Creativity: Nature or Nurture?

Creativity exists as an amalgamation of innate talent and acquirable skills, making it the subject of an enduring and complex debate; is creativity a result of nature or nurture? And why are some people more creative than others? Over the years, lesion studies have provided considerable insight regarding the relationship between brain structures and artistic abilities. Additionally, the ever-growing documentation (and scrutiny) of savant/autistic individuals has created a quest to understand and explain the neurological basis of these findings.

What is creativity?

Caselli (2009) conspicuously defined creativity as ‘an attempt to bridge the gap between what is and what should be’ using original or imaginative ideas. The complexity of this debate arises due to the fact that individuals can express creativity across a multitude of disciplines and at different points along a continuum. Innovative behaviour is not restricted to humans, however what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, is our utilisation of art as a communicative system. With respect to this, artistic creativity can therefore be defined as a conscious and cognitive process involving several key phases: preparation, incubation, illumination (eureka moment) and production (Heilman, 2016).

So what do we know about the brain already…?

The brain’s outer membrane, and the image people most typically envisage when they imagine the brain, is the cerebral cortex (or cerebrum), which is separated into four lobes: parietal, occipital, temporal and frontal. A structure termed the corpus callosum facilitates communication between the left and right hemispheres – structures that we now understand to differ in their specialities. Information concerning the integration and understanding of stimuli, analysis, language and serial movements (e.g. throwing) are functions belonging to the left hemisphere. The right side of the brain deals with anything concerning visual stimuli e.g. processing, memory, imagery, colour discrimination, as well as the integration of information from all brain regions (Lusebrink, 2004). Just beneath the cerebrum lies the limbic system – a collection of structures responsible for a number of functions including motivation, behaviour, long-term memory, olfaction and (of particular concern in this article) emotion. Despite it being an extensive complex, for the purpose of this article it can broken down into the following critical components: (1) the thalamus – a relay station for all sensory processes occurring in the brain, (2) the hippocampus – crucial in the formation (but not storage) of long-term memories, (3) amygdala – emotional integration of both the conscious (left side) and non-conscious (right side) variety, (4) basal ganglia – the planning and execution of movement.


Figure 1: the visual pathway from the eye to the brain. Taken from

The visual cortex, found in the occipital lobe, (as shown in figure 1) serves as the final destination for visual information (colour, texture, direction and movement) entering the brain before processing begins. Separation of the visual pathway into two distinct streams, originating in the occipital lobe, forms the basis of the ‘two-stream hypothesis’ and is shown in figure 2. It proposes that form, shape and colour information is received and conveyed to the temporal lobe via the ventral stream, leaving the dorsal stream as the pathway responsible for spatial information travelling to the parietal lobe (Lusebrink, 2004). As the complexity of art increases, recruitment of neurons in the frontal cortex (responsible for higher processing) also increases. Neurons that fire together, wire together’ is a phrase denoting the fact that brain stimulation facilitates brain growth e.g. musicians have been found to have a larger auditory cortex than non-musicians (Heilman, 2016). Nonetheless, this certainty is a source of controversy as it further blurs the boundaries between nature and nurture as explanations for creativity.

Nature or nurture?

The theory of natural selection by Charles Darwin proposes sexual selection as a biological underpinning of art; animals use embellishment and behavioural displays to lure potential sexual partners e.g. peacock’s displaying their tail or the colourful plumage of birds. Such behaviours persisted and evolved with the rise of the Homo sapiens e.g. the use of decorative face paint in African tribes (which is akin to the application of make-up by women in contemporary society). This behaviour highlights many desirable characteristics such as intelligence, creativity and physical aptness that reflect the condition of the brain and body in the flaunting individual (Zaidel, 2010).


Figure 2: the ventral and dorsal visual pathways originating from the occipital lobe. Taken from

Additionally, conclusions drawn from experiments by Reader and Laland (2003) revealed that many birds and non human primates exhibit creativity in the form of cunning and deceptive behaviours, e.g. pigeons teaching each other how to reach food in a difficult place/situation or monkeys rinsing the sand off their sweet potatoes before eating them and passing this on to their relatives. There are many more documented examples of animals using creative methods for survival, leading to an explanation of creativity in humans ‘as an extension of the fundamental biological survival functions’ (Zaidel, 2014) – though this can be extended as an explanation for both sexual and survival functions.

