March 2006 -- Nancy C. Andreasen, The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius (New York: Dana Press, 2005), 197 pp., $23.95.
What do we know about what makes creative genius possible? Can we say anything new about the awesome creative ability of an Aristotle, a Michelangelo, or a Thomas Edison? For that matter, how does an Ayn Rand appear in our midst, as though out of nowhere, with a transforming vision and ideas that failed to occur to the other six billion or so humans on the planet?
It is an appropriate time to raise these questions. Studies of the origins of genius began in the nineteenth century and continued into the early twentieth century, probing the respective contributions of heredity and environment, but the authors did not have the tools of neuroscience. Today, with imaging technology such as positron–emission tomography (PET, a process for making x-rays of a plane section of a solid object), scientists can see the detailed structure of the brain and watch it function in real time. With knowledge of the structure of DNA and the human genome, they can identify and manipulate genes in animals or people. Illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression, and manic-depression are now better understood and can be altered with medications, opening a window on basic mental processes that go wrong.
Surely we are ready to say more about what happens during the development of the brain of a Shakespeare, and what that brain does when it revs up to full creative power?
And, if we understand more about the nature of the exceptionally creative brain, we are better placed to address another question: What makes possible those historical eras where genius seems so abundant? Are there cultural, social, and political features in common that enabled genius to flourish in Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the European Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and nineteenth-century America?
Andreasen’s is the ultimate subject for appreciation of the heroic in mankind.
These are the questions that Nancy Andreasen poses in The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius. It is difficult to think of an author more qualified to do so. Andreasen is chair of psychiatry and director of a mental health research center at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. She pioneered use of imaging technology to study the brain and brain diseases such as schizophrenia. She has been editor in chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry since 1994 and is author or editor of fifteen books on the brain, including The Broken Brain, which helped to propel psychiatry into the era of brain science. For good measure, she began her career as a professor of Renaissance literature and did an important study of creativity and mental illness in the extended families of highly successful writers.
Any study of genius must begin by defining what is meant by the term. Andreasen means the “extraordinary creativity” of artists, inventors, and intellectuals. That raises problems, but so perhaps would any definition. What about great entrepreneurs and financiers? Andreasen does not fail to mention them, identifying nineteenth century America as an era of creative flourishing, in part because of individuals like John D. Rockefeller. Nevertheless, the whole realm of creativity in business is set aside. This does tend to reinforce the traditional false dichotomy between mind and body, spirit and material, but Andreasen seems on solid ground assuming that wherever great originality brings important new products into the world the same creative process is underway. What is far less certain is that the same preconditions made possible both Renaissance Florence and industrial America.
One of the best-established insights into creative genius is that it differs significantly from high intelligence. Landmark studies by Lewis Terman, the American pioneer of I.Q. tests, established that point in his massive studies of people tested for intelligence as children and followed up for decades to see how their abilities played out in life. Intelligence appears to be what is called a “threshold” condition for creative genius. Such people have an I.Q. of at least 120 or so, qualifying as bright, but intelligence scores above that are not correlated with greater creative achievement. By the way, to her credit, Andreasen uses the concept of I.Q. with confidence, despite today’s campaign in the name of egalitarianism to discredit the entire field of intelligence research. The existence and importance of what psychologists called “g” or general intelligence, essentially a measure of one’s ability to operate on the conceptual level, has withstood all challenges, including charges that I.Q. tests are culturally biased.
While intelligence appears to be a continuum, so that extreme intelligence is just more of “g” than high intelligence, we cannot assume the same for creativity. Andreasen poses the question: Is extraordinary creativity—creative genius—continuous with ordinary creativity? Anyone’s ability to carry on a conversation represents a remarkable feat of the brain. We summon up ideas, put them in words, string words into sentences—probably never twice using the same combination. We do this while formulating arguments, listening to our interlocutors, and interpreting their facial expressions. This is nevertheless just “ordinary creativity.” Are the brain processes involved here the same, at least in kind, as those of a Shakespeare writing King Lear?
Andreasen believes that they are not. She argues that extraordinary creativity, at the level of genius, likely requires different and distinctive brain processes (indeed, processes that can pose risks to your mental health). The discontinuous nature of extraordinary creativity is a provocative claim. As we will see later, Andreasen’s evidence is of several kinds, but, on the level of brain activity, entails what must be considered, for now, an intriguing hypothesis.
Creative genius differs significantly from high intelligence.
