Neurocognitive evidence on the impact of topical familiarity in creative outcomes

Rafal Jonczyk, Janet van Hell, Gül E. Okudan Kremer, Zahed Siddique

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Engineering programs, in general, do not explicitly address the need to enhance divergent thinking. To a certain extent this is due to a lack in knowledge on the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying divergent thinking, and creative ideation more generally. We hypothesize that we can help enhance our students' divergent thinking and creative processing outcomes by investigating the impacts of carefully selected methods and tools enabled by developments in the robust analysis of engineering ideation performance, and neurocognitive responses to creativity. In this paper, we present an experiment on creative language processing, using the Event-Related brain Potentials (ERP) technique (funded by Core R&D Programs). ERPs are derived from Electroencephalography (EEG) recordings that measure variations in electrical activity produced by large populations of brain cells by electrodes placed in key positions on the scalp. ERPs are derived from the large amplitude EEG through a filtering and averaging process, and reflect regularities in electrical brain activity that are time-locked to an external event (for example, a sound or a word). ERPs provide a millisecond-by millisecond record of the brain's electrical activity during mental processing as it unfolds over time. As will be explained in more detail below, specific ERP components can be identified that index a particular cognitive process associated with the processing of this external event. We collected ERP responses to literal, nonsense, and novel metaphorical sentences that were either referring to engineering knowledge or general knowledge, testing engineering and non-engineering students. Following Rutter et al. [1], sentences differed in verb only and had been classified in prior sentence norming studies as highly unusual and highly appropriate (novel metaphors), low unusual and highly appropriate (literal sentences), and highly unusual and low appropriate (nonsense sentences). Participants read sentences while their EEG was recorded, and after reading the sentence made judgments about its unusualness and appropriateness. The findings indicate that prior knowledge modulates novel metaphor processing at the stage of lexico-semantic access, indexed by the amplitude of N400 component. Specifically, N400 amplitudes to novel metaphorical sentences are significantly reduced and pattern with literal sentences in engineers; in nonengineers, by contrast, we observed increased N400 amplitudes to novel metaphorical sentences that pattern with anomalous sentences. This mirror effect on the N400 corroborates recent findings demonstrating a strong impact of prior experience and expertise on meaning ambiguity resolution, which may in turn have implications for creative cognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Jun 15 2019
Event126th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition: Charged Up for the Next 125 Years, ASEE 2019 - Tampa, United States
Duration: Jun 15 2019Jun 19 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Engineering


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