A recent study indicates that the difference between those who tend to solve problems in a moment of creative insight and those who solve them methodically may be evident in their brain activity even when they’re not solving problems at all. In fact, a person’s typical brain state might influence the type of problem solving style he or she uses.
In the study, volunteers rested quietly thinking of whatever they liked, and their EEGs were taken to get an idea of their baseline brain activity. Then they had to solve a series of anagrams (rearranging scrambled letters to make a word) and recorded whether each answer came to them in a single “Aha” moment or whether they attacked the problem step by step. The participants were divided into two groups, an “Aha” group and a methodical group, based on which strategy they used more often. The baseline EEGs of the two groups (taken, remember, before they were given any problems to solve or were even aware that they would be solving puzzles) were noticeably different.
The more creative group showed activity that indicated more diffuse visual attention and a greater tendency to make associations between remotely related concepts. This underscores the fact that particular skills are involved in thinking creatively. It’s also worth noting that they may not be the best skill set for every situation–creative thinking is perfect for situations that require you to cast a broader net and link peripherally related ideas, but being able to focus your attention on a known procedure has its place too. This article from Science Daily has more information.