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Creativity Triggers Reward Signals in the Brain

While creativity is one of humanity’s most distinctive abilities, it obviously is not necessary for survival because many species that do not possess it have managed to flourish far longer than humans.

So what drove the evolutionary development of creativity?

A new neuroimaging study led by Yongtaek Oh, a Drexel University doctoral candidate, and John Kounios, Ph.D., a professor in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of its Creativity Research Lab, discovered that creativity triggers a burst of activity in the brain’s reward system — the same reward system that responds to delicious foods, addictive substances, orgasms, and other basic pleasures..

Because reward-system activity motivates the behaviors that produce it, individuals who experience insight-related neural rewards are likely to engage in further creativity-related activities, potentially to the exclusion of other activities — something that many puzzle aficionados, mystery-novel devotees, starving artists, and underpaid researchers may find familiar, according to Kounios.

“The fact that evolution has linked the generation of new ideas and perspectives to the human brain’s reward system may explain the proliferation of creativity and the advancement of science and culture,” he said.

The study focused on the phenomenon of aha moments, or insights, as prototypical instances of creativity, according to the researchers. Insights are sudden experiences of non-obvious perspectives, ideas, or solutions that can lead to inventions and other breakthroughs. Many people report that insights are accompanied by a mind-expanding rush of pleasure.

The team recorded people’s high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) while they solved anagram puzzles, which required them to unscramble a set of letters to find a hidden word. These puzzles serve as small-scale models of more complex forms of problem-solving and idea generation, the researchers explained. They noted which solutions were achieved as insights that suddenly popped into awareness, in contrast to solutions that were generated by methodically rearranging the letters to look for the right order.

The test subjects also filled out a questionnaire that measured their “reward sensitivity,” a basic personality trait that reflects the degree to which an individual is generally motivated to gain rewards rather than avoid losing them.

The test subjects showed a burst of high-frequency “gamma-band” brainwaves associated with aha-moment solutions, according to the study’s findings. However, only highly reward-sensitive people showed an additional burst of high-frequency gamma waves about a tenth of a second later. This second burst originated in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain’s reward system, the researchers noted.

The study shows that some people experience creative insights as intrinsically rewarding, they said.

Because this reward-related burst of neural activity occurred so quickly after the initial insight — only a tenth of a second — it did not result from a conscious appraisal of the solution. Rather, this fast reward response was triggered by, or integrated with, the insight itself, the researchers said.

Low-reward-sensitivity test subjects did experience nearly as many insights as the high-reward-sensitivity ones, but their insights did not trigger a significant neural reward response. That means neural reward is not a necessary accompaniment to insight, though it occurs in many people, the researchers said.

This study suggests that measurements of general reward sensitivity may help to predict who will practice, develop, and expand their creative abilities over time.

The study was published in the journal NeuroImage.

Source: Drexel University

Creativity Triggers Reward Signals in the Brain

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). Creativity Triggers Reward Signals in the Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 13 Apr 2020 (Originally: 13 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 13 Apr 2020
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