A case of mind over mat­ter

De­spite reams of re­search, we still don’t know why some brains are more creative than oth­ers, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Leigh Day­ton

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.