To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.

Meet Dr. Nancy Andreasen




Dr. Nancy Andreasen is one of the world's leading experts on creativity. In the past she conducted a seminal study of this topic, interviewing and testing 30 writers from the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop, who were compared with 30 educationally matched normal control subjects. As she describes below, she is now extending this work to the study of other types of creativity.

I am currently conducting a new study of the neural basis of creativity, which will explore this trait in a carefully selected group of creative individuals.

The capacity to develop original or novel ideas or to produce novel, beautiful, and useful artifacts is perhaps the most important cognitive trait that human beings possess. However, it has rarely been studied scientifically. Although investigators have attempted to develop ways to study the creative process using “creativity tests,” these methods are not well-supported in terms of either face or predictive validity. The best work to date has been based on the “case study method,” through which creative people are studied using interviews about their work habits and sources of insight. These studies have also examined the relationship between intelligence and creativity. This work indicates that the creative process depends heavily on intuition and flashes of insight rather than analytic processes. It also indicates that being highly creative is not equivalent to having a high IQ; the average IQ in creative people is around 120. People with “high IQs” (e.g, 140 range) are not necessarily creative. (Andreasen 2005, 1987).

 Almost nothing has been done to study the neural substrates of creativity using noninvasive but sophisticated modern neuroimaging tools such as structural Magnetic Resonance imaging (sMR) and and functional Magnetic Resonance imaging (fMR). Therefore, I am now conducting a research project that will examine the neural basis of the creative process.

This project draws on my previous experience in studying creativity in a group of 30 creative writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and 30 gender, age, and educationally matched controls. In that study I used interviews to examine the nature and development of creative ideas, personality traits of creative individuals, and neurocognitive tests. I also evaluated their psychiatric history. Several findings emerged. The writers displayed a “cognitive style” on some of the neurocognitive tests that indicated a capacity to form original associative links. Their IQs were almost identical to the controls—in the 120 range. They displayed a higher rate of mood disorder than the controls, as did their first degree relatives. Their first degree relatives also had a higher rate of creativity than did the relatives of the controls.

It has been an open question as to whether these findings are specific to writers (as a special and specific form of creativity), or whether they would generalize to a group of individuals who represented diverse forms of creativity in both arts and sciences. Implicitly, there is also an open question as to whether creativity in the arts and the sciences are based on different traits and mental processes. A historical survey in my recent book, "The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius," suggests that the creative process is similar in both artists and scientists, that it is highly intuitive, and that it may arise from unconscious or dreamlike mental states during which new links are created in the association cortices of the brain. (Andreasen 2005, Andreasen et al 1995). Consequently, my current study is designed to begin again the process of exploring some of the questions suggested by my previous work. This is a study of the psychological and neural basis of the creative process in a diverse group of “creative geniuses.” The definition of creativity is operational. That is, creative genius is defined as the ability to produce something that is highly original. Highly creative subjects are identified, representing a variety of different fields in the arts and sciences: writers, visual artists, musicians, physicists, mathematicians, chemists, computer scientists, life scientists, earth scientists, social scientists, etc. Approximately half will represent arts and half sciences. In general, the scientists will be drawn from people who have received major awards such as Nobel prizes or the National Medal of Science. The artists are well-known and highly successful people. The creative people will be compared with a group of educationally matched controls who are not creative in the sense defined above.

They are studied by obtaining structural and functional Magnetic Resonance (sMR and fMR) scans of their brains, obtained using equipment in the Department of Radiology at the Carver College of Medicine. They are also interviewed by me, using an individualized interview that explores their work habits and the way they get their creative ideas. Their personal and family history are also be reviewed. Finally, they are assessed with a group of standard neurocognitive tests. The study takes about 1.5 days.  All subjects are able to review and ask questions about their own brain images. They also receive a booklet describing their individual brain characteristics and a model of their own individual brain reconstructed from their sMR scan. They also receive a CD containing their brain images that they can review on their computer if they wish or share with their local physicians.