Researchers have created a quick and reliable test that can measure a person’s creativity from spoken words.

The “noun-verb” test is simple and can be done by virtually anyone anywhere — even in an MRI machine, setting the stage for scientists to pinpoint how the brain comes up with unusually creative ideas.

While some believe ingenuity is spontaneous, Michigan State University neuroscientist Jeremy Gray suspects there’s a lot of hard work going on in the brain even when the proverbial light bulb going off feels effortless. “We want to understand what makes creativity tick, what the specific processes are in the brain,” Gray said.

“Innovation doesn’t just come for free — nobody learns their ABCs in kindergarten and suddenly writes a great novel or poem, for example. People need to master their craft before they can start to be creative in interesting ways,” Gray said.

For the research, 193 participants were shown a series of nouns and instructed to respond creatively with a verb in each case. The test took about two minutes.

For the noun ‘chair’, for example, instead of answering with the standard verb ‘sit’, a participant might answer ’stand’, as in to stand on a chair to change a light bulb.

The researchers checked that the answers were in fact verbs and somehow related to the noun; excluding the few nonsensical responses made no difference to the results.

The participants also were measured for creativity through a series of more in-depth methods including story writing, drawing and their creative achievements in real life. Those who gave creative answers in the noun—verb test were indeed the most creative as measured by the more in—depth methods. This suggests the noun—verb test, or a future variation, could be successful by itself in measuring creativity, researchers said.

Currently, Gray and his team are having participants complete the noun—verb test in an MRI while their brain activity is recorded, in hopes of identifying parts of the brain responsible for creativity.