Studying the effects of brain damage, disease or abnormalities can shed some insight into the importance played by specific brain structures or regions. Research concerning savants for example, has been used to try and enhance our understanding of anatomical differences underlying their creative abilities. The term ‘savant’ refers to individuals that possess a constrained yet exceptional level of intellect, in an otherwise defective brain. Savant syndrome can be split into a 50:50 ratio between those who suffer autism and those who have acquired the condition as a result of some form of CNS damage (also known as acquired savant syndrome) (Zaidel, 2014). For example, an interesting MRI study by Treffert (2009) reported the absence of the corpus callosum in the brains of savants that were able to simultaneously scan and interpret two different pages of text. This echoes a fascinating finding by researchers at Cornell University, which found a smaller corpus callosum in writers, musicians and artists (Cox, 2013). Since a component of creativity is considered to be a consequence of the brains’ communicative ability (established previously as the primary role of the corpus callosum), these findings do prove somewhat counterintuitive. Whilst a correlation does not always imply cause and effect, it may be worth looking into this further; perhaps the augmentation of creativity in this way requires that the brain and its hemispheres specialise in a different way by sacrificing efficiency or function in other regions. Of course there is a possibility that multiple factors are at play and that genetic codes have a lot more to answer for. Additionally, lesion studies examining pre and post-damage productivity by artists uncovered the resilience of their skills, regardless of the extent or lateralisation of damage. Artists suffering with dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases display a similar level of resilience even into the later stages of their disease, where a diminished motor activity is what finally stops their art production (Zaidel, 2010). Therefore the extent of the evidence discussed, points towards creativity being an intricate process with no single brain region or pathway playing a dominant role.

Art and emotion: what can art therapy tell us?

Emotion affects almost every aspect of cognition: memory, attention, information processing, etc. (Zaidel, 2010), therefore it is conceivable to propose that art, with the ability to evoke the most powerful of emotions, should have the same effect. A compelling argument states that artistic abilities have evolved as a compensational mechanism allowing the retention of communication in the face of adversity (Zaidel, 2014). This is supported with the emergence of art therapy as a method of treatment for many patients suffering with brain trauma or disease. This technique focuses on how visual and somatosensory information reflect emotions, which in turn affect our experiences, behaviour and thoughts. In this way, art therapy can used to improve emotional and cognitive maturity and has been used to repair damaged cortical pathways. Since all forms of art involve motor movement, victims of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia were exposed to art therapy in an attempt to activate the basal ganglia – a bridge between motor association and the somatosensory cortices – resulting in a reduction of impairment in these pathways.

The science underlying this therapeutic phenomenon is neuroplasticity – pertaining to the brains’ capacity to reorganise itself in response to injury, disease, new situations or changes in the environment. The success of art therapy is a consequence of its dynamic nature; interaction with art media calls on the activation of sensory, motor and cognitive (interpretation, decision-making, forming internal images) systems (Lusebrink, 2004). Whilst promising, this method remains slightly ambiguous and relatively new. Only time can reveal its efficacy, yet for the sake of this debate it does say a lot about the role of nurture.

So…what can we conclude?

Art is a uniquely human construct that allows us to reflect upon reality as we see it; stylised by our own sense of individuality. Creativity, on the other hand, is subject to influence by both nature and nurture. As already outlined, basic neural underpinnings for creativity can be explained as an evolutionary adaptation for reproduction and survival that grew in complexity as brain anatomy developed. Everyone is innately creative and we use it in our everyday life for a multitude of reasons: negotiations in the workplace, daydreaming, cooking, choosing your clothing and decorating your home. To the contrary, artistic creativity relies very heavily on nurture; an individual’s environment can ease or impede ones artistic faculties.

As Picasso once said:

All children are artists. The problem is trying to stay an artist once one grows up’.

Author: Tiffany Quinn

Edited by: Molly Campbell


Cox, B. (2013). Are some people born creative?. The Guardian. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Feb. 2017].


Heilman, K. (2016). Possible Brain Mechanisms of Creativity. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, [online] 31(4), pp.285-296. Available at: [Accessed 3 Feb. 2017].


