A case of mind over matter
Despite reams of research, we still don’t know why some brains are more creative than others, writes
SUE Woolfe had a problem. The author of successful novels Painted Woman and Leaning Towards Infinity was stuck. The unlikely image of a cleaning lady puttering about in a biology laboratory kept going around in her brain, like an annoying jingle. Her usual trick of scribbling and sighing had produced nothing but more scribbles and more sighs for years.
This was writer’s block writ large, Woolfe confesses in her new book, The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Obsession, Creativity and Neuroscience .
Desperate to break the loop and boot her recalcitrant brain into action, she set aside her world of fiction and dipped an intellectual toe into the world of fact. ‘‘ I took to wondering whether neuroscience could rescue me,’’ Wolfe writes. ‘‘ Not a rescue of the mind; I knew that wasn’t what was needed. In the midst of all the imperatives of the outside world — wars, revolutions, all those small and large acts of betrayal — I needed to understand what we, the people who sit in rooms making up stories, are doing with our minds.’’ In other words, what’s going on in the brain when it’s busy being creative or, conversely, stubbornly ordinary?
At a more practical level, Woolfe wondered if understanding her brain’s biochemical ebbs and flows might suggest a way to part company with her tiresome cleaning lady. ‘‘ Absolutely,’’ answers Evian Gordon enthusiastically. As a painter known internationally for his ‘‘ brain art’’, as well as an integrative neuroscientist, Gordon should know. ‘‘ The brain is the essence of creativity,’’ says Gordon, head of Sydney’s Brain Resource Company, which works with researchers here and abroad to understand the inner workings of brains and to develop brain- oriented commercial products, such as new drug- testing procedures.
Gordon’s ‘‘ essence of creativity’’, however, is not what Woolfe had in mind when she began her quest for neurological truths and block- busting tactics. Instead she ferreted out scientific findings linked to creativity and neuroscience. Looking over the shoulders of researchers, she explored neuroanatomy, peeked at brains engaged in creative and prosaic tasks, pondered daydreams and the ‘‘ mind’s eye’’, questioned the neurological basis of empathy and traced the neurological pathway taken by startling shifts in thought.
But this nuts- and- bolts approach to kickstarting creativity is different from Gordon’s. ‘‘ We’re all born creative,’’ he says.
Of course, Gordon adds, culture can beat it out of us, just as culture deems some activities creative and others mundane. We all know which is which. An unexpected consequence of this culturally driven pigeonholing, according to Gordon, is that people from many walks of life assume they are uniquely cloaked in creativity. We have it; those people don’t. He notes that Woolfe is in good company when she presents, probably unwittingly, her quest for a more productive brain as a reflection of her own exceptionality as a writer, an artist.
‘‘ A sense of specialness is not just an artist’s folly,’’ says Gordon. ‘‘ Every group I speak to finds a way to find themselves special. It’s a form of neural epicentrism. What they’re doing is special.’’ So a creative predisposition is wired in at birth and each of us intuitively wants to express it. That urge to create is something people have exploited since the first modern humans appeared 100,000 years ago. Painting, ceremony, personal adornment, sophisticated tools and, undoubtedly, language, myth and metaphor emerged as products of the new, flexible brains those people ported in skulls exactly like ours.
In contrast, cats, dogs, even our primate kissing cousins do not swap jokes, or worry about metaphorical cleaning ladies or devising something new, unexpected and exciting, notes David Chalmers, head of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University in Canberra. ‘‘ My dog rips up the couch in a new way, was that creative?’’ he asks rhetorically.
Well, no. Yet the biological substrate of creativity undoubtedly exists in the animal world and his dog is no exception. Each species is creative in its own way as it meets the needs and complexities of life. New Caledonian crows, for instance, shape tools for specific tasks and carry them to work in their beaks. Chimpanzees and the second chimp species, bonobos, also fashion tools for specific jobs. They make up games to pass the time and chat among themselves. The dolphins of Western Australia’s Shark Bay stick sponges on their snouts when they forage on the rough seabed. Tiny- brained bumblebees create unique dances to show their fellows where the best nectar is to be found.
The list of animals that engage in unexpectedly clever activities is long and growing and it challenges the notion that Homo sapiens is the only creative creature on earth.
Even machines are getting into the act. Thinkers such as University of Melbourne philosopher Matt Carter argue there’s no reason to reject the possibility of future computers having creative minds as nimble as ours.
Indeed, computer scientists with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have already designed a smart- mouthed machine that cracks jokes: ‘‘ What kind of murderer has moral fibre? A cereal killer.’’ Perhaps it’s not especially amusing but the exploitation of double meanings in a surprising way is a hallmark of human creativity. A computer that tells jokes is something new, created using a rule- based system not that different from the deep grammatical structure of human language.
Clearly, creativity is big- picture stuff, conceptually and biologically. It’s also universal in that all healthy human brains are creative, says University of Queensland cognitive neuroscientist Jason Mattingley. ‘‘ Creativity is an ability that allows us to form links between perceptions, past experience and future actions,’’ says Mattingley, who studies the brain and the mind at the Queensland Brain Institute in Brisbane.