But first, what—aside from being bright—are the attributes of the creative personality? This has been explored in case studies of many fields. An important study by Andreasen herself looked at writers associated with the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The list that Andreasen has distilled from these studies is not especially surprising. The creative personality is characterized by openness to experience, adventuresomeness, rebelliousness, individualism, sensitivity, playfulness, persistence, curiosity, and simplicity (singleness of vision and dedication to the work). Tests to measure creativity usually focus on “divergent thinking” and many variants of such tests are used, but with far less success than intelligence tests. Early measurements of creativity tend not be very predictive of later achievement; tests of intelligence are. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the long list of personality traits of creative people. Or perhaps extraordinary creativity, if it is indeed discontinuous with ordinary creativity, is so rare in the population that widespread testing simply misses it.
Andreasen devotes a chapter to the creative process. The reports of extraordinarily creative people on how they got their big ideas are surprisingly consistent. The process has been called “insight” (as apparently more acceptable to scientists than “inspiration”). Truly original insights usually occur only after extensive preparation: a persistent assault on a well-defined problem that does not yield to research, analysis, or the generation and testing of plausible solutions. Typically, when the mind has temporarily turned away from the problem and is in a state sometimes described as “dissociation”—a distancing from conscious thought—insight bursts onto the scene. Writers, painters, inventors, and others repeatedly describe the sudden appearance of a solution to their problem—at least the kernel of an answer but often a remarkably complete solution. The ideas are experienced as pouring forth in words or images, almost faster than they can be captured. The insight is accompanied by feelings of excitement, profound relief, triumph, and frequently the sense that the ideas have come from entirely outside the mind, a gift from on high.
Thus, creative insight is well-understood, in the descriptive sense; its stages are known, as are many particulars of famous instances of insight. But I am uneasy reading accounts of the process that fail to mention the earliest definitive work on it.
Some readers of this magazine may recall a book sold decades ago by the NBI Book Service. How To Think Creatively by Eliot D. Hutchinson was published in 1949 by Abingdon Press. Its title, doubtless chosen by the publisher to give it popular appeal, probably doomed it to scientific neglect. But Hutchinson—a professor psychology at the University of Rochester—was in fact reporting the results of extensive commissioned research for which he surveyed dozens of acknowledged creative leaders in the United States and Britain, basing his questionnaire on a hypothesis about insight derived from the writings of great creators of the past. Hutchinson managed to obtain completed surveys from an impressive roster of writers, artists, intellectuals, and inventors.In How To Think Creatively, he laid out the process of creative insight with a completeness, and documentation, to my knowledge never matched.
I do not for a moment believe Andreasen deliberately by-passed Hutchinson. The book has been out of print for half-a-century and I have never seen it cited. But anyone seeking the definitive account of creative insight must go back to Hutchinson. (I noticed a few second-hand copies available from Amazon.com.)
If extraordinary creativity is in some sense a bringing together of perceptions, information, ideas, problems, and boundaries (of what qualifies as a solution) to produce something genuinely novel and important—a work of genius—how might this happen in the brain? This is the question implied by Andreasen’s title, and one she is highly qualified to answer, but it gets not much more than one fairly meaty chapter. Frankly, there is only so much to say. As Andreasen points out, creativity has not been much studied by neuroscience; she is one of relatively few to have given it a try. She prepares the reader for her hypothesis with a primer on the human brain. You couldn’t have a better teacher.
An explanation of the creative process must take account of some 100 billion neurons in the cortex and a trillion in the cerebellum, each with from 1,000 to 10,000 connections with other neurons for a nice round quadrillion connections in the adult human brain. The brain can be understood best as a self-organizing system; assemblies of neurons from different parts of the brain find ways to work together. Our sense perceptions, complex language abilities, memory, emotion centers, decision-making or executive brain, and other systems all contribute input to what we call thinking. No one knows much about how it all works, but one clue is the existence of regions of the brain that researchers refer to as “association cortex.” These areas seem to receive and integrate input from many quarters. For example, when we comprehend and produce language, our brain may be bringing together input from our auditory centers, several memory centers, and our motor centers (for speech). This integration seems to occur in association cortex.
