reading room | Searching the Secrets: of the curious mind

story from: the Atlantic
November 20, 2018


                          GOOD  READING       

publication: the Atlantic
story title: Secrets of the creative brain
deck: A leading neuro-scientist shares her research on genius.
author: by Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD
year: 2014

read | the full story


story | summary

A top neuro-scientist who spent decades studying the human mind + imaging the human brain shares her celebrated research on where creativity, curiosity, and genius come from — and why those traits so often accompanied by depression.


about | the author

Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD is the 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 US National Medal of Science for pioneering the use of brain imaging to study cognitive processes and mental illness. Especially for her research in the social and behavioral sciences, through the study of mind, brain, and behavior. She used tech advances in neuro-imaging to study human memory and creativity, and disorders such as schizophrenia.

She uses modern neuro-imaging techniques to visualize the creative brain in action, examining both artists + scientists. Her lab also looks at the role of nature — vs. — nurture, and the relationship between creativity and mental illness.



on the web | pages

Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD | home
Brain + Behavior Research Foundation | Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD

Good Reads | books: by Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD


title: interview — with Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD
topic: creativity + the human mind
broadcast: by Rappler

podcastlisten here


title: interview — with Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD
topic: creativity + the human mind
broadcast: by PBS

television showwatch here


title: talk — by Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD
topic: creativity + the human mind
organization: the Aspen Institute

lecturewatch here


— points from the author —

  • the resting mind, is not actually in-active
  • when we’re resting, that’s when we can get our best ideas: that’s when we’re tapping into rich memories
  • if I were to pick one thing that I’d call the “secret” to creativity: I’d say intense curiosity
  • creative people like to gather knowledge about many different things: and they put things together all the time
  • I’m surprised at how much we consistency we see across groups of creative people
  • I’m also amazed at how much we can see in individual brains
  • scientific creativity + artistic creativity are not mutually exclusive
  • part of what makes the human brain’s cortex so complex: is its many physical, anatomical folds
  • the mille-feuille layers of the cortex make it difficult to piece together how the brain works
  • the brain forms in a process that is non-linear, chaotic, constantly changing, and self-organizing
  • what actually happens when you’re doing something: the whole brain is self-organizing
  • when you’re doing an activity: the whole brain is involved, there’s no centralized control
  • the brain spontaneously interacts to do something new
  • the activities of the brain are like an orchestra without a conductor
  • the activities of the brain are distributed throughout the whole system
  • it’s an over-simplification to try to label the parts of the brain as if they do highly specific functions
  • what I concluded: creative people have an enhanced ability to see lots of connections
  • they can see associations, relationships: often things that other people can’t see
  • people who are creative are better at making connections
  • what I have to do to study that is: figure out how to tap into the association cortex of the human mind
  • then I just give tasks where people make associations
  • so there are 3 tests: word association, picture association, pattern-detection study
  • what characterizes the brains of highly creative people that is different from other people
  • in the MRI brain imaging scans: you can see the differences
  • we see the brain regions most active during specific tasks
  • for example: in one experiment the task is a challenging puzzle the test participants are solving
  • the areas of the brain that light up during that task are colorized
  • traits that creative geniuses all tend to share: they’re self-taught, persistent, intensely focused, super-curious
  • many creative people are often, unfortunately, misfits in the school system
  • many creative geniuses also tend to share a common suffering with mental illness personally or in their families
  • society needs to evolve beyond the crushing stigma of mental illness
  • so that specials needs people can blossom with their natural abilities, and be helped with their disabilities


                              STORY  EXCERPTS       

As I spent more time with neuro-imaging technology, I wondered what we could 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 neuro-imaging tools show the brain’s anatomical structure with extreme precision. Researchers can study all sorts of connections between brain measurements and personal characteristics.

For example, we know that London, UK taxi drivers — who must memorize maps of the city to earn their cab license — have an enlarged region of the brain called the hippocampus, according to magnetic-resonance imaging — called MRI — scans.

Brain imaging studies of symphony orchestra musicians shows they have unusually large Broca’s area — a part of the brain in the left hemisphere. Using scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging — called f-MRI — we can watch how the brain behaves when engaged in activities or thinking.

Designing neuro-imaging studies is tricky. Capturing brain activity using imaging tech inevitably leads to over-simplifications, as we see in news reports that an investigator has found the “location” of something — love, guilt, decision-making — in a single region of the brain.

What are we even looking for when we search for evidence of “creativity” in the brain? So we have a definition of creativity that many people accept — the ability to produce something that’s novel or original and useful or adaptive — but achieving that “something” is part of a complex process, one often depicted as an “aha” or “eureka” experience.

For example scientist Isaac 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 book to discovering the structure of the human brain, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process.

With functional magnetic resonance imaging, the best we can do is capture brain activity in a human patient during brief moments in time while the person is performing some task. For instance, observing brain activity while test subjects look at photographs of their relatives. Creativity can’t be distilled into a single mental process — it can’t be captured in a snapshot. People can’t 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 functions arise from the 6 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 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 non-human, if our brains consisted only of these regions.

But the most developed regions in the human brain are known as association cortices. These regions help us interpret and make use of the specialized info collected by the 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 — so that meaning is attached to them, and then on to language ability in the brain, so that the words are connected to sentences, and on to associated memories and given richer meanings. These associated memories and meanings constitute a “verbal lexicon” — it can be accessed for reading, speaking, listening, and writing.

Each person’s lexicon is a bit different, even if the words are the same, because each person has different memories and meanings. One difference between a legendary playwright such as William Shakespeare and — for example — the typical stock broker, is the size and richness of his or her associations, and the complexity of other connections.


— notes —

Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD is Nancy Coover Andreasen
PBS is the Public Broadcasting Service


[ story file ]

story title: reading room | Searching the Secrets: of the creative mind
deck: story from: the Atlantic
posted: by managing editor
year: 2018
section: blog | reading room

[ end of file ]