Lusebrink, V. (2004). Art Therapy and the Brain: An Attempt to Understand the Underlying Processes of Art Expression in Therapy. Art Therapy, [online] 21(3), pp.125-135. Available at: [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017].


Roeser, S. (2010). Emotions and risky technologies. 1st ed. Dordrecht: Springer, pp.62-63.


Treffert, D. (2009). The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, [online] 364(1522), pp.1351-1357. Available at: [Accessed 1 Feb. 2017].


Zaidel, D. (2010). Art and brain: insights from neuropsychology, biology and evolution. Journal of Anatomy, [online] 216(2), pp.177-183. Available at: [Accessed 3 Feb. 2017].


Zaidel, D. (2014). Creativity, brain, and art: biological and neurological considerations. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, [online] 8. Available at: [Accessed 2 Feb. 2017].


Music and the Brain

Music has encapsulated individuals across all cultures going back thousands of years. It has been the epicentre of traditional tribal ceremonies across the world. It has been used by the likes of Nas, John Lennon and Lauryn Hill as a form of expression, to inspire the world and as a non-physical emotive weapon. Whether it be on the West End stage, or at your local cinema, music represents the cardinal ingredient used to take an audience on an emotional journey.

Regrettably, we all relate to that feeling associated with exam revision where you ask yourself if you are ever going to be able to remember all of those history dates…all those drug names and classes for the treatment of hypotension…your discussion points on how Marxist interpretations influence how geographers think about economy. Yet have you ever stopped and thought about the number of songs you can completely recall all of the lyrics to? How exactly is it possible to struggle so much to remember so many things, but never forget the lyrics to your favourite songs (sometimes even the songs you hate)? Have you ever listened to the lyrics of a song and sworn that it was written just for you? Or what about that particular motif which takes you straight back to a specific point in time, perhaps with a special person? For the duration of that piece you can recall every last detail and feel the goose bumps return on your skin. This is not a novel topic of interest within neuroscience; it has been explored in books such as ‘Musicophilia’ by Oliver Sacks or ‘This is your brain on music’ by Daniel Levitin for a long time, however I still feel that among the majority it is not something that people really talk or read about.

I vividly remember watching a 2009 BBC documentary, ‘The Alzheimer’s Choir’, which revealed – quite beautifully – the healing power of music. Singing for the Brain is a UK-based service composed of Alzheimer’s sufferers and their spouses. They convene to sing a variety of familiar songs in order to stimulate and aid expression by those who have lost their voices. An extraordinary transformation occurred on the screen before me as I watched several sufferers in a nursing home sing along to their favourite songs (where they had previously been unable to recall the names of their children or the day of the week). In some exceptional cases, attempts were made to dance on the spot or get up from their seats. This was a catalytic event in my life; pushing me further towards the field of Neuroscience in a quest to better understand the relationship between music and our brains…how could a string of sound waves be responsible for such a phenomenon? And how many other many other wonderful things is music scientifically accountable for?

Bob Snyder contends that memory and its limitations influence how we perceive and structure events and time sequences. It is very rarely the case that music is not used for communication – be it an idea, an emotion or a story – and where this occurs, musical structure must consider the structure of auditory memory. Echoic memory, short-term memory and long-term memory comprise the three auditory memory processes that correlate accordingly with three different musical levels based on the differences in their time scales. The level of fusion represents the early unconscious processing of frequency and pitch. The level of melodic and rhythmic grouping constitutes the acquisition of melodic and/or rhythmic phrases that last as long as the timescale for short-term memory. Finally, the level of form, associated with the chemical and structural changes in the brain that occur during unconscious processing of long-term memories, correlates with entire sections of musical pieces (Snyder, 2000). What does this mean? Well in short, Snyder is trying to convey the importance of using memory to understand the organisation of music. Can the correlation between music and the neural processes within our brain be the reason that it resonates so strongly within us?

More astoundingly is the recent discovery of a neural population specific to the perception of music as reported by MIT news video:

Despite the excitement surrounding this discovery, it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It isn’t clear whether we respond the way we do to music as a result of having a specific neural population to do so, or whether as a consequence to incorporating music into our lives we have evolved that ability. Equally so, the location of these neurons does not tell us anything more than that they exist…for now. But it is an important starting point necessary to aid this exploration.

