The Creative Brain

Credit: Mike Basher

Credit: Mike Basher

For a lot of people, creativity is a big mystery.  Where does it come from?  Is it hereditary? Is it dependent on Nurture vs. Nature?  Is Creative Genius dependent on a high IQ? What makes someone highly creative?

Dr. Nancy Andreasen asked those questions and more as she developed studies to find out.  She reports on her findings in this month’s The Atlantic.   Andreasen looked at creativity not only in the arts, but also in mathematics and the sciences.  It’s an amazing article, one that I read twice, marveling at the clarity of her writing (well, she has a PhD in Literature) as well as her descriptions of her studies, her procedures, and her thinking. I highly recommend this article for anyone interested in creativity and/or neuroscience.

I was relieved to learn that I don’t need a high IQ, i.e. over about 130, to be a creative genius.  In fact, there was that curious effect about not getting a higher return the higher the IQ.  So, creativity is not necessarily dependent on a high IQ.

Another characteristic of creative genius she found is perseverance.  Highly creative types tend to not give up easily on whatever it is they’re doing.  I don’t know how many people have commented to me about my perseverance. Making a person with perseverance especially successful is her discipline.  I would also say that focus needs to be a part of that discipline.  Writers know that perseverance, focus and discipline make it possible to write.

But what about the actual brain?  Is it bigger?  Is it somehow physically different?  Or does it just function in a different way?

Andreasen recounts the results of a functional MRI imaging study done on symphony orchestra musicians that revealed they have an unusually large Broca’s area which is the part of the brain associated with language.  She went on to describe that most of the high level functions of the brain occur in the six layers of nerve cells and their connections called the cerebral cortex, including the Broca’s area.  Some regions are highly specialized such as those receiving sensory information.  The most developed areas of the brain are the association cortices which process and use the specialized information collected by the senses and movements.  Curious, Andreasan developed a study to figure out which parts of the brain make creativity possible.

First, she learned that REST was not very restful, i.e. random episodic silent thought, or what the lay person would call daydreaming, or letting one’s mind wander.  During REST, she discovered through functional MRI studies, the association cortices are “wildly active.”  From this, she realized that these areas support recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way or angles that others can’t see.  Highly creative people are gifted in doing all those things.

Next in her study, she interviewed her subjects to learn about their family backgrounds and personalities.  After putting all the data together and analyzing it, she concluded that creativity tends to run in families but takes diverse forms.  Nurture is essential.  And there is a tendency toward mental illness, usually a mood disorder, of varying degrees of severity.  Her explanation of contributing factors fascinated me.

For example, highly creative individuals tend to be exploratory or adventuresome.  They will push at established boundaries and meet with resistance and rejection.  They persist in spite of the rejection, in spite of doubt, because they believe powerfully in what they do. (Does this sound familiar to anyone?)  This sets up a conflict, however, in the psyche which leads to psychic pain, and that can manifest as a mood disorder such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.  Andreasen also found that mental illness ran in her subjects’ families, but often the highly creative subject suffered only a mild form and was fully functional.  Eccentricity, anyone?

Creativity cannot be forced and provided on demand.  We all know this, of course.  Those breakthrough moments that some call “eureka” moments occur after long periods of preparation and thinking, so working daily is part of the preparation.  They tend to come during REST periods, i.e. when doing mundane tasks that require little attention from the brain such as taking a shower or a long walk.  My most creative days are actually Sundays when, after a week of butt-in-the-chair work I’m RESTing.  I read, take a long shower, putter around the house, take walks, and so on.  My RESTing association cortices, however, are pumping out ideas and solutions to creative problems.

I absolutely loved this article by Dr. Andreasan, and I plan to keep it near for a while.   It’s helped me to understand how my own brain works….



2 responses to “The Creative Brain

  1. This is crazy how your article makes my first ideas clearer ! In fact, I always thought imagination and creative talents were given from nature ; I thought artists were receivers. I remember that, once, a friend asked me to write something for her pupils and I didn’t have any ideas. I went to see my mother, hoping she would help a little. And she did ! She was more inspired than I was. I started to write thanks to what she told me and… I came back and said that I felt a little bit guilty of using HER ideas. She said she had these ideas because someone or something gave them to her. Maybe, instead of receiving ideas from someone-something unknown as she did, I was supposed to receive them from her. Imagination doesn’t always show itself by the ways you expect. (I don’t know if my sentence was very English…)
    But what products these connections you talk about ? Why other people wouldn’t be able to create them ? Would it be the “someone-something” ?
    That’s interesting the way you enlighten me about HOW it works, your post was fascinating ! But, why these connections are created ? What happens in the brain of this creative genius to create them ? Where do they come from ?

    • Thanks, Julie! I’m glad you found the post provoking. Thanks for your comment! I left out a LOT that was in The Atlantic article regarding heredity and how creativity tends to run in families (but not always). If you click on the link in the post, that will take you to The Atlantic article.

      Your mother clearly knew how to stimulate your creativity. I think our brains are structured in a way that will help us to be creative — to receive, as you put it. For creative artists, through heredity and nurture, their brains may be better receivers than someone who doesn’t come from a creative family.

      For my own purposes, I think of the imagination as being a part of the collective unconscious (from Carl Jung) so that it is connected to the energy that connects all people. That energy is part of a much larger force, I think. We have other connections to that energy — intuition, for example, which in my experience is never wrong — that can support the imagination. But honestly, I don’t analyze this or think about it too much because of “The Centipedal Question”:
      The Centipede was happy, quite
      Until the Toad in fun
      Said, “Pray which leg goes after which?”
      And worked her mind to such a pitch,
      She lay distracted in the ditch
      Considering how to run.”

      (Big smile)

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