The Lab School of Washington

4759 Reservoir Road, NW 20007 Washington, DC
Phone: 202-965-6600

The Role of Executive Functioning in Creativity

We humans often look to the executive officer or leader to provide us with updates, shift our attention to the most important tasks, or help us decide what is relevant and important by also showing what is less of a priority. When engaged in a creative process, however, do we look to the executives to find solutions or come up with novel ideas? These leadership skills, or executive processes, are a part of each of us and exist mostly in the frontal lobe of our brains. Dawson and Guare (2010) provide a simple definition of executive functioning as the skills necessary to complete an activity or goal. Much mental capacity is necessary to make this a reality. Executive functioning skills support our organization, creation of goals, focus on goal-oriented behaviors, discernment of importance and priorities, and completion of steps leading to a solution. In addition, management of emotions and memory play a role in these skills. Problem solving, or the combination of some of the above mentioned EF skills, takes into account generation of multiple novel solutions to achieve a goal or solve a problem. These basic cognitive processes play an important role in creativity, as defined by convergent and divergent thinking tasks. Those EFs that most closely support creativity include updating, shifting, and inhibition.
Much of the research done on the creative process involves what is called a divergent thinking task. These tasks include thinking of alternative or creative uses for everyday objects, such as a tin can or car tire.  A 2007 study completed by Gilhooly et al helps further explain how people use different strategies over time when attempting to retrieve and share ideas. Most people start divergent tasks by using their memory, which is less demanding on executive processes and results in less novel responses. After memories have been exhausted, people then tend to switch their retrieval strategy, which leads to more creative ideas. Gilhooly et al (2007) found that those people with higher executive capacity produced more original or new ideas while those participants who were thought to have lower executive capacity were not seen to switch their strategy use and thus did not produce as many novel ideas. During early research studies it was observed that many of the more creative ideas came toward the end of the time allotted, and this finding has been termed the Serial Order Effect by Christensen, Guilford, & Wilson, in 1957 (Beaty and Silvia 2012). However, a 2013 study by Beaty and Silvia found new information. The study looked at how people came up with creative ideas and found that fluid intelligence was an important factor. Fluid intelligence is defined by Plucker, Esping, Kaufman and Avita (2015) as “the ability to apply a variety of mental operations to solve novel problems.” The 2012 study revealed that individuals with high fluid intelligence, which involves executive processes, working memory, and attention, could skip over the obvious answers and start with creative or unusual responses. Beaty and Silvia (2013) believe that executive processes allow for strategy use, category switching, interference management, pattern discernment, and directed search and retrieval processes. Thus, those individuals with more executive functioning skills could start being creative sooner in tasks that require creativity.
One important aspect of executive functioning, as it allows people to complete tasks, is updating. Updating is a mental process of monitoring and revising that is done while completing a task. One decides to discard or replace obsolete information with that which is more relevant.  This process takes information from working memory to support the individual in focusing on a given goal. Without updating, people start many tasks but do not complete them, or lose their focus while they are working. This sounds important to bringing creative ideas to fruition. Right? Updating, the executive process, significantly predicted creativity when creativity was tested using divergent thinking tasks (Benedek, Jauk, Sommer, Arendasy, Neubauer, 2014a). This is believed to be true because working memory supports the active maintenance of related information as well as a controlled search from memory. Creative ideas originate from the successful association of previously unrelated concepts taken from memory. Benedek et al. (2014a) believed that people with higher working memory capacity would more easily keep all goals active throughout the task, whereas people with lower working memory capacity would fall back on less specific goals, leading to less creative responses. The research that Benedek et al. (2014a) conducted included a non-verbal 2-back test, which requires participants to decide whether or not a visual figure on the computer screen is identical with one presented previously (two stimuli ago).  In a study that looked at brain activation during divergent thinking tasks, the pattern of activation supports the importance of orientation to the goal, or updating (Benedek et al., 2014b). Notably, there is increased activation of the left frontal network, which is responsible for semantic processing and retrieval of ideas. The medial temporal lobe, including some areas of the hippocampus, is also more activated suggesting more use of declarative memory during creative thinking. There is also decreased activation of right temporoparietal junction and cluster of precuneus and posterior cingulate gyrus and as these areas are important for ventral attention the decreased activation supports more focused attention on the given goal (Benedek et al., 2014a).
Shifting, another EF involving the process of switching between tasks, controls what some people call “multi-tasking;” however, our brains cannot do more than one activity at once. Rather, our brains can shift back and forth between activities, albeit quickly, so that a person may believe they are indeed completing more than one task. In addition to switching back and forth between activities, shifting also involves some prioritization as the brain disengages with tasks that are no longer relevant. Benedek et al. (2014a) found that shifting, similar to associative flexibility in earlier studies, did not predict creativity. However, brain activation supports the idea that shifting is involved when a person is attempting to be creative or think of novel ideas (Benedek et al., 2014b). The left inferior parietal cortex including supramarginal gyrus, an important area of the brain involved in shifting that directs attention to a person’s background knowledge, is activated in creative tasks in order to help the individual determine original ideas versus more ideas (Benedek et al., 2014a).
A third EF known as inhibition also significantly predicts creativity when creativity is looked at through divergent thinking tasks. Inhibition is the putting aside of irrelevant information to allow for more important or relevant information to come into focus. Some of the research suggests that a lack of inhibition could result in more creativity while it is also suggested that too little inhibition may make it difficult to stay focused on the goal (Benedek, Franz, Heene, Neubauer, 2010). A study completed by Radel, Davranche, Fournier, and Dietrich (2015) found that if inhibition skills are depleted before starting a task that involves creativity, the number of novel or creative ideas can increase. Radel et al. (2015) used one of two conflict tasks, either a Simon task or an Eriksen task, to exhaust inhibition skills before a divergent thinking task (Alternate Uses Task) or a convergent task (Remote Associate Task). The Simon Task measures choice reaction time where there is dimensional overlap between the irrelevant stimulus and the response.  The Eriksen Task is used to assess the ability to suppress responses that are inappropriate in a particular context.  Immediately after, the participants were then asked to complete convergent and divergent tasks and the results were compared. The findings show that those with decreased inhibition have an increase in fluency and originality of ideas. However, when the task involves selective attention and inhibitory control, or connecting ideas, decreased inhibition does not enhance creativity (Radel et al., 2015).  Brain activation in areas that inhibit suggests that people are inhibiting non-creative ideas when attempting to be creative. Creativity of ideas is linked to activation in the orbital part of the left inferior frontal cortex and a cluster of activation in precentral and postcentral gyri. Further, the left inferior frontal cortex is important for executive processes and response inhibition (Benedek et al., 2014a).
Executive functioning does play an important role in allowing individuals to be creative and to come up with novel ideas. Without the EF skills that help to update one’s ideas, shift between ideas, and inhibit irrelevant or stale ideas, a person would struggle to complete tasks in novel ways.  The frontal lobe of our brains, primarily, houses this important management team for our creative processes.  We depend on this leadership system in our brains, and the strength of these executive functions can determine the capacity we have for efficient and successful problem solving.

