To come up with ideas that change the world – to create and innovate – is perhaps one of the most important capacities of the human brain.
But neuroscientists, despite 15 years of brain-imaging studies, are unable to define the circuitry involved in creative thinking. They don't know what is different about the brains of creative geniuses like Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Inc. who died on Wednesday.
But they are working on it.
At the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., Sandra Witelson is investigating whether anatomical differences in the brain are related to creative and intellectual powers.
She is famous for studying the brain of physicist Albert Einstein, and for discovering that the topography, the hills and valleys in the part of his brain involved in visual and spatial thinking, were different from any on record. This topography is formed in the womb, she said.
"Our best interpretation is that he was born this way," Dr. Witelson said.
She studied the brains of other skilled mathematicians and didn't find the same unusual topography, although the areas involved in spatial thinking were larger than normal.
But she said it is challenging to hypothesize about how the brain of Mr. Jobs might be different.
"He wasn't creative in the sense of a Nobel Prize winner. He was able to take something, like a tablet, that was already there and make it into something that the world consumer would prefer more than anything."
Researchers are also using advanced imaging techniques to learn more about the creative brain.
At the University of Iowa, Nancy Andreasen has started a brain imaging study of 30 highly creative artists and an equal number of high-achieving scientists and is comparing them to a control group of "non-creative volunteers."
Interviews with creative people reveal that inspiration and ideas often come to them when they aren't looking for them, when they are in the shower, or running, or having trouble falling asleep, Dr. Andreasen reported in a recent research paper.
This suggests that creativity involves an unconscious rather than a conscious process, she said.
Toronto researcher Oshin Vartanian suspects that creativity is related to the ability to stifle our inner critic. He is interested in how some parts of the brain are silenced so that out-of-the box ideas can emerge.
Dr. Vartanian painstakingly maps regions that are either activated or suppressed during creative problem-solving and then looks to see whether patients with damage to those areas have difficulty performing the same kind of tasks.
There are, however, also many different kinds of creativity. A jazz musician may come up with a new idea in a very different way from a mathematician. Researchers are getting closer to understanding the mechanisms involved in different kinds of creativity, where they overlap and the features they have in common.