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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What’s Behind the Creative Mind?

Say what you will about Harvard undergraduates, when you’re recruiting subjects for a study about creativity they don’t let you down. After posting sign-up sheets around campus and letting students in a psychology class know that course credit awaited those who volunteered, psychology researcher Shelley Carson found herself with four artists who had had their work shown at a recognized gallery, five published composers, two published authors, two inventors whose prototypes had been patented and built, three dramatists, two choreographers, and seven budding scientists who had won scholarships or national prizes for their discoveries.

Then she tested them to determine whether their minds had telltale signs of psychosis.
A scientist who dares to dig for the neurobiological source of something as magical and mysterious as creativity risks coming across like Walt Whitman’s “learn’d astronomer,” the eminent man of science whose “proofs, figures, charts, and diagrams” made the poet “tired and sick.” (Those symptoms subsided only when Whitman “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”) But the possibility that subjecting creativity to scientific analysis will rob it of its majesty and mystery has not deterred researchers. To the contrary. Goaded by Sigmund Freud’s surrender – referring to Dostoevsky, he wrote, “Before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms” – they are determined to figure out which brain processes spawn creative ideas and whether these processes are qualitatively different from run-of-the-mill thoughts. Enlisting both traditional psychology techniques and cutting-edge brain imaging, they are discovering how creativity is related to intelligence, whether particular personalities are more likely to be creative, whether there is anything to the popular idea that creativity and madness are kissing cousins, and just what the heck the brain is up to when a creative idea pops into it.

Carson had long been struck by the idea that creativity is marked by a bringing together of seemingly unrelated ideas, memories, images, and thoughts. Cubism is creative, for instance, because it juxtaposes images of living things with the hard edges and sharp angles of geometry. Might it be the case, she wondered, that creative people have a slightly leaky mental filter? If so, then perhaps they do not dismiss as easily as the rest of us “irrelevant” ideas that pop into their heads, but instead entertain them long enough for one of them to connect with another thought that is kicking around – giving birth to a novel, creative idea.

There is little doubt that screening from conscious awareness that which is irrelevant to your immediate needs helps focus concentration. It may also be good for mental health, since paying attention to every little sight, sound, and thought can drive you batty. Indeed, reductions in this filtering mechanism, called latent inhibition, have long been linked with a tendency to psychosis. But Carson wondered whether that “failure” might also spur original thinking. To find out, she and colleagues had 182 Harvard students undergo tests in which they listened to repeated strings of nonsense syllables, heard background noise, and saw yellow lights on a video screen. The students also filled out questionnaires about their creative achievements (which is how Carson identified all those composers, scientists, and the rest), and took standard intelligence tests.

Comparing the measures of the students’ latent inhibition (how many of those noises and lights they noticed) with their IQ scores and creativity, the scientists found that the more creative had significantly lower scores for latent inhibition than the less creative. The truly eminent creative achievers, such as those who had achieved commercial success in the art or music world before the age of twenty-two, were seven times more likely to have low rather than high scores for latent inhibition. Low latent inhibition, it seems, increases the available “mental elements” – thoughts, memories, and the like, or what Carson calls “bits and pieces in the cognitive workspace” – that supply the raw material for originality and novelty.

“Getting swamped by new information that you have difficulty handling may predispose you to a mental disorder,” Carson says. “But if you have high intelligence and a good working memory, you are more likely to be able to combine bits of new information in creative ways.”

The “high intelligence” part of Carson’s statement is key. Studies going back to the 1980s have shown that an inability to filter out extraneous perceptions and thoughts is linked to mental illness, in particular schizophrenia. Says Carson, “Highly creative people in our studies showed the same latent-inhibition patterns found in other studies of schizophrenics.” But if creative individuals are often characterized by an eerie ability to see connections and make associations that are beyond the rest of us, how do they manage to do so while staying sane? (Some researchers who study creativity say that, in fact, they do not stay sane, and that creativity and mild mental illness go together, but we’ll get to that later.)

