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.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Networks and creativity

It's no wonder I'm interested in the neurological origins of creativity.

Besides the fact that I'm a fiction writer -- so coming up with creative and engaging lies is basically my stock-in-trade -- I'm also a lifelong musician.  And I'm not the only one in my family.  They're all creative in various ways.  My father was an amateur jewelry-maker and designed and built stained-glass windows in his spare time.  My mom was a ceramic artist and exceptionally talented oil painter.  My wife's art consists of using handwritten text, much of it almost microscopic, in combination with watercolors and glass etching to create pieces of an intricacy that nearly beggars belief.  (Take ten minutes and check it out; I can almost guarantee you've never seen anything quite like it.)  Our older son is a talented sketch artist and cartoonist, and our younger makes his living as a professional glassblower.

So I can say with all due modesty that we're a pretty creative bunch.

As far as where it all comes from, that's a little trickier.  The nature/nurture issue rears its ugly head here; it's certainly a possibility that creativity is to some extent genetic, but (in the case of my kids, for example) they were raised by parents who were constantly looking for new ideas and modes of expression, so it's natural enough that they gravitated that way themselves.  But last month, a paper  was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences called "Robust Prediction of Individual Creative Ability from Brain Functional Connectivity," by Roger Beaty et al., which gives some credence to the fact that whatever its ultimate cause, creativity has a definite biological underpinning.

What the researchers did was to use fMRI data from 183 individuals who were engaged in a classical divergent thinking task (such as, "Think of as many possible uses for a paperclip as you can").  People vary greatly in their competence at these sorts of things; an average person might be able to come up with twenty or so, but a highly creative person can generate many more -- usually by questioning the baseline assumption of the task (for example, does it have to be a standard paperclip made of metal?  Could it be made of styrofoam?  Could it be a hundred feet tall?).

What they found was that the people who scored as the most creative (the highest on the divergent thinking scale) had a different fundamental connectivity in their brains.  The authors write:
At the behavioral level, we found a strong correlation between creative thinking ability and self-reported creative behavior and accomplishment in the arts and sciences (r = 0.54).  At the neural level, we found a pattern of functional brain connectivity related to high-creative thinking ability consisting of frontal and parietal regions within default, salience, and executive brain systems.  In a leave-one-out cross-validation analysis, we show that this neural model can reliably predict the creative quality of ideas generated by novel participants within the sample.  Furthermore, in a series of external validation analyses using data from two independent task fMRI samples and a large task-free resting-state fMRI sample, we demonstrate robust prediction of individual creative thinking ability from the same pattern of brain connectivity.  The findings thus reveal a whole-brain network associated with high-creative ability comprised of cortical hubs within default, salience, and executive systems—intrinsic functional networks that tend to work in opposition—suggesting that highly creative people are characterized by the ability to simultaneously engage these large-scale brain networks.

So the presence of this connectivity between different parts of the brain acts as a good predictor of the capacity for creative thought, and (apparently) also correlates with creative behavior (e.g. taking up art, music, writing, dance, and so on).

Which probably explains why it's so difficult to teach creativity.  In my experience both in writing and in music, it's not hard to teach someone to improve their skills (although in practice, it does take a lot of work on the part of the student), but it's nearly impossible to teach creativity itself.  In writing, training someone to generate novel ideas is a bit of an uphill battle.  In music, learning how to play expressively can be equally challenging.  I distinctly remember one of my flute students who had hired me specifically to teach her how to play with feeling -- her playing, she told me, had been characterized as "cold" and "mechanical."  Over a period of a few weeks, I found something very interesting about her.  Technically, she was a better flutist than I am.  Her sight-reading ability was certainly leaps and bounds beyond mine.  But if she wasn't told how to play something -- if there were no dynamic markings of "fortissimo" and "pianissimo" on the page, for example -- she had no idea what to do with it.

At first, I was convinced she just had never been shown how to recognize the emotional content of music, but could be taught to do it.  I tried to start with the simple stuff first.  We took a piece of Shetland folk music that, to me, is heartwrenchingly emotional -- the lament "Da Slockit Light."  I played it for her completely flat, no dynamics, and asked her to try to identify for me how she would add dynamics to increase its emotional impact -- where, for example, to play louder or softer, where the emotional climax of the tune was, and so on.

She couldn't do it.  She was trying -- that much was clear -- but it became quickly obvious that she was guessing.  So I played it for her with the dynamic structure as I heard it, and she said, "That was really pretty, but I don't know how you figured that out."

I find a similar thing in my biology classes.  The final project is that the students do a design-your-own-experiment -- they come up with an idea they want to test, and figure out how they could create an experiment to find the answer.  Some students jump right in; their problem often is that they come up with too many ideas, and have a hard time winnowing it down to a single one.  But some students find this task nearly impossible.  I have some methods for helping them at least generate an idea they can work with, but the process of coming up with a creative question to ask about the world is difficult and frustrating.

I wonder if it's all the same thing, really, and might have to do with the multiply-connective brain networks identified by Beaty et al.  All of these things require you to link disparate realms -- sounds with emotions, media with visual impact, scientific questions with novel methods.

Whether this connectivity is genetic or comes from early exposure and training is still an open question, of course.  But it does show one thing -- being able to think outside the box requires your brain to have boxes with distinctly blurry edges.

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