"Your creative imagination will always be greater than the technology at your disposal."
— Jason Galeon
“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.” —Salvador Dali
The romantic notion that mental illness and creativity are linked is so prominent in the public consciousness that it is rarely challenged. So before I continue, let me nip this in the bud: Mental illness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity.
The oft-cited studies by Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, and Arnold Ludwig showing a link between mental illness and creativity have been criticized on the grounds that they involve small, highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts.
To be sure, research does show that many eminent creators– particularly in the arts–had harsh early life experiences (such as social rejection, parental loss, or physical disability) and mental and emotional instability. However, this does not mean that mental illness was a contributing factor to their eminence. There are many eminent people without mental illness or harsh early life experiences, and there is very little evidence suggesting that clinical, debilitating mental illness is conducive to productivity and innovation.
What’s more, only a few of us ever reach eminence. Thankfully for the rest of us, there are different levels of creativity. James C. Kaufman and Ronald Beghetto argue that we can display creativity in many different ways, from the creativity inherent in the learning process (“mini-c”), to everyday forms of creativity (“little-c”) to professional-level expertise in any creative endeavor (“Pro-c”), to eminent creativity (“Big-C”).
Engagement in everyday forms of creativity– expressions of originality and meaningfulness in daily life– certainly do not require suffering. Quite the contrary, my colleague and friend Zorana Ivcevic Pringle found that people who engaged in everyday forms of creativity– such as making a collage, taking photographs, or publishing in a literary magazine– tended to be more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. Those scoring high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to their classmates who engaged less in everyday creative behaviors. Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases immune system functioning, and the emerging field of posttraumatic growth is showing how people can turn adversity into creative growth.
So is there any germ of truth to the link between creativity and mental illness? The latest research suggests there is something to the link, but the truth is much more interesting. Let’s dive in.
The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness
In a recent report based on a 40-year study of roughly 1.2 million Swedish people, Simon Kyaga and colleagues found that with the exception of bi-polar disorder, those in scientific and artistic occupations were not more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders. So full-blown mental illness did not increase the probability of entering a creative profession (even the exception, bi-polar disorder, showed only a small effect of 8%).
What was striking, however, was that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. Could it be that the relatives inherited a watered-down version of the mental illness conducive to creativity while avoiding the aspects that are debilitating?
Research supports the notion that psychologically healthy biological relatives of people with schizophrenia have unusually creative jobs and hobbies and tend to show higher levels of schizotypal personality traits compared to the general population. Note that schizotypy is not schizophrenia. Schizotypy consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident in some degree in everyone.
Schizotypal traits can be broken down into two types. “Positive” schizotypy includes unusual perceptual experiences, thin mental boundaries between self and other, impulsive nonconformity, and magical beliefs. “Negative” schizotypal traits include cognitive disorganization and physical and social anhedonia (difficulty experiencing pleasure from social interactions and activities that are enjoyable for most people). Daniel Nettle found that people with schizotypy typically resemble schizophrenia patients much more along the positive schizotypal dimensions (such as unusual experiences) compared to the negative schizotypal dimensions (such as lack of affect and volition).
This has important implications for creativity. Mark Batey and Adrian Furnham found that the unusual experiences and impulsive nonconformity dimensions of schizotypy, but not the cognitive disorganization dimension, were significantly related to self-ratings of creativity, a creative personality (measured by a checklist of adjectives such as “confident,” “individualistic,” “insightful,” “wide interests,” “original,” “reflective,” “resourceful,” “unconventional,” and “sexy”), and everyday creative achievement among thirty-four activities (“written a short story,” “produced your own website,” “composed a piece of music,” and so forth).
Recent neuroscience findings support the link between schizotypy and creative cognition. Hikaru Takeuchi and colleagues investigated the functional brain characteristics of participants while they engaged in a difficult working memory task. Importantly, none of their subjects had a history of neurological or psychiatric illness, and all had intact working memory abilities. Participants were asked to display their creativity in a number of ways: generating unique ways of using typical objects, imagining desirable functions in ordinary objects and imagining the consequences of “unimaginable things” happening.
