I recently sat down with Dr Simone Ritter to discuss recent research into how creativity happens in the brain, and whether it is possible to improve it.

Dr Ritter is an Assistant Professor at Department of Social and Cultural Psychology, Radboud University Nijmegen in Holland, and is leading a team looking into how people generate and select ideas.

In the video interview above, I find out some “surprising” insights from her recent 2014 research.


  • Creativity is tested under controlled conditions, such as by having two groups of participants, giving one of them something like training while other does not receive it, and then set each group various creativity challenges which are then assessed. There are rigorous studies like this happening across the world
  • Her focus has been on “unexpected experiences” and how they affect creativity. In one of her experiments she used a Virtual Reality helmet where participants would see objects in a room, but the laws of physics didn’t work as expected. The results clearly showed that when participants experienced something they were not expecting (referred to as a schema violation), they scored higher on creativity tasks afterwards.
  • For anyone who doesn’t have a Virtual Reality lab available, other experiments showed that other unexpected experiences in everyday life would have a similar effect. When students were asked to make a sandwich in an unconventional order (in this case making a chocolate sprinkles sandwich by buttering bread and then pressing it into the sprinkles), they also experienced higher creativity afterwards
  • The reason why these experiences result in higher creativity appears to be that they force the brain out of its everyday habits and into new ways of thinking. Therefore, we finally have evidence that variety and new experiences really do help trigger new ideas.
  • Other studies have also shown that when people are asked to select ideas, they are predisposed to select the less-creative ideas from a list. This is why even after brainstorming sessions, it’s usually the safest and least interesting ideas which are taken forward. Why this happens and how this can be improved is the focus of her next piece of research.
  • In her view, creativity training is likely to also help people improve their capability. While not everyone is likely to become like Albert Einstein overnight, it’s likely that people can definitely improve their own level.

If you would like to see more detail on the experiments Dr Ritter conducted, the BBC produced a video which included her work last year. I have found an extract of the video below.

BBC HORIZON The Creative Brain. How Insight Works.

Original Research Source: Ritter, S. M., Kühn, S., Müller, B. C. N., van Baaren, R. B., Brass, M., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2014). The creative brain: Schema-violations enhance TPJ activity and boos cognitive flexibility. Creativity Research Journal, 26, 144-150.

What do you think about this sort of research? Do you find that unexpected experiences have triggered a new idea in you? Let us know in the comments below (we read all comments).