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the creativity gap

Neurologist Adolfo Cotter, president and senior consultant of Neuroimage Inc.

In the 2011 movie Limitless, a regular Joe is able to use 100 per cent of his brain power, turning him into a novel-writing, fortune-amassing, language-learning superman. Fantasy, yes, but it plays to our increasing obsession with strengthening our grey matter. Eager to stave off dementia? Do the daily crossword. Tired of forgetting people's names? Take the latest online memory-boosting seminar.

Want to be more creative? Dr. Adolfo Cotter, a Toronto neurologist, is working on it.

In 2005, Dr. Cotter left the world of university research – "not enough funding for this type of study" – to test the waters of corporate brain imaging. He's president and senior consultant of Neuroimage Inc., developing training software "to enhance creativity in humans across all areas: business, science, politics, art, everywhere." Dr. Cotter estimates they're a year away from starting imaging tests – a combination of different types of scans – of people's brains being caught in the creative act.

"Improving brain function, whether it's creativity or memory, can be generally compared to training any muscle," says Dr. Cotter. "The more you do the tests, the more the brain is enhanced."

In the case of creativity training, bulking up the brain involves creating new neurons in key parts of the brain, and then building new connections between those neurons. The tricky part is figuring out which parts of the brain to focus on.

"The challenge is that by inducing creativity instead of it developing spontaneously, we create pressure that can actually block creativity. We're designing tests to get the subject to spontaneously come up with a creative thought so that we can image the brain to see which part that idea 'came' from," he says.

Dr. Cotter agrees with the consensus that creativity happens in the right hemisphere – but he isn't counting out the left side. "I believe creativity uses both halves of the brain in unison. Creativity is about collaboration – both between the hemispheres of the brain, and between people. In history, breakthrough ideas were usually developed in collaboration between people, not just one person having an insight – but it's the leader of the group who gets the fame. Collaboration is essential."

Neuroimage has built creativity-training software prototypes, but Dr. Cotter estimates it will be another three years before anything will be publicly available. Meanwhile, he is planning Phase 2: robots blessed with artificial creativity.

"We don't believe that such machines will be as creative as a 'genius' human brain, but it's possible that they could work in unison with a human to realize higher creative goals. The technology is not completely ready for that yet. First we need to understand the human brain better."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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