Still, as Carter observes in his book Minds and Computers: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence , each of us uses this capability differently. ‘‘ Not everyone is equally creative,’’ Carter writes. ‘‘ People have different capacities for engaging in creative enterprises.’’
That obvious fact has sent neuroscientists on the hunt for hints in the brains of people noted for outstanding displays of creativity. The classic example is Albert Einstein’s brain. The consensus is that the only notable anatomical difference between his and the average brain is an increase in the interconnections between the two sides, the cerebral hemispheres, of Einstein’s brain. Was that the cause or the effect of his extraordinary intellectual endeavours?
The same question — cause or effect — consistently emerges from brain imaging studies comparing the response of, say, musicians and non- musicians to simple tasks. Often different parts of the brain are used by each.
It could be that musicians have always used their brains differently or, likelier, the difference is a result of training and the astounding plasticity of the human brain. While areas of the brain tend to specialise in, for instance, processing speech or vision, neighbouring parts are known to take over the function when damage has occurred in a primary bit. This plasticity is behind the recovery
of many stroke or accident victims who had lost important mental faculties such as speech or the ability to move an arm or leg.
The anatomy and neurochemistry of the brain and the assorted tasks each component manages is increasingly well understood, Mattingley says.
‘‘ Cognitive neuroscience has made enormous strides in understanding how we perceive the world through the sense of vision, touch, hearing and so on, and a lot about how the human brain controls actions, speech, the movement of hands to interact with the world. We also know a lot about how we remember and learn things and what brain areas and circuits are involved.’’
Much of this advance is thanks to imaging technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography, the MRI and CT scanners of medical dramas such as House and Grey’s Anatomy . They enable researchers to see living brains at work.
As Mattingley and Gordon point out, although the technology is great for telling where things are happening in the brain, it offers little help in teasing out the ways areas of the brain communicate dynamically to produce abstract thought and, possibly, creativity.
‘‘ There don’t seem to be brain areas dedicated to higher- level brain function. Rather, functions are distributed across the brain,’’ Mattingley says. Yet he says it’s ‘‘ perfectly reasonable’’ to try and understand the brain processes that underlie creativity. ‘‘ It’s just that the tools we have for getting into the brain are not yet sophisticated enough to give us the answers,’’ he says.
Everyday experience, though, does reveal much about the context in which creativity flows, and how a composer composes, a painter paints and a writer writes, or doesn’t.
‘‘ There’s some element of unpredictability,’’ Chalmers observes. For him creativity exists as a fusion of conscious and unconscious processes in which unconscious insights bubble up to the conscious level. An act of creativity occurs when an individual harnesses the upwelling ideas; a flow follows by engaging totally in the creative form whatever it may be.
But sometimes, as Woolfe discovered, the flow hits a cleaning lady and comes to a shuddering halt. Is it better to tackle the flow- stopper directly or sidestep her? If the lessons of post- traumatic stress disorder are anything to go by, forcing the issue may worsen the situation by helping to lock in the unwanted memory loop.
At least cleaning ladies are not profoundly disturbing or even terrifying, as are the shocking and often brutal memories remorselessly relived by people suffering the disorder.
Think shell shock and toss in the brain’s fear centre, the amygdala.
Similar perseverative behaviour can follow injury to the brain’s goal- setting frontal cortex, explains Mattingley. The solution? ‘‘ There’s no direct treatment for this perseverative behaviour. Management involves taking people out of the situation eliciting the behaviour.’’
Little wonder, then, that when writers get stuck, many put down the mouse and plan a holiday, only to realise that the ideas are flowing again. ‘‘ It’s like rebooting the computer,’’ suggests Mattingley. Or taking a deep breath, adds Gordon: ‘‘ What I do is not get frustrated when there’s not an immediate eureka moment when I’m in my studio painting, where I, sadly, seem to be only on Saturday afternoon,’’ he says. ‘‘ I allow my brain to explore all sorts of permutations until the sparks start connecting.’’
Given his Saturdays- only schedule, it’s not surprising that Gordon speculates that many creative blocks are a ‘‘ luxury of time’’ enjoyed by people with distant deadlines of whatever sort. Echoing what every workaday hack knows, he says that when The End is truly nigh, inspiration has a way of striking.
‘‘ Your brain is forced to the eureka moment. The brain goes to look quickly at other possibilities and finds them,’’ Gordon says.
Woolfe finally said, ‘‘ Eureka!’’ The worried and weary author says it happened after she stopped trying to impose order on her ideas and relaxed. It was all about loose and tight construing, fancy terms for sleeping on it and pushing it.
Anyway, the result was her 2003 novel about scientists, The Secret Cure , followed by this year’s exploration of brains: the good, the bad and the unco- operative.
It was a relief to many. Among them, no doubt, was an exhausted cleaning lady who never seemed to make it to pay day.
Creativity: Artist and neuroscientist Evian Gordon
Mind- boggling: Five views of Einstein’s brain