LAWRENCE — From the global climate crisis to the flood of refugees emanating from Syria, the world needs creative solutions to a host of seemingly intractable problems. Cognitive neuroscientists are searching for ways to boost people’s imagination, partly in hopes of tapping the potential of the human mind to tackle such issues.
University of Kansas researcher Evangelia Chrysikou investigates how we process information about everyday objects to engage in higher-order flexible thinking. She aims to better grasp the cognitive and neural underpinnings of human imagination and problem solving.
Now, a $175,000 grant from the Imagination Institute will enable Chrysikou and her colleagues to study the effects on the frontal lobes of transcranial direct current stimulation, a technique that uses small electric currents to alter brain function through small electrodes placed on the scalp, to improve people’s creative thinking about everyday objects.
“One of the ways psychologists look at flexible thinking is by measuring one’s potential for coming up with alternative ideas for things that already exist,” said Chrysikou, assistant professor of psychology. “For example, a box of Kleenex is typically an item to wipe your nose or clean up a spill. But there are also uncommon ways to use this object. When we’re capturing potential for flexible thinking, we’re asking participants to come up with new uses for something like Kleenex — maybe packing a box for shipping, in place of Styrofoam peanuts.”
Chrysikou and her colleagues will use this harmless form of neuromodulation that can enhance people’s capacity to imagine creative uses for run-of-the-mill objects.
“Transcranial direct current stimulation is a noninvasive electrical stimulation technique that’s fairly old that has resurfaced in more modern packaging for the last 10-15 years,” she said. “It makes brain cells either more or less likely to fire depending on the polarity you’re using. Basically you’re applying small amounts of electricity — about the equivalent to a 9-volt battery over certain brain regions to alter their function in ways that can influence task performance.”
Chrysikou hopes this technology will help her team to assess what’s going on during higher-order, complex thinking and “to understand the process of imagination and creativity, which is at the heart of who we are as biological and social beings,” she said.
Would these devices be a cause for concern if used broadly? “We have a lot of work to do as researchers before we understand the exact effects of neurostimulation for behavior,” Chrysikou said. “Nevertheless, the use of these devices as an external stimulation for flexible thinking tasks isn’t really that different than drinking coffee to wake you up or using your cell phone to set to reminder.”
According to Chrysikou, “One can think of these devices as extensions of memory and attention. From a research perspective, however, we are using this technology to understand the involvement of different brain regions in complex forms of thinking.”
The investigators will also use diffuse optical spectroscopy and diffuse correlational spectroscopy — cutting-edge, brain-imaging technologies — to examine links between imaginative thinking brought about by tDCS and frontal lobe activity.
“You can think of the frontal lobes of the brain as the higher control center that helps you to focus on a specific task while suppressing distracting information,” Chrysikou said. “For example, when you’re looking in the fridge to make a sandwich, you’d focus on bread, cheese and mustard — and suppress attention to irrelevant items like yogurt. The frontal lobe helps you focus on a goal while quieting down noise, so to speak. However, our research has shown that for some creative thinking tasks—like coming up with a new dish from leftovers or generating alternative uses for objects — less involvement of the frontal lobes as a result of inhibitory tDCS might be beneficial.”
Chrysikou and her colleagues will use this grant to develop and validate with tDCS and optical imaging a standardized version of the Generation of Novel Uses (GNU) task for assessing aspects of creativity. The task comprises about 200 items like a helmet, chair, arrow, pipe, rope, hockey puck and post-it note.
Ultimately, finding novel uses for common objects is an exercise in creative thinking — the same facility that underlies a gamut of human achievement, according to Chrysikou.
“One’s potential for creative thinking as measured by the GNU can be applicable to the arts or the sciences or to everyday problem solving,” she said. “Think of art such as Picasso’s ‘Guernica.’ He had a problem to solve, namely, ‘How do I communicate the devastation of war so that everyone can understand it?’ He approached the problem based on his past experience with his own techniques, other paintings and the work of his colleagues. From a scientific perspective, if you’re trying to understand the cognitive and brain processes involved in creativity, you start by breaking down this seemingly abstract concept to its elements, such as memory, attention or executive function.”
Ultimately, the researchers hope to foster a reliable measure of creative thinking or imagination that would allow them to accurately gauge anyone’s creative potential.
Chrysikou’s co-investigators are Roy Hamilton, Arjun Yodh, Dawn Mechanic-Hamilton and Sharon Thompson-Schill from the University of Pennsylvania.