Beaty, R. & Silvia, P (2012). Why do ideas get more creative across time? An executive interpretation of the serial order effect in divergent thinking tasks. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(4), 309-319.
Beaty, R. & Silvia, P. (2013). Metaphorically speaking: cognitive abilities and the production of figurative language. Memory and Cognition, 41, 255-267.
Benedek, M., Franz, F., Heene, M., Neubauer, A. (2010). Differential effects of cognitive inhibition and intelligence on creativity. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 480–485.
Benedek, M., Jauk, E., Fink, A., Koschutnig, K., Reishofer, G., Ebner, F., Neubauer, A. (2014a). To create or to recall? Neural mechanisms underlying the generation of creative new ideas. NeuroImage, 88, 125–133.
Benedek, M., Jauk, E., Sommer, M., Arendasy, M., Neubauer, A. (2014b). Intelligence, creativity, and cognitive control: The common and differential involvement of executive functions in intelligence and creativity. Intelligence, 46, 73–83.
Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2010). Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention Second Edition. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Gilhooly, K., Fioratou, E., Anthony, S., Wynn, V. (2007). Divergent thinking: strategies for generating alternative uses for familiar object. The British Journal of Pyschology, 98(4), 611-625.
Plucker, J., Esping, A., Kaufman, J., Avitia, M. (2015). Creativity and intelligence, In Goldstein, S., Princiotta, D., Naglieri, J. (Eds.) Handbook of Intelligence: Evolutionary Theory, Historical Perspective, and Current Concepts (283-291). New York: Springer-Verlag New York.
Radel, R., Davranche, K., Fournier, M., Dietrich, A. (2015). The role of (dis)inhibition in creativity: Decreased inhibition improves idea generation. Cognition, 134, 110–120.
The Difference is Extraordinary
The Lab School of Washington
4759 Reservoir Road, NW | Washington, DC 20007-1921 | 202-965-6600