Uncovering neural distinctions and commodities between two creativity subsets: A meta-analysis of fMRI studies in divergent thinking and insight using activation likelihood estimation

Hum Brain Mapp. 2022 Nov;43(16):4864-4885. doi: 10.1002/hbm.26029. Epub 2022 Jul 30.


The dual-process theory that two different systems of thought coexist in creative thinking has attracted considerable attention. In the field of creative thinking, divergent thinking (DT) is the ability to produce multiple solutions to open-ended problems in a short time. It is mainly considered an associative and fast process. Meanwhile, insight, the new and unexpected comprehension of close-ended problems, is frequently marked as a deliberate and time-consuming thinking process requiring concentrated effort. Previous research has been dedicated to revealing their separate neural mechanisms, while few studies have compared their differences and similarities at the brain level. Therefore, the current study applied Activation Likelihood Estimation to decipher common and distinctive neural pathways that potentially underlie DT and insight. We selected 27 DT studies and 30 insight studies for retrospective meta-analyses. Initially, two single analyses with follow-up contrast and conjunction analyses were performed. The single analyses showed that DT mainly involved the inferior parietal lobe (IPL), cuneus, and middle frontal gyrus (MFG), while the precentral gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), parahippocampal gyrus (PG), amygdala (AMG), and superior parietal lobe were engaged in insight. Compared to insight, DT mainly led to greater activation in the IPL, the crucial part of the default mode network. However, insight caused more significant activation in regions related to executive control functions and emotional responses, such as the IFG, MFG, PG, and AMG. Notably, the conjunction analysis detected no overlapped areas between DT and insight. These neural findings implicate that various neurocognitive circuits may support DT and insight.

Keywords: ALE; divergent thinking; fMRI; insight; meta-analysis; neural mechanism.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Creativity*
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Retrospective Studies