Welcome to Part 2 of our three part series on the science behind creativity and the brain. This time, we are now going to look at the key chemicals most active in the brain during creative states.
What type of neurochemicals? Neurotransmitters explained.
For starters, let’s narrow down the scope from “all chemicals'' to a specific category of chemical called neurotransmitters, which are the “chemical messengers” that carry, boost and balance signals between neurons (aka nerve cells). To date, scientists have identified more than 60 distinct types of neurotransmitters in the human brain, and most experts say there are more left to discover (source). A neurotransmitter can fire between multiple neurons but ultimately end up at a target cell in the body and perform a function. Billions of these neurotransmitters are constantly pin-balling around the brain and body, landing at target cells and carrying out functions ranging from breathing, to making your heartbeat, to temperature regulation. They also target cells that affect a variety of mental functions such as learning, emotions, concentration, abstract thinking, and decision making.
Two neurotransmitters involved in creativity
To preface, creativity is difficult to study because it is difficult to manufacture in a lab setting. Creativity is also complicated to measure as it involves many factors such as divergent thinking, openness to experience, cognitive flexibility, and decision making.
That said, there are two neurotransmitters that consistently appear in scientific research in neurological studies of creativity, and they are (1) Dopamine and (2) Serotonin. Below we are going to explain broadly what each neurotransmitter is known for, and specifically their role in enabling creativity to happen.
1. Dopamine and creativity
Dopamine is probably the most well-known of all the brain's neurotransmitters because of its association with pleasure and addiction. In addition to enabling creativity, dopamine is involved in memory, learning, behavior, and movement coordination (source). Despite popular descriptions, dopamine is not necessarily synonymous with pleasure and satisfaction. Rather, its primary role is to make us want things; or as psychologist Colin DeYoung of the University of Minnesota explains, dopamine facilitates our drive to “explore and thus to achieve the rewards inherent in the positive potential of uncertainty” (source). Dopamine releases in the pursuit of positive feeling potential or the mere possibility of discovering new information. So, even though there is no guarantee that our exploration will result in a pleasurable outcome, the act of cognitive exploration engages and energizes us (releasing dopamine) and influences our drive for creative expression.
“At a very broad level, dopamine facilitates psychological plasticity, a tendency to explore and engage flexibly with new things, in both behavior and thinking. Plasticity leads us to engage with uncertainty—whether it is pondering a new app to meet a consumer demand or questioning the next step in our own life path...research shows that psychological plasticity is associated with high levels of idea generation, engagement with everyday creative activities and publicly recognized creative achievement.”
Book excerpt from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire (source).
The “right” amount of dopamine (source):
Higher levels of dopamine drive our motivation to explore and boost creativity, but too high can lead to an increased risk of mental illness. High dopamine levels can cause an influx of emotions, sensations, and fantasy, so much so that it causes substantial disruption to functions also important for creativity, such as working memory, critical thinking and reflection.
Too little dopamine, however, and there may be less motivation and inspiration to create
Interesting fact: higher dopamine levels can cause impulse control disorders (sexual compulsions, over-shopping, gambling addictions). People with Parkinson's that take dopamine receptor agonists to help with their movement symptoms can develop impulse control disorders as a side effect of the dopamine receptor agonists (source).
2. Serotonin and creativity
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, appetite, blood clotting, sleep, and the body’s circadian rhythm. Its release makes us feel calm and content. Although less cited in its involvement with creativity than dopamine is, serotonin does contribute to creativity as it governs whether you are operating from a sense of calm and contentment (higher level serotonin) or from a position of anxiety and fear (lower levels of serotonin). Fear can disrupt the regulation of emotions and processing of information presented to us. This in turn negatively impacts thinking and decision-making, which leaves us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions (source).
The right amount of serotonin:
High levels of serotonin allow us to feel calm and relaxed
Low levels of serotonin cause us to become anxious and fearful
Since stress and poor sleep lower serotonin levels (they produce cortisol and cortisol inhibits serotonin aka a wet blanket on your serotonin), stress and poor sleep can hamper creativity (*can because there are mixed findings of stress and its impact on creativity) (source). On the flip side, cardiovascular activity can boost serotonin levels, increasing creativity (note can because physical activity beyond a certain level can lead to too much stress on the body).
Interesting fact: Serotonin levels also tend to be highest in the morning and may be associated with heightened creativity during earlier hours.
To be at our best when it comes to turning our creative mind on, we generally* need heightened levels of both serotonin and dopamine. There are a lot of contributors to creativity, but in this blog we are just looking at two major neurochemicals, Dopamine and Serotonin. On their own we look at how higher levels of each neurotransmitter contributes to creativity: dopamine driving our desire to learn/take in information, and serotonin creating calmness. What is particularly fascinating is how they come together to create a unique energized yet calm condition essential for creativity to thrive.
Both this research on neurochemicals involved in creativity and our previous blog on the structures of the brain lit up by creativity, leaves us wondering how we can leverage this new knowledge to strengthen our creative brain (how much of creativity is nurture versus nature?)
*generally: This unique chemical teamwork is described in Hans Eysenck’s masterwork Genius: The Natural History of Creativity, where he proposes that some individuals are more creative than others because they are higher in psychoticism, having a relative excess of dopamine and a relative deficit of serotonin. He proposes that dopamine enhances creativity by reducing cognitive inhibition, thereby overextending inclusiveness and so increasing the production of novel combinations. Analogously, serotonin lessens creativity by increasing inhibitory processes. It is the lack of "latent inhibition" in suppressing remote associations that Eysenck proposes gives high psychoticism its creative edge. Obviously psychotic thoughts differ from creative ones, so additional cognitive characteristics including focused reasoning, general intelligence, strong motivation, ego-strength, and the other variables...come into play.
(This post was powered by high levels of dopamine)
De Vries, H (2020 30 October) The Creative Brain Under Stress: Considerations for Performance in Extreme Environments. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved May 04, 2021, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.585969/full
Deyoung C. G. (2013). The neuromodulator of exploration: A unifying theory of the role of dopamine in personality. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 762. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00762
Kaufman, S. B. (2016, January 1). How to Cultivate Your Creativity [Book Excerpt]. Scientific American. Retrieved May 04 from, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-cultivate-your-creativity-book-excerpt/#:~:text=An%20excess%20of%20dopamine%20may,motivation%20and%20inspiration%20to%20create
Nyborg, H. (Ed.). (1997). The scientific study of human nature: Tribute to Hans J. Eysenck at eighty. Pergamon/Elsevier Science Inc. Retrieved May 4, from https://philipperushton.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Impure-Genius-Psychoticism-Intelligence-and-Creativity-1997-by-John-Philippe-Rushton.pdf
Sukel, K. (2019, August 1). Neurotransmitters. Retrieved May 04, 2021, from https://www.dana.org/article/neurotransmitters/
Weintraub D, Claassen DO. (2017, June 1) Impulse Control and Related Disorders in Parkinson's Disease. Retrieved May 04, 2021, from