Executive Functioning, Creativity, and Autism

New research has shown that creativity mostly takes place in the cerebellum, while the executive functioning of the frontal lobe actually restricts creativity.

One of the features of autism (and ADD/ADHD) is impaired executive functioning. Among the things executive functioning does, according to Web MD:

  • Manage time
  • Pay attention
  • Switch focus
  • Plan and organize
  • Remember details
  • Avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Do things based on your experience

When your executive functioning is impaired, you have difficulty with the above abilities. I recently wrote about the problems people with autism have with the last one on the list. The inability to make use of prior knowledge, then, is an executive functioning problem. While this seems to contradict my claims in the previous post, the place where concepts are formed — the hippocampus — is also a place where executive functioning takes place. And there are impairments with the hippocampus in those with autism — in particular, there are issues with oxytocin, about which I have written before. And as we have seen before, GABA is also involved. Those “unwanted” thoughts are the source of creativity.

All of this points to a brain that is structurally and biochemically different from more typical brains. And the connection between executive functioning and creativity also explains why autistic people tend to be very creative.

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GABA and Unwanted Thoughts

New research shows that the neurotransmitter GABA, which has been connected to autism, is involved in the production of unwanted thoughts. Specifically, hippocampal GABA (would anyone be surprised to learn the hippocampus is also involved in autism?).

“Our ability to control our thoughts is fundamental to our wellbeing,” explains Professor Michael Anderson from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. “When this capacity breaks down, it causes some of the most debilitating symptoms of psychiatric diseases: intrusive memories, images, hallucinations, ruminations, and pathological and persistent worries. These are all key symptoms of mental illnesses such as PTSD, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety.”

I have always had a hard time suppressing thoughts, and I have been known to go over and over and over and over and over situations, replaying them and thinking of everything I could have and should have said. You may note other typically autistic symptoms in Dr. Anderson’s list, most notably anxiety.

The inability to control one’s thoughts is likely related to the weak executive functioning we on the spectrum have as well. After all, weak executive functioning makes it hard to not only control one’s thoughts, but to control expressing those same thoughts. While they may be two different systems, would it be surprising if it were found they were connected?