by Anne-Marie Cziko, Ph.D. Neuroscientist
Every new creative endeavor, no matter how big or small, is the result of a novel network forming, cross-talking or recombining in the brain of it’s creator: the Mona Lisa, double ledger accounting, indoor plumbing, post-it notes and the list goes on and on. This neural infrastructure exists in every single human brain. That means that each human brain on planet earth has the potential for infinite connections of brain areas and unlimited creativity.
Not convinced? Then let's do a little activity. Take a look at the image below and imagine that it is sitting in front of you.
It’s red, round, and slightly squishy. It smells like rubber and has a not-so-slippery feel. As you observe the ball, each element of the ball is simultaneously encoded in a different part of your brain. For example, the color “red” is recognized by neurons (brain cells) that only detect color in the visual cortex, an area found in the back of the brain. The feel of the ball is detected in the somatosensory or touch/pressure/pain perception area, found at the top of the brain. The smell of the ball is detected deep in the temporal cortex (above the roof of your mouth). All of this is happening simultaneously in a matter of milliseconds.
If I were to throw the ball at you, you would have activation of neurons in the visual and motor areas of the brain as you perceived the motion and moved your muscles to catch it. Here is the interesting part: the neurons that were responding to the visual perception of the movement would also respond to any object thrown from that same direction. If I were to now send a pen along the same trajectory or a bird flew that same path, those same neurons would once again respond. Similarly, the neurons responsible for visual perception of the red color would also respond to a red rose, a red car or any other red object. Their job is to detect red.
Herein lies the remarkable capacity for encoding AND for creativity in the brain. The neurons themselves are programmed to respond to any object moving in that direction—any object of that particular shade of red and so on work together as a network and create the holistic representation that we would experience as a red ball being thrown. This allows our brain to make sense of any object or concept that currently exists and new concepts and objects we will be exposed to or invent in the future. Cave people would have never encountered a red rubber nubby plastic ball.
And what's most exciting and relevant to this discussion is that there is no practical limit to the number of new network combinations in the brain. It has been estimated that there are more potential combinations in the human brain than atoms in the known universe.
Your brain, every brain is primed and ready to make those new connections. All it needs is practice and exposure.