Neural correlates of serial order effect in verbal divergent thinking

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Abstract

During the course of divergent thinking (DT), the number of generated ideas decreases while the originality of ideas increases. This phenomenon is labeled as serial order effect in DT. The present study investigated whether different executive processes (i.e., updating, shifting, and inhibition) specifically contribute to the serial order effect in DT. Participants' executive functions were measured by corresponding experimental tasks outside of the EEG lab. They were required to generate original uses of conventional objects (alternative uses task) during EEG recording. The behavioral results revealed that the originality of ideas was higher in later stage of DT (i.e., Epoch 2) than in its earlier stage (i.e., Epoch 1) for higher-shifting individuals, but showed no difference between two epochs for lower-shifting individuals. The EEG results revealed that lower-inhibition individuals showed stronger upper alpha (10–13 Hz) synchronization in left frontal areas during Epoch 1 compared to during Epoch 2. For higher-inhibition individuals, no changes in upper alpha activity from Epoch 1 to Epoch 2 were found. These findings indicated that shifting and inhibition contributed to create a serial order effect in DT, perhaps because individuals suppress interference from obvious ideas and switch to new idea categories during DT, thus more original ideas appear as time passes by.

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