Neuroaesthetics is novel area of neuroscience that aims to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms behind our response to art. I believe that we are well on our way to understanding why music is such an integral part of being human and I think we can only do so by increasing awareness of this field of neuroscience – a field I am eager to become a part of. The aim of my blog series is to discuss and ask questions about art and the brain with the ultimate goal of raising awareness, and more importantly interest, in such an exciting area of research. For those who are already intrigued take a look for yourself:

Stay tuned!


Society, A. Singing for the Brain – Alzheimer’s Society. [online]. Available from: [Accessed March 3, 2016].


Snyder, B. 2000. Music and memory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Trafton, A. 2015. Music in the brain. MIT News [online]. Available from: [Accessed February 16, 2016].

 Author: Tiffany Quinn

Editor: Molly Campbell

Being Bilingual- What Happens to Your Brain When You Learn a New Language?

One of the most remarkable factors that separate human beings from other species is the ability to communicate through the sophisticated tool of language. It is also true that one of the most extraordinary characteristics of the computational machine in which language is developed, the brain, is modified and structurally influenced by the environment and the experiences we have in our daily life. Interestingly, the process of learning two different languages, whether this be from birth (early or simultaneous bilingualism) or later in adulthood (late or sequential bilingualism), results in structural and functional modifications of the brain. In the last two decades many disciplines have started to investigate these neurostructural changes and the benefits of being bilingual, an example being potentially delayed dementia onset. Here you can find described the last studies and more interesting research outcomes.



The best way to study whether the assimilation of a second language modifies (at some level) the brain structure is to obtain brain images through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and observe if any difference in bilinguals’ brain exist. Indeed, Klein D. et al, did this. In 2013, they compared the thickness of the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), (Figure 1)- (the area of the frontal lobe which is involved in language articulation) in monolinguals and different types of bilinguals. The study showed that the left pars reticularis and pars orbitalis (the most anterior parts of IFG), are significantly thicker in late bilinguals (age of acquisition from 4 to 13) than in monolinguals. This finding may show that the acquisition of a second language after the most sensitive period of language learning (early childhood), causes quantifiable alterations in brain regions involved in this new task learning. These adaptations are comparable to the acquisition of complex motor tasks such as juggling (Klein D. et al, 2013).

Furthermore, the study illustrated a positive correlation between age of language acquisition and thickness of the aforementioned area, which means that the later the second language is learnt, the thicker the IFG is. This result would suggest that, the highest level of structural modifications are greatly enhanced when the sensitive period for language acquisition is chronologically as far away as the second language is learnt.

Interestingly, this hypertrophic effect of the left IFG is completely reversed in individuals that developed simultaneously two languages since birth. In these type of bilinguals the left IFG is thinner than in monolinguals and the right IFG is thicker. It is widely known that the language is a “lateralised” function of the brain, in simple words: the left hemisphere is responsible for that function. So why do we find an increased structural development in the opposite hemisphere in this case? Well, the most intuitive answer to this phenomenon is that the exposure of these children to two languages since birth probably, not only causes structural brain modifications but also leads to a reorganisation of these areas functionalities.


cristina 2

Figure 1. The Inferior Frontal Gyrus in the frontal lobe is anatomically divided in three subregions (from rostral to caudal): pars orbitalis, pars triangularis and opercular pars.

Notle J., Angevine J.B., 2013

Berken A.J. et al, in 2016, studied the correlation between the neural connectivity -the connection between populations of neurons linking the right hemisphere and left hemisphere IFG-, against the level of activation of these areas when producing the same speech in early and late bilinguals.

This comparison used functional MRI, and demonstrated that simultaneous bilinguals, have a higher functional connectivity between the homologous structures (IFG) of both sides. In simple terms, the stronger the neural connection between the left and right structures, the lower the activation of the neurons required to produce the same sentence in the second language (Figure 2). This amazing finding not only demonstrates that the assimilation of two languages since birth leads to enhanced neural connectivity, but it is also a great example of brain functional reorganisation in response to a stimuli received in in early childhood.

cristina 3.png

Figure 2. Graph showing the negative correlation between the neural activation (% BOLD) in simultaneous and sequential bilinguals, against neural connectivity (Fischer’s Z).

