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publication: the Atlantic
story title: Secrets: of the creative brain
deck: A leading neuro-scientist shares her research on genius.
author: by Nancy C. Andreasen MD, PhD
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about | Nancy C. Andreasen MD, PhD is the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and the former editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry. In year 2000, she was awarded the President’s National Medal of Science for pioneering the use of brain imaging to study cognitive processes and mental illness.
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— summary —
A leading neuro-scientist who spent decades studying the human mind shares her research on where creativity + genius come from, whether it is dependent on high IQ — and why it is so often accompanied by depression.
— excerpts —
As I spent more time with neuro-imaging technology, I couldn’t help but wonder what we would find if we used it to look inside the heads of highly creative people. Would we see a little genie that doesn’t exist inside other people’s heads?
Today’s neuroimaging tools show brain structure with a precision approximating that of the examination of post-mortem tissue; this allows researchers to study all sorts of connections between brain measurements and personal characteristics. For example, we know that London taxi drivers, who must memorize maps of the city to earn a hackney’s license, have an enlarged hippocampus—a key memory region—as demonstrated in a magnetic-resonance-imaging, or MRI, study. (They know it, too: on a recent trip to London, I was proudly regaled with this information by several different taxi drivers.) Imaging studies of symphony-orchestra musicians have found them to possess an unusually large Broca’s area—a part of the brain in the left hemisphere that is associated with language—along with other discrepancies. Using another technique, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we can watch how the brain behaves when engaged in thought.
Designing neuroimaging studies, however, is exceedingly tricky. Capturing human mental processes can be like capturing quicksilver. The brain has as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way, each connected to other neurons by billions of spines, which contain synapses that change continuously depending on what the neurons have recently learned. Capturing brain activity using imaging technology inevitably leads to oversimplifications, as sometimes evidenced by news reports that an investigator has found the location of something—love, guilt, decision making—in a single region of the brain.
And what are we even looking for when we search for evidence of “creativity” in the brain? Although we have a definition of creativity that many people accept—the ability to produce something that is novel or original and useful or adaptive—achieving that “something” is part of a complex process, one often depicted as an “aha” or “eureka” experience. This narrative is appealing—for example, “Newton developed the concept of gravity around 1666, when an apple fell on his head while he was meditating under an apple tree.” The truth is that by 1666, Newton had already spent many years teaching himself the mathematics of his time (Euclidean geometry, algebra, Cartesian coordinates) and inventing calculus so that he could measure planetary orbits and the area under a curve. He continued to work on his theory of gravity over the subsequent years, completing the effort only in 1687, when he published Philosophiœ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In other words, Newton’s formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration—a version of the eureka experience—and production. Many forms of creativity, from writing a novel to discovering the structure of DNA, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process.
With functional magnetic resonance imaging, the best we can do is capture brain activity during brief moments in time while subjects are performing some task. For instance, observing brain activity while test subjects look at photographs of their relatives can help answer the question of which parts of the brain people use when they recognize familiar faces. Creativity, of course, cannot be distilled into a single mental process, and it cannot be captured in a snapshot—nor can people produce a creative insight or thought on demand. I spent many years thinking about how to design an imaging study that could identify the unique features of the creative brain.
Most of the human brain’s high-level functions arise from the six layers of nerve cells and their dendrites embedded in its enormous surface area, called the cerebral cortex, which is compressed to a size small enough to be carried around on our shoulders through a process known as gyrification—essentially, producing lots of folds. Some regions of the brain are highly specialized, receiving sensory information from our eyes, ears, skin, mouth, or nose, or controlling our movements. We call these regions the primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor cortices. They collect information from the world around us and execute our actions. But we would be helpless, and effectively nonhuman, if our brains consisted only of these regions.
In fact, the most extensively developed regions in the human brain are known as association cortices. These regions help us interpret and make use of the specialized information collected by the primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor regions. For example, as you read these words on a page or a screen, they register as black lines on a white background in your primary visual cortex. If the process stopped at that point, you wouldn’t be reading at all. To read, your brain, through miraculously complex processes that scientists are still figuring out, needs to forward those black letters on to association-cortex regions such as the angular gyrus, so that meaning is attached to them; and then on to language-association regions in the temporal lobes, so that the words are connected not only to one another but also to their associated memories and given richer meanings. These associated memories and meanings constitute a “verbal lexicon,” which can be accessed for reading, speaking, listening, and writing. Each person’s lexicon is a bit different, even if the words themselves are the same, because each person has different associated memories and meanings. One difference between a great writer like Shakespeare and, say, the typical stockbroker is the size and richness of the verbal lexicon in his or her temporal association cortices, as well as the complexity of the cortices’ connections with other association regions in the frontal and parietal lobes.