New research provides the first direct evidence that a low dose of electric current can enhance a specific brain pattern to boost creativity in healthy adults.
University of North Carolina School of Medicine investigators found the e-stim increased creativity by an average of 7.4 percent according to a common, well-validated test. Although the researchers do not believe the technique should be commercialized as a creativity edge, they do believe the findings can help people with complex illnesses.
Researchers ran a 10-Hertz current run through electrodes attached to the scalp and found that the stimulation enhanced the brain’s natural alpha wave oscillations — prominent rhythmic patterns that can be seen on an electroencephalogram, or EEG.
The study has been published in the journal Cortex.
“This study is a proof-of-concept,” said senior author Flavio Frohlich, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, cell biology and physiology, biomedical engineering, and neurology.
“We’ve provided the first evidence that specifically enhancing alpha oscillations is a causal trigger of a specific and complex behavior — in this case, creativity. But our goal is to use this approach to help people with neurological and psychiatric illnesses.
“For instance, there is strong evidence that people with depression have impaired alpha oscillations. If we could enhance these brain activity patterns, then we could potentially help many people.”
Researchers are now using this particular kind of brain stimulation in two clinical trials for people with major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD — a severe form of premenstrual syndrome. Participant enrollment is now underway for both trials.
“The fact that we’ve managed to enhance creativity in a frequency-specific way — in a carefully-done double-blinded placebo-controlled study — doesn’t mean that we can definitely treat people with depression,” Frohlich cautioned.
“But if people with depression are stuck in a thought pattern and fail to appropriately engage with reality, then we think it’s possible that enhancing alpha oscillations could be a meaningful, noninvasive, and inexpensive treatment paradigm for them — similar to how it enhanced creativity in healthy participants.”
Frohlich’s research is based on neural oscillations — the naturally occurring rhythmic electrical patterns that neurons generate and repeat throughout the brain. Alpha oscillations occur within the frequency range of eight and 12 Hertz nine (or cycles per second).
They were discovered in 1929 by Hans Berger, who invented EEG. Alpha oscillations occur most prominently when we close our eyes and shut out sensory stimuli — things we see, feel, taste, smell, and hear.
“For a long time, people thought alpha waves represented the brain idling,” Frohlich said. “But over the past 20 years we’ve developed much better insight. Our brains are not wasting energy, creating these patterns for nothing. When the brain is decoupled from the environment, it still does important things.”
When alpha oscillations are prominent, your sensory inputs might be offline as you daydream, meditate, or conjure ideas. But when something happens that requires action, your brain immediately redirects attention to what’s going on around you. You come fully online, and the alpha oscillations disappear. Other oscillations at higher frequencies, such as gamma oscillations, take over.
Proving the Concept
This gradual accumulation of knowledge helped researchers to associate alpha oscillations with creativity. Frohlich set out to prove this concept. His idea was simple.
If he could enhance the rhythmic patterns of alpha oscillations to improve creativity, then it might be possible to enhance alpha oscillations to help people with depression and other conditions of the central nervous system that seem to involve the same brain patterns.
For three years, his lab has used computer simulations and other experiments to hone a technique to improve alpha oscillation.
For the Cortex study, Frohlich’s team enrolled 20 healthy adults. Researchers placed electrodes on each side of each participant’s frontal scalp and a third electrode toward the back of the scalp. This way, the 10-Hertz alpha oscillation stimulation for each side of the cortex would be in unison. This is a key difference in Frohlich’s method as compared to other brain stimulation techniques.
Then Frohlich’s team compared each participant’s creativity score for each session. He found that during the 30-minute stimulation sessions, participants scored an average 7.4 percentage points higher than they did during the control sessions.
“That’s a pretty big difference when it comes to creativity,” Frohlich said. “Several participants showed incredible improvements in creativity. It was a very clear effect.”
But there was a question. What if the electrical stimulation merely caused a general electric effect on the brain, independent of the alpha oscillation? To find out, Frohlich’s team conducted the same experiments but used 40 Hertz of electrical current, which falls in the gamma frequency band typically associated with sensory processing — when the brain is computing what we see or touch or hear.
“Using 40 Hertz, we saw no effect on creativity,” Frohlich said. “The effect we saw was specific to the 10-hertz alpha oscillations. There’s no statistical trickery. You just have to look at each participant’s test to see these effects.”
Frohlich said he understood some people might want to capitalize on this sort of study to boost creativity in their everyday lives, but he cautioned against it. “We don’t know if there are long-term safety concerns,” he said. “We did a well-controlled, one-time study and found an acute effect.”
“Also, I have strong ethical concerns about cognitive enhancement for healthy adults, just as sports fans might have concerns about athletic enhancement through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.”
Instead, Frohlich is focused on treating people with depression and other mental conditions, such as schizophrenia, for which cognitive deficits during everyday life is a major problem.
“There are people that are cognitively impaired and need help, and sometimes there are no medications that help or the drugs have serious side effects,” Frohlich said.
“Helping these populations of people is why we do this kind of research.”