Andreasen did one of the few experiments using PET technology to look at the brain while people were free associating. Her goal was to understand how the brain generates “unconscious” thoughts. In this study, she compared the brain regions used for conscious episodic memory (related to our experience of events) with unconscious episodic memory, the source of free association and the unconscious. Of the latter, she writes
Not surprisingly, it was almost all association cortex. It was those areas in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes that are known to gather information from the senses and from elsewhere in the brain and link it all together—in potentially novel ways. These association regions are the last to mature in human beings (p. 73)
Her hypothesis, then, is that association cortex is the hub of creativity. This is true in the case of so-called ordinary as well as extraordinary creativity; but extraordinary creativity, as characterized by the theory of creative insight, is an unconscious process, not directly in our control. In fact, Andreasen suggests that creative insight is a kind of cutting loose of association cortex from our conscious direction so that different areas of association cortex start firing ideas back and forth. When this process results in an original idea or vision or solution that we could not achieve by conscious effort, we experience creative insight. Andreasen writes:
One may conclude not only that extraordinary creativity is at least sometimes based on a qualitatively different neural process than ordinary creativity, but that it at least sometimes arises from that “over the precipice” component of human thought that we call the unconscious (p. 77).
It is as if the multiple association cortices are communicating back and forth, not in order to integrate associations with sensory or motor input as is often the case, but simply in response to one another. The associations are occurring freely. They are running unchecked (p. 77).
And out of this disorganization a new self-organization sometimes emerges. A completely new thing emerges that is original: the product of creative genius. This, then, would be extraordinary creativity, different in kind from routine creativity, based on different neural processes, and capable of insights that ordinary creativity cannot attain. If one is a creative genius, then he is
more facile at creating free associations. Neurally, [he] may have enriched connectivity between [his] various association cortices, or they may even have different kinds of connectivity....This capacity is both a blessing and a curse, for it makes the creative person not only creative but vulnerable (p. 78).
The chapter immediately following this is “Genius and Insanity.”
Some link between creative genius and mental illness has been noticed at least since Aristotle, who wrote: “Those who have become eminent in philosophy, poetry, politics, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia [depression].” Shakespeare made the observation more than once, and John Dryden wrote: “Great wits are sure to Madness near ally’d; / And thin partitions do their Bounds divide.” In the twentieth century, the correlation has been established by systematic research, including a study by Andreasen that found a statistically significant excess of mental illness in writers of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and both creativity and mental illness occurring with unexpected frequency in their extended families.
Some link between creative genius and mental illness has been noticed at least since Aristotle.
At first, scientists expected that the link would be between creativity and schizophrenia. This hypothesis has been more or less abandoned. It turns out that the strong and consistent connection, documented by Kay Redfield Jamison (Touched by Fire), Andreasen, and many others is between creativity and the affective disorders, the illnesses affecting emotion, including depression and manic depression (bi-polar disorder). Manic-depressive illness, in particular, has been strikingly common among creative geniuses. Andreasen points out, however, that most of the studies have been of poets, writers, and painters (again raising questions about the scope of our definition of creativity). When we look at mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers, there may be reason to revisit the association with schizophrenia. Albert Einstein had traits associated with schizoid personality, John Nash (“A Beautiful Mind”) was schizophrenic, and Bertrand Russell had a schizophrenic son. Andreasen asks whether in creative geniuses there is a tendency for the association cortices to spin out of control. She writes that
we have seen how creative ideas probably occur as part of a potentially dangerous mental process, when associations in the brain are flying freely during unconscious mental states—how thoughts must become momentarily disorganized prior to organizing. Such a process is very similar to that which occurs during psychotic states of mania, depression, or schizophrenia (p. 102).
She quotes a disturbing comment by John Nash, who suffered wild delusions of persecution and other false fixed beliefs. Nash said: “the ideas I have about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did, so I took them seriously.”
Whatever may account for creative genius in individuals, it seems obvious that there are times and places in which genius flourishes, eras that bequeath to us a superabundance of creative triumphs. Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. gave us Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in philosophy and Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in drama. Andreasen names this and half a dozen other periods: Renaissance Italy, Tudor and Elizabethan England, the Enlightenment, the Revolutionary and Constitutional periods in the United States, and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States. Assuming that individuals were born in all eras with genetic potential for extraordinary creativity, what enabled so many of them in these eras to fulfill that potential in an outpouring of works of genius?
Reverting to her earlier incarnation as a scholar of the Renaissance, Andreasen chooses for her case study the Florence of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. We know a good deal about these men, and some fifty other artists of the period, thanks to the artist Giorgio Vasari, who published his compilation of biographies, Lives of the Artists, in 1550, and coined the word “renaissance.” Andreasen takes us back to that Florence with the authority of a scholar and the enchantment of one still awed by the Pietá, David, and Last Supper. Leonardo and Michelangelo came from ordinary families. Entirely on their own, both took to drawing as children, observing nature and sketching with a stick in the dirt or with whatever was at hand. Because of this, both were spotted by artists who presided over the studios of the day, filled with apprentices. As apprentices, both rapidly surpassed their masters, and, apparently, were only encouraged in doing so. Leonardo and Michelangelo both lived long lives, worked frantically throughout and to the end, and were lifelong rivals. Both were polymaths of a sort, geniuses not only in the arts but science and engineering—although Leonardo more than Michelangelo. Both were supported and encouraged throughout their lives by patrons of remarkable taste, vision, and dedication. They lived and worked in an environment that produced immortal works by a dozen or more other artists.
