Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A tincture of madness

As a fiction writer, I have an understandable interest in the neuroscience of creativity.  It's a difficult field to study; getting people to be creative while simultaneously scanning their brains can be tricky.

Now, five researchers at Johns Hopkins have been able to do just that.  A recent paper in Nature by
Malinda J. McPherson, Frederick S. Barrett, Monica Lopez-Gonzalez, Patpong Jiradejvong, and Charles J. Limb entitled "Emotional Intent Modulates The Neural Substrates Of Creativity: An fMRI Study of Emotionally Targeted Improvisation in Jazz Musicians" has shown that creativity requires the interaction between several disparate regions of the brain -- including the ones connected with both negative and positive emotions.

What the researchers did is to take twelve jazz pianists and instruct them to improvise a piece based on emotional cues they got from a photograph of a woman with either a happy, neutral, or sad expression.  They then played their piece while in a fMRI machine, thus giving the scientists a view of what was happening in their brains as they created.

The researchers found there was a distinct difference in the patterns of brain activation depending upon the emotional content of the music the pianists were creating.  The authors write:
[T]his study shows that the impulse to create emotionally expressive music may have a basic neural origin: emotion modulates the neural systems involved in creativity, allowing musicians to engage limbic centers of their brain and enter flow states.  The human urge to express emotions through art may derive from these widespread changes in limbic, reward, and prefrontal areas during emotional expression.  Within jazz improvisation, certain emotional states may open musicians to deeper flow states or more robust stimulation of reward centers.  The creative expression of emotion through music may involve more complex mechanisms by which the brain processes emotions, in comparison to perception of emotion alone. 
More darkly, there's long been a supposed connection between being highly creative and being mentally ill.  The list of individuals who were both is a long one. Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O'Keeffe, Hermann Hesse, Maurice Ravel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollock, Cole Porter, Vincent van Gogh, and Robert Schumann all suffered from varying degrees of mental problems, most of them from clinical depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.  More than one of these spent the last years of life in a mental institution, and more than one committed suicide.

"The only difference between myself and a madman," Salvador Dalí famously quipped, "is that I am not mad."  Two thousand years earlier, the Roman writer Seneca said, "There is no genius without a tincture of madness."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This, too, has been studied from a neuroscience perspective. A Swedish researcher has demonstrated that Seneca was right; there is a fundamental connection between creativity and mental illness.   Fredrik Ullén, of the Karolinska Institutet of Stockholm, found a significant connection between creativity and the dopamine (pleasure/reward) system in the brain, which is the same system that is implicated in several forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and tendency to addiction.

Ullén administered a test that was designed to measure a subject's capacity for creative thinking -- for developing more than one solution to the same problem, or using non-linear solution methods to arrive at an answer.  He then analyzed the brain activity of the individuals who scored the highest, and found that across the board, they had lower amounts of dopamine receptors in a part of the brain called the thalamus -- one of the main "switchboards" in the higher brain, and responsible for sorting and processing sensory stimuli.

The implication is that creative people don't have as rigid a sorting mechanism as other, less creative people -- that having a built-in deficiency in your relay system may help you to arrive at solutions to problems that others might not have seen.

The connection between the thalamus, creativity, and sorting issues is supported by a different bit of brain research that found that a miswiring of the thalamus is implicated in another bizarre mental disorder, called synesthesia.  In synesthesia, signals from the sensory organs are misrouted to the incorrect interpretive centers in the cerebrum, and an auditory signal (for example) might be received in the visual cortex.  As a result, you would "see sounds."  Other senses can be crosswired, however -- the seminal study of the disorder is described in Richard Cytowic's book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Synesthsia is apparently also much more common among the creative.  Alexander Scriabin, the early 20th century Russian composer, wrote his music as much from how it looked to him as how it sounded.  He describes a sensation of color being overlaid on what he was actually seeing when he heard specific combinations of notes.  The colors were consistent; C# minor, for example, was always green, Eb major always magenta.  And although Alexander Scriabin's synesthesia was perhaps the most intense, he is not the only composer who was synesthetic; the evidence is strong that Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Olivier Messaien also had this same miswiring.

The study by Ullén seems to point toward connecting these physiological manifestations with the phenomenon of creativity itself.  "Thinking outside the box," Ullén said, "may be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box."

So the whole thing is, as you might expect, quite complex.  Creativity, apparently, involves not only the interaction between emotional and cognitive regions of the brain, but between separate cognitive and perceptual modules.  The next time someone asks me where I get the ideas for my novels, however, I'm not sure I want to go into all of this.  I'll probably just stick with my tried-and-true response, which is to smile and say, "I was dropped on my head as an infant."

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