The brain and Margaret's definition of creativity

Katerina teaching a workshop

By Katerina Kandylaki 
PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience 

“If you contribute something to yourself and others, you are living creatively.” Margaret wrote this in the first paragraph of her book “Creation in Dance and Life”, thereby constructing the manifesto of creativity in Margaret Morris Movement.

“Everyone should live creatively. It is now recognized that the creative urge -other than sex- is manifest in varying degrees not only in musicians, writers and painters, but in all human beings. Adults as well as children are encouraged to paint and dance freely, to express themselves and put forward any ideas that occur to them. But creation should go further and mean more in our lives than purely aesthetic expression, important though this is. Creation in the widest sense must surely be adding to what already exists. If you contribute something to others and to yourself you are living creatively.” When I first read these lines, I was shaken and inspired.

I felt motivated to spread this idea of creativity for all ages and abilities by giving the opportunity to people to express themselves through movement. Very recently I was amazed at the beautiful shapes and quality of movement of my 50+ workshop. We created soft and strong movements, complemented each other and filled the empty spaces between us with movement. I felt that the people were longing to express themselves through movement to music and was extremely happy to be giving them the time and space for this.

But, to a dance teacher / neuroscientist like me, it seems that these manifestations of creativity need to be emerging (at the very least, partially) from the brain. I then embarked into a personal research of how this creative urge is manifested in the brain. In this article I will summarize my findings and explain how they connect to Margaret’s ideas on creativity.

Margaret’s quote and current definitions of creativity in cognitive neuroscience are completely aligned on the conceptual level. Dutch neuroscientist Dick Swaab recently gave a talk in Maastricht defining creativity as “making new elements from existing building stones”. In this sense, any new combination of known elements is a new creation! Every new sentence we utter is the result of a creative process, every new thought that combines old and new knowledge, any interaction in which we combine what another person says or does, with our reaction to it. This definition is very much in line with Margaret’s quote that if you contribute something to others and yourself you are living creatively.

There is also a strong connection between Margaret’s ideas and how the brain is wired in a creative cognitive process. For many years, the prevailing view was that the left hemisphere is the logical/analytical brain, the place where all rational thought is being computed, and that the right hemisphere is the creative/innovative brain, the place where associations between seemingly unassociated concepts would happen.

This is now found to be wrong, based on current neuroscientific studies using the method of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This method is a sophisticated camera which takes pictures and videos of the brain in action, and records how well different brain networks work together in performing a creative task.

According to recent research, creativity is realised as strong connectivity between different brain networks. In specific, Fink and colleagues showed that frontal brain regions and parietal (that’s toward the back of the head) synchronise stronger in creative problem solving1. Moreover, Beaty and colleagues reported that “controlled and spontaneous processes may cooperate more in the creative brain”2. Taken together, these findings support the view that creativity is a process that requires interconnectivity between both right and left sides as well as frontal and posterior parts of the brain. The co-ordination of movement required to perform MMM exercises of all levels nourishes this interconnectivity and creates the neural basis for creative expression. This connectivity is boosted even more when there is less cognitive control; with decreased cognitive inhibition our brain “allows more stimuli from the outside and inside world to penetrate our consciousness.”3 Vartanian and colleagues reported that individuals with higher openness to experience, as an index of phantasy, perception and aesthetics, had reduced cortical thickness, and therefore an affinity for reduced cognitive control4.

To state this simply, in order to let your creativity unfold, you would need to shut down your little judging demon inside. The concept of reduced inhibition is in reality the freedom of mind and of expression. This concept therefore coincides with Margaret’s statement to encourage people to paint and dance freely, to express themselves and put forward any ideas that occur to them. This encouragement to free your mind of controlling/judging thoughts that Margaret proposed in 1972 can be backed up with current neuroscientific findings. If this is not something remarkable, then what else is.

Coming back to the relevance for dance practice, it is essential to create the safe environment in which the persons may allow this freedom of mind to happen, so that the group is led to moments of authentic creation. MMM teachers who have achieved this for me were Ann Flower, Jan Houslander, and most of all lovely Catherine Casse. After a class of free creative expression, and having shut down my judging demon, I always feel mentally reborn, lighter and accomplished. At the next issue of this magazine, I will expand on how creativity can boost our self-awareness and feeling of self-esteem and confidence, of course supported by solid scientific findings.

I would like to thank the editor, Amanda Evans, for her encouragement to submit this article. Of course, I love and admire all my MMM teachers (Dr. Wiltrud Merz, Barbara West etc). The ones I mentioned here are the ones who specifically sparkled brilliant creative moments.

Articles for the general interest 
About the recent neuroscientific study, published in January 2018:
About creativity in the brain: experimentations/201802/your-brain-creativity
And about innovative brains:

Scientific papers
1. Fink, A., Grabner, R. H., Benedek, M., Reishofer, G., Hauswirth, V., Fally, M., ... & Neubauer, A. C. (2009). The creative brain: Investigation of brain activity during creative problem solving by means of EEG and fMRI. Human brain mapping, 30(3), 734-748.
2. Beaty, R. E., Benedek, M., Wilkins, R. W., Jauk, E., Fink, A., Silvia, P. J., ... & Neubauer, A. C. (2014). Creativity and the default network: A functional connectivity analysis of the creative brain at rest. Neuropsychologia, 64, 92-98. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.09.019
3. Dick Swaab, 15th October 2018, Keynote talk at the Open Day of Human Brain Project.
4. Vartanian, O., Wertz, C. J., Flores, R. A., Beatty, E. L., Smith, I., Blackler, K., ... & Jung, R. E. (2018). Structural correlates of Openness and Intellect: Implications for the contribution of personality to creativity. Human brain mapping.