Recap Creativity and Neuroscience Workshop: Film Screening Why Are We Creative?

For this month’s edition of our Creativity and Neuroscience meetup at >top in Schillerkiez, we had a film screening of Hermann Vaske’s thought-provoking film “Why are we Creative?”

For nigh on 90 minutes, the director took us on a travel through time and space (30 years all over the globe) to hear directly from the horses’ mouths “Why are you creative”- or words to that effect.

The catch was these aren’t any old horses, but rather the finest or at least the most well-known horses in the world. From Stephen Hawking to Marina Abramovic, Björk to the Dalai Lama each prestigious being had but a few seconds to share insights into their creativity.

Before the film began, everyone was given a piece of paper to answer privately why they are creative. These were used later for material to discuss. We even had a few on display, an idea which was inspired by the exhibition from the film.

Director Hermann Vaske in front of the exhibition of the same name showcasing the answers in print of some of the respondents.

About 30 people joined for the screening and the follow-up discussion. The discussion started with our regular social element; the “speed meeting”. However, as well as the usual prompts of “who are you?” and “what brings you to the blend of neuroscience and art?”, everyone was encouraged to speak about their answer to the question posed in the film.

After a few rounds of speaking one-on-one or in small groups, we rejoined to get feedback on the film and consequent thoughts.

In general, the film was well received and provided much food for thought. The premise of the film is a collection of answers to the name in the title. The question is a difficult one because it can be taken many ways, although it is perhaps telling which way you choose to answer the question. Some celebrities answered “how did you become creative?”, others “what are you creative for?”.

The reception was not without reservations. One critique of the film we discussed was the perpetuated exclusivity in portraying only a particular group of successful creatives (white males) while omitting not-so minorities who struggle to get seen or heard in their fields. This was concluded to be both a reflection of the director and of society we live in, and who they still consider to be worthy of success and fame.

So, why are we creative? And can neuroscience tell us anything about the drive to be creative?

Cognitive neuroscientists have been attempting to understand the neural mechanisms behind creative insights for years. The 3 main methods used by cognitive neuroscientists to study creativity are fMRI, EEG, and PET (Sawyer, 2011) (there will be an article on the creative methods used by neuroscientists in the following weeks as a recap of our June meetup). However when it comes to writing a hypothesis, there are probably as many definitions of creativity and ways to be creative as there are creative people.

Supposedly, there are four basic types of creativity, each one controlled by separate neural circuits as reviewed in a paper by Sawyer (2011). These neural circuits are proposed to terminate in the prefrontal cortex, as creativity is a conscious process and the prefrontal cortex holds the output of working memory.  (The prefrontal cortex is an evolutionarily young portion of our brain, used for higher-order processes.)

“A basic assumption of the framework is that neural circuits that process specific information to yield noncreative combinations of that information are the same neural circuits that generate creative or novel combinations of that information,” writes Sawyer. So we all have the capacity right? Well, there have been studies that show differences in creative ability.

One way we can view “how people are creative” is by assessing the way they search for solutions to problems from their semantic memory (knowledge and facts) (Kennet & Austerweil, 2016). According to Baird et al (2012), differences in memory structures facilitates mind wandering to associate distant connections which are consequently assessed for their appropriateness (Christoff, 2013; Sawyer, 2011). This can lead to novel insight and combinations. It is known as a bottom-up approach in the creative process and can differentiate between low and high creative-types (Kenett, Anaki, & Faust, 2014) -whatever those are.

This leads us nicely to the topic of next month’s meetup on the 20th of November at <top, Schillerpromenade 4, 6-9pm, where Joana Seabra will give us an insight into the artistic processes of artists and non-artists by EEG. After this, we will have our “speed-meeting” social and a hands-on workshop of some creative techniques to represent anatomy!

Why do you think we are creative? Or why are you creative? Leave a comment in the reply section for further discussion!


Christoff, K. (2013). Thinking. In The Oxford handbook of cognitive neuroscience.

Dietrich, A. (2004). The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. Psychonomic bulletin & review11(6), 1011-1026.

Kenett, Y. N., & Austerweil, J. L. (2016). Examining Search Processes in Low and High Creative Individuals with Random Walks. In CogSci (Vol. 8, pp. 313-318).

Sawyer, K. (2011). The cognitive neuroscience of creativity: A critical review. Creativity research journal23(2), 137-154.

One thought on “Recap Creativity and Neuroscience Workshop: Film Screening Why Are We Creative?”

  1. This is an intriguing question. Perhaps there is a drive to achieve novelty in our lives. What leads to an audience is more complicated. There is something wonderful about making a new thing. It’s seemingly different from fixing Something , but creative solutions can solve problems.

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