Carson’s answer: high IQ. There is no dearth of intelligent people who lack any spark of creativity, or of creative people who are not, by conventional measures, particularly brilliant. But some minimal level of intelligence is required for creativity. The reason is that in order to generate novel combinations, it helps to have a wealth of mental elements to work with. Without a sufficient supply of elements that can be combined in an original way, creativity is impossible. Since intelligence is generally associated with a large store of such knowledge, the greater the intelligence the larger the potential supply of elements that can be combined in an original way.

“We saw creativity increase as IQs climb to 130 and even up to 150,” Carson says. But in those with average IQs, around 100, reductions in latent inhibition did not boost creativity. High intelligence, she adds, “should help you to better process the increasing information that goes along with low latent inhibition. To be creative, you can be bright and crazy, but not stupid.”


How might one reduce the screening-out of seemingly irrelevant elements, or, to put it another way, reduce your level of latent inhibition? A fair number of creative people swear by the creativity-boosting effects of alcohol and amphetamines, which indeed open the mental floodgates to more “irrelevant” thoughts and perceptions. But they also have a tendency to make you view every doodle as an incipient Guernica and every bit of doggerel as a mini-Wasteland. For now, the brain’s natural level of latent inhibition seems to be something it’s born with, or perhaps something it adjusts to early in life. In any case, for now scientists do not really know how to affect it.

Carson’s focus on mental processes that allow more of those “bits and pieces” into the “cognitive workspace” fits into a long tradition in the science of creativity. Let’s allow that creativity is a mental process that produces something original. But that’s not enough. Pairing cupcakes with mustard is also original, but does not merit the accolade “creative.” An original idea or product, says Dean Simonton, the distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and a longtime student of creativity, must therefore also be “adaptive,” serving some purpose and having worth and value.

If creativity produces something that is both original and adaptive, argues Simonton, then creativity is analogous to variation and selection in Darwinian evolution. “The creator must generate many different novelties from which are selected those that satisfy some intellectual or aesthetic criteria,” Simonton has written. Underlying creativity, therefore, must be some process that generates these variations, made up of novel combinations of cognitive bits and pieces, as well as some way to choose among them (so you don’t get mustard-frosted cupcakes). As French poet Paul Valéry argued, “It takes two to invent anything. The one makes up combinations: the other chooses ... what is important to him in the mass of the things which the former has imparted to him.” Through what psychologist William James called “abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, ... the most unheard of combinations of elements ... and partnerships can be joined.”

Creative people in diverse fields have said that this is exactly what it feels like they did. Chemist Linus Pauling described the need to “have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.... You aren’t going to have good ideas unless you have lots of ideas and some sort of principle of selection.” Mathematician Henri Poincaré recalled the feeling that accompanied a creative breakthrough: “Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of [previously unknown mathematical] functions.” Einstein described how “combinatory play seems to be the essential feature” in creativity.

Of these two ingredients of creativity – coming up with new ideas and selecting the best among them – the first seems the most enigmatic. Where do the original ideas arise from? The standard answer is, by thinking along unusual neural pathways, simultaneously originating and combining unrelated ideas. But that seems a bit tautological. More helpful is to explore the role that imagery and unconscious thought, including dreaming, may play in the generation of novel thoughts.

The paradigmatic example of the role of dreaming and imagery is the discovery of the ring-structure of benzene by Friedrich Kekulé. As the story goes, Kekulé had been struggling with this question when, one evening, he fell asleep by the fire and dreamed of “atoms gamboling before my eyes.” He imagined long rows of atoms “twining and twisting in snake-like motion.” Suddenly, “one of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail ... as if by a flash of lightning, I awoke.”

In interviews with fifty-seven creative artists and scientists, psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg heard again and again of the close relationship between imagery and creativity. Typically, the person superimposes, in the mind’s eye, two or more images; fusing them produces a novel image. In a similar process, the person conceives of two or more opposite ideas or concepts at the same time. As Poincaré himself said, “The most fertile [combinations] will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart.” Although ordinary mortals screen out elements from distant domains when they are working on a particular problem – be it how to depict a riparian scene in a new way or how to build a better mousetrap – thanks to the reduced latent inhibition that the Harvard scientists documented the mind opens the door to these far-flung elements and invites them to come in and sit a while, the better to mix with other invitees and form original combinations.

In many cases, creativity seems to emerge unconsciously, often when you are thinking of something else.

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