Neuroscience and Society: Creativity, Genius and the Brain

Photo: spiral galaxy (08/14/13). Credit: NASA/ESO/VLT

Photo: spiral galaxy (08/14/13). Credit: NASA/ESO/VLT

From William Morgan’s sudden insight while staring at the stars that our galaxy must have a spiral shape to Leonardo da Vinci’s deep reimagining of the subject of “The Last Supper,”  stories describing “Aha!” moments and acts of genius can awe and inspire. What do scientists know about the minds of geniuses? Can they tell us anything about creativity, perhaps offer some sort of practice to help the rest of us extend our own creative wings?

Three researchers told tales of geniuses past and described current research during a forum at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.

Psychologist John Kounios has been using EEG and fMRI to observe, among others, people solving word puzzles. [Sample puzzle: What word can go with all 3 of these words: Hot, Catcher, Food.] The puzzles, he says, can be solved in two ways: with a flash of insight (Aha moment) or analytically (forming hypotheses and testing them).

“About 300 ms before they press the button, there’s a burst of brain activity,” he said. “That is when the solution popped into awareness.” [the puzzle’s answer: Dog.]

Kounios draws a parallel between what he sees as insightful/intuitive and analytical methods and what Daniel Kahneman and others describe as Type 1 and Type 2 processes. Intuitive/Type 1 processes are “unconscious, associative, effortless, spontaneous, outside-the-box,” while analytical/Type 2 are “conscious, logical, effortful, strategic, inside-the-box thinking,” he said.

Another way to see the difference, on the puzzle tests, is “the people who are the analysts, they tend to make more mistakes, more errors of commission,” he said. They will give an answer, whether right or wrong. “The people who are insightfuls, they draw the timeouts, they draw a blank.”

Kounios and his team take EEG readings  before and during problem-solving tasks. “The so-called analysts have more activity in the left frontal area (associated with executive control), the so-called insightfuls have more activity in right posterior area,” he said. “Your cognitive problem-solving style, how you attack the problem, is at least partly influenced by your prior resting-state brain activity,” and like your weight or temperament is probably genetic but can be influenced somewhat by environment and intention.

But how does this relate to genius? “Creative insight is largely spontaneous and is not a product of conscious strategies,” he said. But deliberate strategies of the Type 2 sort may be the training wheels we normals need to build intuitive muscle. Kounios hypothesizes that nonexperts rely on type-2 processes, doing it in methodical ways. When you become an expert, you don’t need to think that way, but “You turn on the faucet and the ideas flow.” Experts may fire up the Type 2 processes later to focus and sharpen an idea they get, as well.

Environment can promote or limit the rise of genius, said Nancy Andreasen, a psychiatrist and a member of the Dana Alliance of Brain Initiatives. For example, “had Leonardo da Vinci been born 200 years earlier, or later, we probably would not have the body of work that he produced. He would have had a ‘creative nature,’ but it might not have become manifest” without the ‘creative nurture’ of renaissance Florence. A critical mass of creative people, a competitive atmosphere that was free and fair, intellectual and personal freedom were part of his environment, she said. And also an attitude that combined art and science, unlike today, she warned.

“We live in an era when ‘art’ and ‘science’ are seen as separate pathways in life. Leonardo and Michaelangelo saw them as the same thing.” Is this way of thinking holding us and our children back? “I’m a strong believer in the unity of art and science, not the polarity,” Andreasen said.

Roberta Ness, a doctor and public-health expert, pointed out that this way of thinking is one of many “frames” we employ to describe our world. Frames are habitual cognitive patterns, ways of interpreting information using our sets of assumptions and references. For example, when you think of going to a sit-down restaurant, you already have a picture in your mind how it will go, an idea what the server will say and when, and so on.

“Frames are the grease for society. At any moment of time, you have gazillions of them operating” at once, she said.  They carry emotion—“you have a visceral reaction when somebody breaks your frame”—and they are situational, differing in different groups and societies.

“Jokes are the highest form of creativity and imagination,” she said. “They send you down a particular cognitive path, and then suddenly make a right-hand turn:” a “frame shift.”

“To be revolutionarily creative, radically creative, to change society, you have to radically break frames,” she said. Tools that might help you shift your frames include close observation, playing with analogies, reorganizing and rearranging data, and group “brainstorming.”

An example of changing frames in public health is replacing the common metaphor “War on Cancer,” implying attacking cancer cells with all you’ve got, with another, “Cancer as Neighbor.” Ness said the phrase, a play off the “good fences make good neighbors” idea described in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” sends you looking in other directions for possible cures to the disease.

“You don’t have to like your neighbor, so long as you can fence him out,” she said. “Now rather than focusing on the cancer you can focus on the ‘fence,’ the immune system. This has actually led to many scientific epiphanies.”

Want more tips on outside-the-box thinking? Ness led a free 5-week online course on how to be more creative on the platform this summer; a modified, self-paced version, “Reinvent Yourself: Unleash Your Creativity,” will be available starting Nov. 24.

This event was part of the Neuroscience and Society series, supported by AAAS and the Dana Foundation. It was recorded; video from the event is posted below (we clipped out the introductions because microphone trouble meant there was no sound recorded, so the video starts pretty abruptly). Previous sessions include Mental Illness Across the Ages (story, video); The Neuroscience of Infant Development (story, video); Stress and the Brain (storyvideo); and The Science of Sleep (storyvideo). The next session will be in the spring.

– Nicky Penttila

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