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Can science explain creativity?

Over the years, literature, and philosophical sciences first, and neuropsychology later, have tried to find an explanation for the flow of emotions and feelings that dominate living beings. According to Basic Emotion Theory, each of the fundamental emotions resides and involves specific brain areas, and several magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies demonstrated this [1, 2]. The field of neuroscience is beyond fascinating, and it would be oversimplifying if the whole range of human emotions could be confined to the simple activation of brain areas. There are more complex mechanisms that control our mood, and this derives essentially from the presence of neuromodulators that simultaneously regulate the stimuli, sensations, and behaviours expressing a wide variety of emotions, even concurrently. Continuous neurotransmitter stimulation is dependent on the environment and is different from individual to individual, making all human beings, although characterised by the same basic emotions, diverse and constantly changing.

According to a study conducted by Gu et al., it is possible to recognize some basic emotions, namely joy, sadness, fear, and anger [3]. Based on the Three Primary Colour model [4], just as primary colours when combined allow all shades to be appreciated, three monoamine neuromodulators regulate some of the most intense emotions:

  • Serotonin (5-HT) -> plays a key role in many pathological situations such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and depression, and more generally appears to be related to punishment and threat mechanisms [5].

  • Dopamine (DA) -> seems to be involved in the rewarding process that is triggered when certain essential needs are satisfied, so it is recognized as the modulator of joy and happiness [6,7].

  • Norepinephrine -> is involved in reacting to the novelty; several studies have revealed that NE is massively released when reacting to an unexpected event, and its amount depends on the magnitude of the impactful phenomenon [8].

Emotions and feelings

Thus, science would seem to have explained what the driving forces behind our deepest and most uncontrollable emotions are. Our everyday actions are guided by neurotransmitters. There are, however, behaviours that are strictly dependent on emotions but cannot be categorized as such. Creativity is one of them. That’s considered a personality trait and, behind the positive connotation, often individuals who have demonstrated very high creativity levels in arts and science suffered from mood disorders.

Eventually, it is not yet possible to scientifically explain this, despite the fact that the latest neuroscientific evidence has shown the close association between hypo- and hyper- function of neurotransmitters and creativity. These dysfunctions could enhance the neuronal hyper-connectivity that would underlie creative process. NE and DA are involved in the search for pleasure, novelty, and surprise ... is this the main driving force of creativity, isn’t it? In fact, it seems possible to draw elegant parallelism between the flow of emotions that occurs during an intense stress stimulus (fear-anger-joy-sadness) and what happens during a creative process [4].

Science may not yet be able to give all the answers, but it certainly provides plenty of questions ... and creative insights for researchers around the world!


  1. LeDoux, J. E. (2000). Emotion circuits in the brain. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 23, 155–184.

  2. Lindquist, K., Wager, T., Kober, H., Bliss-Moreau, E., and Barrett, L. (2012). The brain basis of emotion: a meta-analytic review. Behav. Brain Sci. 35, 121–143.

  3. Gu, S., Wang, W., Wang, F., and Huang, J. H. (2016). Neuromodulator and emotion biomarker for stress induced mental disorders. Neural Plast. 2016, 1–6.

  4. Gu, S., Gao, M., Yan, Y., Wang, F., Tang, Y. Y., and Huang, J. H. (2018). The neural mechanism underlying cognitive and emotional processes in creativity. Front. Psychol. 9:1924.

  5. Dayan, P., and Huys, J. M. (2008). Serotonin, inhibition and negative mood. PLoS Comput. Biol. 4:e4.

  6. Bergamini, G., Sigrist, H., Ferger, B., Singewald, N., Seifritz, E., and Pryce, C. R. (2016). Depletion of nucleus accumbens dopamine leads to impaired reward and aversion processing in mice: relevance to motivation pathologies. Neuropharmacology 109, 306–319.

  7. Frank, S., Veit, R., Sauer, H., Enck, P., Friederich, H. C., Unholzer, T., et al. (2016). Dopamine depletion reduces food-related reward activity independent of BMI. Neuropsychopharmacology 41, 1551–1559.

  8. Ma, S., and Morilak, D. A. (2005). Norepinephrine release in medial amygdala facilitates activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in response to acute immobilisation stress. J. Neuroendocrinol. 17, 22–28.

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