Creativity can feel like a bolt out of the blue: Inspiration “strikes”; we have a “burst” of creativity. Now researchers have been able to stimulate creativity by applying a mild electric current to the brain.

While enhanced creativity is an idea that will appeal to many people, the researchers' main goal is to use this technique to help people with psychological disorders, such as depression or schizophrenia.

Enrollment is already underway for two clinical trials that will test the process, one for depression and one for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) — a severe form of premenstrual syndrome.

People scored 7.4% higher when the current was on for the full 30 minutes, which is, as the researchers say, ‘a pretty big difference when it comes to creativity.’

“This study is a proof-of-concept,” senior author Flavio Frohlich said in a statement. “We've provided the first evidence that specifically enhancing alpha oscillations is a causal trigger of a specific and complex behavior — in this case, creativity.

“But our goal is to use this approach to help people with neurological and psychiatric illnesses. For instance, there is strong evidence that people with depression have impaired alpha oscillations. If we could enhance these brain activity patterns, then we could potentially help many people.”

The brain's oscillations (waves) occur when groups of nerve cells repeatedly fire in rhythm. These waves can be seen on an electroencephalogram (EEG). An 8- to 12-times per second rhythm is called an alpha oscillation. They happen most often when the brain is not focused on its environment, for example, with the eyes closed. But that doesn't mean that the brain is just idling. It is simply involved in other processes, including creative thinking. Alpha oscillations are also associated with calm and relaxation.

Twenty healthy adults took the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking under two conditions. In one session, electrodes placed on the scalp sent a 10-hertz (cycles per second) current through the subjects' brain for 30 minutes while they took the test. In the other session, electricity was only sent through the electrodes for the first five minutes, allowing people to feel the initial tingle that occurs when the electricity first flows through the brain, but leaving the brain unstimulated for the bulk of the test.

With the current on for the full 30 minutes, people scored 7.4% higher, which is, as the researchers say, “a pretty big difference when it comes to creativity.” The test was graded by the company that created it, not by the researchers.

To show that the difference in creativity was not caused by a general electrical effect, the researchers repeated the experiment using 40-hertz current. This stimulation provided no boost to creativity, suggesting that it's the 10-hertz frequency that is responsible.

Frohlich's method of brain stimulation is different from other techniques. He places electrodes on each side of a person's frontal scalp and also places a third electrode at the back of the scalp, providing the same stimulation to each side of the frontal cortex.

“The fact that we've managed to enhance creativity in a frequency-specific way — in a carefully-done double-blinded placebo-controlled study — doesn't mean that we can definitely treat people with depression,” Frohlich, an assistant professor of psychiatry, cell biology and physiology, biomedical engineering, and neurology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, cautioned.

“But if people with depression are stuck in a thought pattern and fail to appropriately engage with reality, then we think it's possible that enhancing alpha oscillations could be a meaningful, noninvasive, and inexpensive treatment paradigm for them — similar to how it enhanced creativity in healthy participants.”

The study appears in Cortex.