Though we tend to associate creativity with artists and entertainers, it’s still a tricky area of research, since it encompasses a wide variety of neural and cognitive processes. Researchers at Georgetown University (GU) have published a new study in the journal Cerebral Cortex that looks at increasing one element of creativity, which they dub “the thinking cap” approach. The study suggests that with a little zap of electrical current delivered by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), we can increase the brain’s ability to make new connections across “distant” ideas, particularly where language is concerned. This could offer new inroads to treatments of such disorders as aphasia (difficulty finding words) and boost cognitive thinking on demand.

Adam Green is a GU psychology professor who has been studying the “nexus between reasoning and creativity” in his lab for the past 10 years. Green tells mental_floss that people who have been considered especially creative, like Johannes Kepler, Albert Einstein, or even Steve Jobs, often described their insights and innovations as a result of making connections that other people didn’t. “There has been a fair amount of cognitive work indicating that creativity and intelligence are both related to analogical thinking,” Green says. “So analogies are a kind of reasoning product that can put together things that don’t seem very much the same on the surface.” 

The more a person can find connections between seemingly unlike things, the higher their cognitive creativity. He gives an example of something called “semantic distance,” which describes how alike or unalike the meanings are of two words or concepts. “To give an example, the word baseball is often used in the context of the word glove, but the word asparagus is less commonly used in the context of the word glove.”

The research literature had already established that a key part of the brain, the frontopolar cortex, is involved in making these kinds of semantic and analogous connections, so they wanted to test whether they could bolster this part of the brain—and thus creative insights—with electrical stimulation (known as neuromodulation).

Green and Peter Turkeltaub, a GU cognitive neurologist and neuroscientist, hooked up 31 participants to a headband that positioned electrodes in specific parts of the scalp to stimulate the frontopolar cortex. About half of the group received no treatment, while the other half were given anodal tDCS for the first 20 minutes of the testing session, during which they completed a 5-minute analogy-finding task on the computer. Then participants were asked to complete a verb generation task for another 15 minutes. They found that in both tasks participants were able to make more analogies across a wider semantic distance and more complex verb pairs after receiving the tDCS as compared to those who received “sham” tDCS.

They also tested the hypothesis, “What happens if you actually ask people to think more creatively?” Green says. “What we found with our data is that you can get people to think more creatively, even to make more creative connections, just by directly saying, ‘Hey, think more creatively this time around.’”

Green says the results of their research suggest that “if you can boost the ability to think of new ways to express things to new semantic connections, that could help overcome deficits.” He feels that this technique could have therapeutic use down the road, but for now is a powerful tool in better understanding creative thinking. 

Green does offer one caveat: that nobody attempt to do this on their own without a doctor’s oversight, since at-home tDCS units are available for purchase. “This is the kind of thing that could inspire some DIY nonsense, and that could be dangerous," he says. "You can hook up a couple wires to a nine-volt battery and try to pass a current through your head—but you shouldn’t.”