Illuminating genius: insights from science and the arts

Nancy Andreasen_FallCat07
Nancy C. Andreasen

Guest blogger: At the recent Learning and the Brain Conference in Washington D.C., Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D., discussed the importance of providing students with a “liberal education” that combines the study the arts and the sciences. She asked: How important are the arts for optimal development of the mind and brain? How important are the sciences? And how important is it to integrate both in our educational programs?

Concerns have been raised about the failure to integrate education in the arts and sciences for many years. In the 1950s the British writer C. P. Snow expressed concern about overspecialization and the creation of “Two Cultures,” producing a situation in which educated people from diverse backgrounds in the arts and sciences could no longer communicate with one another: “This is serious for our creative, intellectual, and above all, our normal life.” More recently E. O. Wilson addressed the issue again, in his book Consilience, arguing that consilience is a groundwork of explanation that crosses all branches of learning; he believed that in an ideal world knowledge should be unified across the humanities and the sciences.

The arbitrary division of domains of knowledge and the quest for specialization is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the Renaissance, one of the great eras of exuberant creativity, people did not divide the world into art and science. Instead they saw them as a seamless continuum. Michelangelo was a sculptor, architect, painter, engineer, poet and anatomist. Leonardo was an inventor, painter, engineer, sculptor and anatomist. Great naturalists, such as Charles Darwin, made discoveries that we call “science” while trying to understand the beauty and order of the natural world. As one great naturalist, Konrad Lorenz, has said, “He who has seen the intimate beauty of nature must become either a poet or a naturalist and, if his eyes are good enough and his powers of observation sharp enough, he may well become both.” To the extent that our current educational system fails to integrate art and science, it fails in an important aspect of nurturing creativity in young people.

What is the nature of the creative process? Many introspective accounts from individuals as diverse as Mozart or Poincaré or Coleridge share a common theme. Creative ideas, insights and solutions tend to occur rapidly and spontaneously, as sudden flashes of insight, although they may be preceded by an incubation phase. They are most likely to arise while a person is daydreaming or relaxing or engaging in “free association”—a state called REST (Random Episodic Silent Thought) or the “default state” in imaging research studies. During this state, regions of the association cortex are especially active, reflecting the fact that mental connections are being tossed around chaotically—until an original idea sometimes emerges. This process reflects the highly complex nature of brain organization. The brain is able to spontaneously generate novel ideas and content because it can function as a self-organizing system (a concept from “chaos theory”), a system in which components spontaneously organize to produce something new in a nonlinear, dynamic and unpredictable way.

In the Iowa Study of Creative Genius, highly creative people from both the arts and the sciences are currently being studied using neuroimaging tools, personality and cognitive tests, and structured interviews. Although the study is still in its early stages, imaging findings suggest that artists and scientists share similar brain activity during tasks chosen to stimulate the association cortex—thereby perhaps demonstrating scientifically that the arts and the sciences are indeed a unity.

Dr. Andreasen, a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, is the author of the Dana Press book The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius.

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