The Cognitive Balancing Act of Creativity

Being creative means soaring while we’re tethered to the ground.

Posted Feb 15, 2019

The Greek philosopher Plato famously described poetical inspiration as a kind of madness, saying that poets “are not in their right mind when composing their beautiful strains,” and create their poetical works “not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.”  The poet, he claims, “is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and reason is no longer in him.”  While Plato’s oracular explanation of poetical inspiration strikes our 21st-century sensibilities as antiquated and quaintly metaphysical, we still have a general perception of artistic creativity as being an ethereal process that transcends rational cognition, or is even actively irrational.  An artist waits idly, we imagine, gazing at the sky through some garret window until inspiration strikes, producing a flurry of largely automatic activity that results in the creation of a new masterpiece.  Any real artist, of course, knows that the creation of a genuine work of art in any medium is far more complicated than that.  It requires “inspiration,” certainly, but if that momentary flash of insight is to become anything more than a momentary insight it must be accompanied by a willful act of the severest mental discipline.  Artistic creativity is a delicate balance of spontaneity and deliberation.

Several recent studies in the cognitive neuroscience of creativity have explored this cognitive balancing act, focusing particularly on the types of attention involved in acts of creativity, and the role that our brain’s executive functions—“control processes that regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors”– play in the creative process.  It turns out that Plato was partially correct in his view of creativity as a spontaneous, largely involuntary process.  The research also reveals, however, that the cognitive control provided by executive functions is every bit as integral to creativity as “inspiration” is.

A number of recent studies on the connection between attention and creativity have indicated that “real-world” creative achievement (as opposed to laboratory measures of creativity such as divergent thinking tests) is associated with diffused or “leaky” attention.  In studies designed to test participants’ ability to filter out extraneous visual and auditory stimuli while performing a cognitive task, creative people exhibited “reduced sensory gating” as compared to participants with lower measures of creativity.  In other words, the creative people in the studies had trouble blocking out distractions from their environment when they were trying to give their full attention to the task they were performing.

These laboratory findings are consistent with biographical accounts of creative people through history who similarly struggled with keeping environmental distractions at bay.  In “Attention and Creativity” (a chapter in The Cambridge Handbook of the Neuroscience of Creativity) cognitive neuroscientist Dr.  Darya Zabelina lists a veritable Who’s Who of creative people who were overly sensitive to sensory stimuli and describes the elaborate measures to which they resorted to trying to block out distractions (French writer Marcel Proust, for instance, shuttered his windows and lined the walls of his study with cork to block out external light and sound when he was working).  One would think that such excessive distractibility would be detrimental to creative thought, but Zabelina speculates that these artists’ creative accomplishments were achieved because of, rather than in spite of, this ostensible liability.  “Leaky attention,” she explains, “may be a double-edged sword,” serving as a “cost” in situations such as trying to focus on a conversation in a noisy room.  That same inability to block out environmental “noise,” however, might actually prove beneficial to creativity “by helping people introduce unusual and original pieces of information into their cognition, resulting in creative thought.”

As an example of such creative distractibility, Zabelina offers a quotation from Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “I’m absolutely convinced that I’m going to write the greatest book of my life, but I don’t know which one it will be or when.  When I feel something like this…I stay very quiet, so that if it passes, I can capture it.”  This image of the artist as a sensitive soul totally at the mercy of the environment to either provide inspiration for an artistic masterpiece or snuff out a nascent creative idea through sensory distraction would seem to support Plato’s view of artists as “light and winged and holy” things who create their works “not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.”  A new study from Zabelina et al., however, adds an important qualification to that image.

Designed to examine the association between the brain’s executive functions and different types of creativity, the study presented 47 participants with a test to assess their divergent thinking, and a battery of cognitive tasks to measure three executive functions—Updating, Shifting, and Inhibition—both individually and collectively (Common EF).   Updating refers to “the ability to monitor and rapidly add or delete the contents of working memory,” Shifting is “the ability to flexibly shift between different tasks or mental sets,” and Inhibition is “the ability to suppress or override dominant, but irrelevant response tendencies.”  To assess “real world creativity,” the participants completed a Creative Achievement Questionnaire in which they cataloged their prior creative achievements across ten different domains.  A subset of the participants further specified whether they were actively involved in an artistic or an IT professional domain.

As suspected, the results indicated that divergent thinking performance (commonly considered a measure of creative thinking in a laboratory setting) is not actually associated with real-life creative achievement.  More surprising were other contrasts between divergent thinking and creative achievement.  While better Updating ability was a good predictor of divergent thinking fluency (where the ability to rapidly add or delete working memory contents is useful for producing more responses to a prompt), real-life creative achievement was associated with better Inhibition abilities, indicating that an ability to “suppress or override” certain trains of thought, even if they appear inspirational, is necessary for productive creativity.  Furthermore, where real-life creative achievement was separated into artistic and IT domains, people in the artistic, as compared with IT, professions exhibited both better overall executive function and better Shifting abilities.  This suggests that, while artists have demonstrably “leaky” attention, once they are engaged in a creative task, they can usefully channel the leak by inhibiting unrelated responses and shifting between the task at hand and original ideas that may be related to that task.  Rather than being passively “possessed” by some external inspiration, as Plato imagined, artists “may be able to actively regulate their thoughts and behavior by guiding their cognition in most appropriate ways.”  While a leaky attention makes them susceptible to environmental influences beyond their control, artists achieve a delicate balance between spontaneity and control, exhibiting “characteristics of stability and flexibility, as they are able to flexibly shift mental sets (Shifting), while also exhibiting the propensity to successfully regulate their thoughts and behaviors (Common EF).”

This delicate balance between flexibility and stability—between spontaneity and cognitive control– is perfectly described by the 19th century British poet John Keats in an explanation of his reluctance to revise his poems once he had written them:  “My judgment, (he says), is as active while I am actually writing as my imagination. In fact, all my faculties are strongly excited, & in their full play—And shall I afterwards, when my imagination is idle, & the heat in which I wrote, has gone off, sit down coldly to criticize when in possession of only one faculty, what I have written, when almost inspired?”  The poet who penned immortal poetical masterpieces such as “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” clearly understood that Plato was only half right in his assessment of the nature of artistic creation.  If the poet is, in fact, a “light and winged and holy thing,” he or she is firmly, if flexibly, tethered to the ground with cognitive control.


Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Plato. “from The Ion.” Critisicm: The Major Statements. Charles Kaplan, ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.


Zabelina, Darya. “Attention and Creativity.”. The Cambridge Handbook of the Neuroscience of Creativity. Jung, Rex E., and Oshin Vartanian .Cambridge University Press, 2018.