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The Creating BrainReview - The Creating Brain
The Neuroscience of Genius
by Nancy C. Andreasen
Dana Press, 2005
Review by Nigel Leary
Jul 18th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 29)

Nancy C. Andreasen's book, The Creating Brain, is an interesting and insightful hypothesis about the nature of creativity.  Her style is fluid and engaging, and she presents both her hypothesis and her research in equally effective and accessible ways.  Andreasen is, to be sure, an interesting character: she started her career as a professor of Renaissance literature before going on to study as a neuroscientist, and she is now the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry and Director of Mental Health Clinical Research Centre at the University of Iowa.  This rare mixing of disciplines has left Andreasen in the somewhat extraordinary position to approach the notion of creativity from both a scientific perceptive (as a neuroscientist) and from an inherently creative background (as a literary professor).  This meld not only gives Andreasen's book an engaging and readable style, but motivates her project, and provides her with a strong insight into both a) the creative process and b) the creative psyche.

Andreasen's research is multifaceted, but the main goal of the project is to 'drill down to the deepest level possible and attempt to find the neural basis of creativity' (p. 50).  However, what is especially significant is Andreasen's presentation of introspective accounts of the creative process prior to the introduction of her own project.  What this does is ground the reader firmly in the topic, and gives an insight into the creative process from the perspective of the deeply creative mind, examples of which include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, Henri Poincare, Fredrich Kekule and Stephen Spender.  Once the topic is grounded, and the reader engaged, Andreasen is careful to inform the intelligent lay reader of all the relevant terminology.  The journey starts with a short excursion into How Does the Brain Think?, followed by A Primer for Brain Anatomy, The Complexity of Brain Networks, The Human Brain as a Self-organizing System and What is Human Thought?, before we reach what becomes a key section on Unconscious Thought: The Edge of the Mind's Precipice.  It is important to stress that as engaging and interesting as Andreasen's work is she is a pioneer of the field, and as such much of her research is, in fact, the only research on the market.  What this means is that as intuitive and encouraging as any of the results may be they are, at this stage, inconclusive, but as long as we, the readers, bear this in mind Andreasen's research and hypotheses remain highly informative.  That being said, the author is clear that this is new, uncharted territory, and as an 'adventurer' she has decided 'to take the plunge over the precipice and to study the neural basis of free association using neuroimaging technology to obtain measurements of cerebral blood flow to determine which regions of the brain became activated' (p. 70).  But what is the relevance of free association to creativity?

Well, free association is an instance of episodic memory -- a type of autobiographical memory which recollects the information linked to a person's experience – but, in this particular case, it is, according to Andreasen, 'more mysterious' because it 'is clearly less sequential and time-linked [and]…may be the repository of information that is stored deeply and is therefore sometimes less consciously accessible' (p. 71).  What Andreasen's experiment reveals is that the area of the brain which registers activity during free association is the association cortex.  This cortex is what gathers and links information from various other areas in the brain, and here is the interesting part, 'in potentially novel ways' (p. 71).  So, the claim is that the genesis of new ideas and concepts is attributable to this neural process, which links information in the subject’s brain in novel ways.  However, what makes these discoveries fascinating in the study of creativity is that i) much of this linking process occurs in what we refer to as 'the unconscious mind' and ii) this capacity uses the parts of the brain which are it’s 'most human and complex parts' (p. 71).  According to Andreasen, there is a distinction to be made between ordinary creativity (creating sentences in conversation) and extraordinary creativity (composing symphonies), and she connects the empirical evidence back to the introspective accounts presented to the reader earlier.  What this link, successfully, demonstrates is that the creative process in the instances of people like Mozart and Tchaikovsky is extraordinary and characterized by a unique thought process, which in turn must (although Andreasen is careful to say presumably) be caused by a unique neural process.  In essence, the claim is that the type of creativity we are interested in, the type which produces paintings like the Mona Lisa, is a distinct type of neural activity which can be distinguished from other types of brain activity.  Furthermore, it appears to be something which occurs in the unconscious mind, via a process of free association.  As Andreasen herself puts it:

'I would hypothesize that during the creative process the brain begins by disorganizing, making links between shadowy forms of objects or symbols or words or remembered experiences that have not previously been linked.  Out of this disorganization, self-organization eventually emerges and takes over in the brain.  The result is a completely new and original thing: a mathematical function, a symphony, or a poem…[P]ossessors of extraordinary creativity are…gifted with unusual brains.' (p. 77/8).

Andreasen goes on to explore the apparent links between creativity and some malady of the mind.  Chapter four, Genius and Insanity, opens with some particularly well chosen quotes, including one from John Dryden in Absalom and Achitophel: Great Wits are sure to Madness near ally'd: And thin Partitions do their Bounds divide (p. 79).  The point of the chapter is to explore whether there are actually any links between mental illness and creativity.  Once again Andreasen draws the reader's attention to a list of names including John Nash, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway and Ludwig von Beethoven.   The question is are these instances of a direct link between creativity and mental illness, or is the link simply coincidental?  Andreasen's own study reveals some solid correlative evidence between artistic creativity and mood disorder, but also that there is no apparent link between creativity and schizophrenia.  She goes to some length to discuss, rationally, why high levels of creativity can lead to some sorts of mental disorder, and also points out that although there is no direct correlation between the occurrence of mental illness and schizophrenia, the mental or neural processes where the brain becomes 'momentarily disorganized' in creativity, such as free association, are remarkably similar to those in 'psychotic states of mania, depression, or schizophrenia' (p. 102).

The fifth chapter What Creates the Creative Brain is, I think, the best chapter of the book.   Its use of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti as examples is masterful; as is Andreasen’s account of the climate of creativity in which both artists developed and nurtured their talents.  This chapter also contains what is perhaps the clearest exposition of Andreasen's position:

'Somehow an innate gift, intrinsically coded in their brains by genetic influences that we do not as yet understand, was present.  It is manifested by cognitive and personality traits such as curiosity, openness to experience, and self-confidence.  These traits can be further enhanced by environmental influences…because the human brain is ''plastic.''  That is, it is intensively shaped throughout life by interaction with the world around it.' (p. 135)

Although Andreasen admits that her study has only a limited application to any significant nature vs. nurture debate her evidence is compelling.  This chapter also sees the formulation of a series five necessary cultural conditions for creativity, although I must admit some level of personal scepticism as to their application.  That being said they are certainly logical, even intuitive, but I find it hard to believe that the conditions for creativity are so easily exhausted.

Chapter six is dominated by various pieces of advice and numerous activities to promote creativity, and includes sections titled Mental Exercises for Adults and Tips for Teaching Tots.  Again, the advice appears sound, and, given the framework of Andreasen's studies and findings, makes perfect sense.  As compelling and convincing as Andreasen's hypotheses and findings are they must be taken with a pinch of salt, not because they aren’t logical or rational, but simply because their empirical verification is, at present, immature.  The studies themselves appear valid, and offer credible results, but there simply have not been enough of them to demonstrate the veridical nature of the claims.  That being said Andreasen deserves full credit for an engaging, interesting, insightful and intuitive book which is not only informative, but leaves everyone in a position to nurture their own creative talents.  I sincerely hope to see more research in this area to fortify Andreasen's position, and to verify her claims.

 

© 2006 Nigel Leary

Nigel Leary is currently a student at the University of Kent, writing an M.A. dissertation on free will.  As a philosopher his interests are in philosophy of mind, neuroscience, moral psychology, epistemology and metaphysics.  He hopes to go on to write a PhD thesis, on consciousness, at the University of York in October.


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