Berken J.A. et al, 2016


By determining the neurostructural and neurofunctional modifications that occur in bilinguals’ brain, scientists have generated controversy regarding the general beneficial effects that bilingualism seems to provide. In particular, the greatest beneficial effect that has been identified is the delay in dementia onset in individuals fluently speaking two languages.

Dementia comprises a wide range of brain disorders that manifest themselves with symptoms that mainly concern progressive and irreversible cognitive decline. The cognitive functions initially affected are generally memory, orientation in space and events and impaired ability to perform everyday tasks ( Argonin M. E., 2008). Bialystok E. et al in 2006 studied 184 patients diagnosed with dementia, of which half ( 51 %) were bilinguals. The amazing finding was that, bilingual individuals developed the first symptoms of dementia on average 4.1 years later than the monolinguals.

One of the major critiques raised to these types of studies, is that the population tested often included immigrated populations and thus the delay in dementia onset could be due other environmental or biological factors rather than the use of two languages. However, a more recent study (Alladi Suvrana D.M. et al 2013), addressed this issue by studying the dementia onset of the indian population, which is mainly bilingual for historical reasons and not for immigration causes. Furthermore, the study compared the monolingual and bilingual groups subdividing further the population based on different variables such as level of education, occupation and severity of dementia. The result of this study showed a delay in dementia onset in bilinguals individuals of 4.5 years, and for three types of dementia: Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal dementia and vascular dementia. However, speculation surrounds the theory of bilingualism delaying dementia onset. The reason being is that, ultimately, not enough information is known about the pathway through which this effect is brought about.

However, it is important to understand that, if bilingualism is responsible for this great delay in dementia onset not only it would be absolutely beneficial for the individual, but it also would represent a great advantage under a socio-economical point of view, and learning a second language should be highly encouraged. For instance, it has been calculated that a delay in dementia onset of 2 years in USA would decrease the prevalence of the disorder of 1.94 millions in 50 years. (Brookmeyer R et al., 1998 as cited in Bialystok E. et al, 2006).

In conclusion…

It is important to take into account the fact that cognitive, structural and functional benefits of bilingualism could widely vary in relation to the type of bilingualism, proficiency and age of learning. It is not possible to state for definite that whoever speaks fluently two languages will undoubtedly preserve his/her cognitive functions better than monolinguals in their lifetime. Furthermore a variety of other environmental, biological and educational factors can support and synergically contribute to the protective effects against many types of dementia. However, there is supporting evidence that infers to bilingualism as being a protective factor. Also, one of the most important benefits of speaking more than one language is without any doubts the ability to communicate and exchange information with more people. and the opportunity to discover new cultures…so, why not give it a try?

If you cannot visualise the IFG from the diagram then take a look at this interesting animation.



  • Argonin E.M., 2008, Alzheimer disease and other dementias, second edition, Philadelphia, Lippincot Williams & Wilkins


  • Berken A., Chai X., Chen J.K., Gracco V.L., Klein D., 2016, Effects of Early and Late Bilingualism on Resting-State Functional Connectivity, The Journal of Neuroscience, 36(4): 1165-1172


  • Hickok G., Small S.L., 2016, Neurobiology of Language, USA, Elsevier Sanders


  • Klein, Mok K. , Chen J.A., Watkins K.E., 2013, Age of language learning shapes brain structure: A cortical thickness study of bilingual and monolingual individuals, Brain & Language, 131 (2014) 20–24


  • Notle J., Angevine J.B., 2013, The Human brain in Photographs and Diagrams, 4th Edition, Philadelphia USA, Elsevier Sanders


  • Stephen, Does bilingualism delay dementia?, 2015, CMAJ Canadian Medical Association Journal, Volume 187(7), 21 April 2015, p E209–E210


  • Suvarna , Thomas H.B., Vasanta D., Bapiraju S., Mekala S., Kumar S. A.,; Jaydip Ray C., Subhash K., 2013, Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration status, Neurology, Volume 81 (22), p1938-1944


  • Bialystok E., Craik F.I.M., Freedman M., 2006, Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia, Volume 42 Issue 2, Pages 459–464


Author: Cristina Cabassi 

Editor: Molly Campbell