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Mar 11, 2015
by Stuart Milne
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Arne Dietrich: Various forms of creativity are governed by two different brain systems

Neuroscientist at the American University of Beirut explains how explicit and implicit brain systems help understand artistic and scientific creativity Arne Dietrich presents the idea of explicit/implicit brain systems at Session 547 | The Neuroscience of Art

As Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, Arne Dietrich believes in multiple types of creativity, and says the processes behind them can be explained by an understanding of brain function he has advocated for over a decade.

A participant in Session 547 | The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?, Dietrich explained to Salzburg Global the concept of two kinds of brain systems: explicit and implicit.

“The explicit system is very complex and depends largely, but not exclusively, on frontal cortical activation," he said. "It is primarily the source of our cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking and higher cognitive functions. But it has one large drawback, and that is the drawback that all complex machines have – complexity makes a machine slow.

“So we have also another system that has a completely different architecture. It is built for speed and efficiency, and the only way you can have speed and efficiency, when you’re very quick with sensory input and motor output, is when you automatize very quick movements. These systems need to be built in a simple, computational form, and that is what the implicit system does.”

Dietrich stresses that there are various forms of creativity relating to different fields, which draw upon either the explicit or implicit system.

“The distinction I made some 10 years ago is that everything that requires fast sensory/motor integration, such as for instance jazz improvisation, is a type of creativity that activates the motor system. It needs to be very efficient, and therefore must be based on implicit processing.

“That is very different to the type of creativity that you do in Silicon Valley, that you do in science, when you have to think flexibly in terms of analogies, when you sit back and have to do what we call thought trials – theoretically, without any movement, play through various possibilities and check them out. This is very different to when you have to do something on the fly.”

Both brain systems engage when we learn a new skill such as a sport, instrument or language, but for different purposes – explicit for flexibility, implicit for efficiency. As we become more fluent, the actions associated with the skill become embedded in the implicit system – which creates problems when journalists interview elite athletes and artists to try and unlock the secret of their success.

“If I were to ask them, ‘How do you do it?’ then I would be addressing the explicit system, which has a very different kind of representation," Dietrich said. That representation does not have access to how the implicit system operates because the implicit system is encapsulated. Information in it cannot be communicated to the explicit system – it cannot tell the explicit system how it does what it does.

“We’ve all seen on television athletes trying to explain what they’re doing, and there’s obviously a disconnect between what they’re saying and what they’re doing. That shows the different organization of the two systems in the brain.”

However, it is possible for athletes and artists to develop intuitive insights into their processes by reflecting on their own, thus building up an explicit representation of what they are doing implicitly when they perform. Dietrich says players who become coaches are often good at this, while this process of explicit reflection also applies to other disciplines.

“A good example is when you want to teach your native language, which is implicit, to foreigners as a second language. You have to go to school for this, because you have to learn how your own native language is constructed in order to explicitly explain it to others. If you just speak the language, but have never gone to school or learned the grammar of your own language, you also cannot explain what you are doing to others - you have to learn that.”

Dietrich says he was amazed by the number of artists at the session who had not heard of these concepts before, but found that embracing the explicit/implicit systems enabled participants to better understand each other.

“I’ve seen this everywhere - we are not confusing different types of creativity as much as without that information. The explicit/implicit system is a very fundamental understanding of brain functioning, and we all know it in the neurosciences and cognitive sciences.

“It explains quite a bit about the process of creativity, and I could share this in informed discussion between the two groups, because the artists could immediately and intuitively relate to what I said, and they adopted it. With that it has increased the level of the discussion, because it informed kind of questions that were being asked.”


Arne Dietrich was a participant at the Salzburg Global session The Neuroscience of Art: What are the Sources of Creativity and Innovation?, which is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running Culture and the Arts series. The session was supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/547.

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