Secrets of the Creative Brain
by Jason von Stietz - July 18, 2014
Is there a connection between intelligence and creativity? Why do creative or intellectual "geniuses" seem to have higher rates of metal illness? Nancy Andreason M.D., Ph.D., a leading neuroscientist, has spent decades studying the connection between IQ, creativity, and mental illness. Dr. Andreason discussed her previous findings and current work in a recent article in The Atlantic:
For years, I had been asking myself what might be special or unique about the brains of the workshop writers I had studied. In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. To test this capacity, I needed to study the regions of the brain that go crazy when you let your thoughts wander. I needed to target the association cortices. In addition to REST, I could observe people performing simple tasks that are easy to do in an MRI scanner, such as word association, which would permit me to compare highly creative people—who have that “genie in the brain”—with the members of a control group matched by age and education and gender, people who have “ordinary creativity” and who have not achieved the levels of recognition that characterize highly creative people. I was ready to design Creativity Study II.
This time around, I wanted to examine a more diverse sample of creativity, from the sciences as well as the arts. My motivations were partly selfish—I wanted the chance to discuss the creative process with people who might think and work differently, and I thought I could probably learn a lot by listening to just a few people from specific scientific fields. After all, each would be an individual jewel—a fascinating study on his or her own. Now that I’m about halfway through the study, I can say that this is exactly what has happened. My individual jewels so far include, among others, the filmmaker George Lucas, the mathematician and Fields Medalist William Thurston, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jane Smiley, and six Nobel laureates from the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine. Because winners of major awards are typically older, and because I wanted to include some younger people, I’ve also recruited winners of the National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award and other prizes in the arts.
Apart from stating their names, I do not have permission to reveal individual information about my subjects. And because the study is ongoing (each subject can take as long as a year to recruit, making for slow progress), we do not yet have any definitive results—though we do have a good sense of the direction that things are taking. By studying the structural and functional characteristics of subjects’ brains in addition to their personal and family histories, we are learning an enormous amount about how creativity occurs in the brain, as well as whether these scientists and artists display the same personal or familial connections to mental illness that the subjects in my Iowa Writers’ Workshop study did.
To participate in the study, each subject spends three days in Iowa City, since it is important to conduct the research using the same MRI scanner. The subjects and I typically get to know each other over dinner at my home (and a bottle of Bordeaux from my cellar), and by prowling my 40-acre nature retreat in an all-terrain vehicle, observing whatever wildlife happens to be wandering around. Relaxing together and getting a sense of each other’s human side is helpful going into the day and a half of brain scans and challenging conversations that will follow.
We begin the actual study with an MRI scan, during which subjects perform three different tasks, in addition to REST: word association, picture association, and pattern recognition. Each experimental task alternates with a control task; during word association, for example, subjects are shown words on a screen and asked to either think of the first word that comes to mind (the experimental task) or silently repeat the word they see (the control task). Speaking disrupts the scanning process, so subjects silently indicate when they have completed a task by pressing a button on a keypad.
Playing word games inside a thumping, screeching hollow tube seems like a far cry from the kind of meandering, spontaneous discovery process that we tend to associate with creativity. It is, however, as close as one can come to a proxy for that experience, apart from REST. You cannot force creativity to happen—every creative person can attest to that. But the essence of creativity is making connections and solving puzzles. The design of these MRI tasks permits us to visualize what is happening in the creative brain when it’s doing those things.
As I hypothesized, the creative people have shown stronger activations in their association cortices during all four tasks than the controls have. (See the images on page 74.) This pattern has held true for both the artists and the scientists, suggesting that similar brain processes may underlie a broad spectrum of creative expression. Common stereotypes about “right brained” versus “left brained” people notwithstanding, this parallel makes sense. Many creative people are polymaths, people with broad interests in many fields—a common trait among my study subjects.
After the brain scans, I settle in with subjects for an in-depth interview. Preparing for these interviews can be fun (rewatching all of George Lucas’s films, for example, or reading Jane Smiley’s collected works) as well as challenging (toughing through mathematics papers by William Thurston). I begin by asking subjects about their life history—where they grew up, where they went to school, what activities they enjoyed. I ask about their parents—their education, occupation, and parenting style—and about how the family got along. I learn about brothers, sisters, and children, and get a sense for who else in a subject’s family is or has been creative and how creativity may have been nurtured at home. We talk about how the subjects managed the challenges of growing up, any early interests and hobbies (particularly those related to the creative activities they pursue as adults), dating patterns, life in college and graduate school, marriages, and child-rearing. I ask them to describe a typical day at work and to think through how they have achieved such a high level of creativity. (One thing I’ve learned from this line of questioning is that creative people work much harder than the average person—and usually that’s because they love their work.)
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