What does this case study (and those of the other great eras, described by Andreasen only in passing) tell us about the elements of a culture that fosters the talents of inherently creative people so that more of them emerge and reach their highest potential? According to Andreasen, the elements are 1) freedom, novelty, and a sense of being at the edge; 2) a critical mass of creative people; 3) a competitive atmosphere that is free and fair; 4) mentors and patrons; and 5) economic prosperity (at least some). Andreasen makes a case for each, as applied to Renaissance Florence, and it is a persuasive list. Realize, though, that she is characterizing a society that fosters the inherently creative individual; she is not attempting to explain what causes such a society to come into existence. If we turn to that question, which Andreasen does not, we must ask what makes it possible for intellectually free, economically prosperous, and competitive societies to emerge.
Those whose answer would be “a philosophy of reason” could not hope for a better confirmation than Andreasen’s list of eras of creative flourishing. There is the Athens of Aristotle, of course, and Andreasen makes the point that rediscovery of the ideas of Aristotle was important in the long struggle for rebirth of reason, interest in man, scientific curiosity, and appreciation of nature as the Renaissance gradually superseded centuries of faith. The Tudor and Elizabethan periods were an expression of the Renaissance in England. The Enlightenment as an age of reason speaks for itself. The American Revolution and Constitutional period were an expression of Enlightenment philosophy, and the resulting political and social structure of the United States—the only nation born explicitly of Enlightenment thinking—made possible the burst of invention and wealth creation in nineteenth-century America.
How well, though, does Andreasen’s characterization of the genius-friendly society apply to nineteenth-century America? It applies fairly well, if we stay with her tendency to discuss creative genius in terms of artistic, intellectual, and scientific achievements. But what about the creators of the wealthiest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world? Would they have launched and built their great enterprises, with ultimately huge investments of capital, without confidence that patents, property rights, and contracts would be upheld? How important was the prevailing attitude that the creation of great material wealth was an admirable achievement? What about a system that made possible raising large amounts of capital? For that matter, what about a society open to immigration from every land and culture by the most ambitious people?
The Creating Brain concludes with a chapter on “Building Better Brains.” It is tough today to conclude a book on any aspect of health without a few tips on what you can do at home. This chapter is about that, but also considerably more than that. No discoveries of the past couple decades have been more astonishing to neuroscientists than those concerning the brain’s plasticity. The human brain does an enormous amount of its “wiring up” in direct response to the environment, and there are specific points in development—“critical periods”—when certain types of wiring (for example, those having to do with language) must occur if they are to happen at all.
Truly original insights usually occur only after extensive preparation.
Moreover, the brain retains a significant plasticity throughout life. Every experience changes the brain, to be sure, but scientists were frankly floored to discover that the adult brain can create new cells in significant amounts. A famous brain-imaging study of London taxi cab drivers showed that their hippocampus, a brain center devoted to memory, increased in size in proportion to their time on the job, with its huge demands on memory for streets and places. This report created as much buzz among neuroscientists as the death of Princess Diana did among celebrity watchers. Andreasen talks about how readers can take advantage of this new knowledge of the brain to exercise and strengthen creativity (probably only of the “ordinary” sort, alas).
Readers should be aware that The Creating Brain is written, or perhaps edited, for a very wide public. Andreasen is a past master at explaining brain matters, with a pellucid style and a talent for explaining first things first. But some readers will find the level perhaps too undemanding; I would guess it is geared to the bright high-school sophomore. Andreasen begins a section entitled “What Is Human Thought?” with “Have you ever thought to ask yourself that question? Probably not.” Few readers of this publication will nod their assent.
I urge you, however, not to be put off. In a short and almost deceptively casual discussion, The Creating Brain distills a huge amount of information—the provocative thoughts of a renowned scientist who has spent decades studying her subject, and dazzlingly different perspectives from neuroscience, psychology, history, the arts, and philosophy. Arguably, hers is the ultimate subject for appreciation of the heroic in mankind. Coleridge, after all, was describing the creative process in all its violent and energetic power when he wrote in “Kubla Khan”:
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, A mighty fountain momently was forced
And of that magnificent and inexhaustible fountain, man’s brain is the fountainhead.