creative.

Following a series of word-association exercises, we found in the scientists a particular randomness in the organization of their functional brain networks, which was greater than the patterns of neural activity of the smart control group. And the artists' brains? Their level of randomness placed in between the two groups. That was a big surprise to us. What is it about the randomness in connections that enables scientific creativity and seems to be present more in scientists than in the brains of such subjects as artist Doug Aitken, fine-art photographer Catherine Opie and conceptual artist Glenn Kaino? No one knows the answer yet, but now we have evidence of a relationship between brain organization and creativity.

Furthermore, we looked at the subjects’ high-resolution brain scans and measured all brain regions and thicknesses of cortices. We found there seems to be an increase in the amount of brain tissue dedicated to visual processing and high-level visual integration centers for the artists. So this raises the question: Are these artists born and genetically predisposed to becoming artists because they have more brain allocated to that purpose? Or, through practice and hard work, did they build up and exercise these regions of their brain so much that they grew in volume? That’s going to require further longitudinal studies.

Another study that we presented to the International Neuropsychological Society in February shows that there is an interesting correlation with agreeableness. We found that less agreeable people tend to be more creative. You can interpret that as these people showing aspects of non-conformism or challenging the status quo. Additionally, in our November Big C study, we reported that visual artists had more unusual perceptions, odd speech and more socially divergent tendencies, while our scientists were more likely to be married with beliefs that aligned with the smart controls. We think the data is in line with the idea that artists entertain unusual ideas and may reject social conventions more, but we saw little support for the notion of the “mad scientist.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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