The researchers found that the more creative the participant, the more they had difficulty suppressing the precuneus while engaging in an effortful working memory task. The precuneus is the area of the Default Mode Network that typically displays the highest levels of activation during rest (when a person is not focusing on an external task). The precuneus has been linked to self-consciousness, self-related mental representations, and the retrieval of personal memories. How is this conducive to creativity? According to the researchers, “Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks.”
Prior research shows a similar inability to deactivate the precuneus among schizophrenic individuals and their relatives. Which raises the intriguing question: what happens if we directly compare the brains of creative people against the brains of people with schizotypy?
Enter a hot-off-the-press study by Andreas Fink and colleagues. Consistent with the earlier study, they found an association between the ability to come up with original ideas and the inability to suppress activation of the precuneus during creative thinking. As the researchers note, these findings are consistent with the idea that more creative people include more events/stimuli in their mental processes than less creative people. But crucially, they found that those scoring high in schizotypy showed a similar pattern of brain activations during creative thinking as the highly creative participants, supporting the idea that overlapping mental processes are implicated in both creativity and psychosis proneness.
It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas. Indeed, Shelley Carson and her colleagues found that the most eminent creative achievers among a sample of Harvard undergrads were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition. In other research, they found that students with reduced latent inhibition scored higher in openness to experience, and in my own research I’ve found that reduced latent inhibition is associated with a faith in intuition.
What is latent inhibition? Latent inhibition is a filtering mechanism that we share with other animals, and it is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine. A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how may times we’ve seen it before and tagged it as irrelevant. Prior research shows a link between reduced latent inhibition and schizophrenia. But as Shelley Carson points out in her “Shared Vulnerability Model,” vulnerable mental processes such as reduced latent inhibition, preference for novelty, hyperconnectivity, and perseveration can interact with protective factors, such as enhanced fluid reasoning, working memory, cognitive inhibition, and cognitive flexibility, to “enlarge the range and depth of stimuli available in conscious awareness to be manipulated and combined to form novel and original ideas.”
Which brings us to the real link between creativity and mental illness.
The latest research suggests that mental illness may be most conductive to creativity indirectly, by enabling the relatives of those inflicted to open their mental flood gates but maintain the protective factors necessary to steer the chaotic, potentially creative storm.
I stared at this GIF explaining how a four-stroke piston engine works for far longer than I care to admit.
One day you’ll have to explain to your kids that this is how we powered our cars. I imagine they’ll be all: “Whaaaa? You used the combustion of aerosolized dinosaur extractions to drive your car? The old days were weird, mom/dad.” (they will text you that of course, from their Google Glass).
"You might not realise, but real life is a game of strategy. There are some fun mini-games – like dancing, driving, running, and sex – but the key to winning is simply managing your resources.
Most importantly, successful players put their time into the right things. Later in the game money comes into play, but your top priority should always be mastering where your time goes.”
This post from one of my favorite Internet people, Oliver Emberton, is great. Sure, life really can’t be boiled down so easily but this is a fun pseudo strategy guide framed around cute video game tropes.
I found the section on “Finding A Partner” to be particularly accurate:
"Attraction is a complex mini-game in itself, but mostly a byproduct of how you’re already playing. If you have excellent state and high skills, you’re far more attractive already. A tired, irritable, unskilled player is not appealing, and probably shouldn’t be looking for a relationship.
Early in the game it can be common to reject and be rejected by other players. This is normal, but unfortunately it can drain your state, as most players don’t handle rejection or rejecting well. You’ll need to expend willpower to keep going, and willpower is replenished by sleep, so give it time.”
Go check out the whole post, which is full of great illustrations and fun, video game-laden writing.
HAPPY WEEKEND! Here’s a fun read to bring you out of the work week.
Life is a game!
Women have continued to be involved in the creation and advancement of civilization throughout history, whether you know it or not. Pick anything—a technology, a science, an art form, a school of thought—and start digging into the background. You’ll find women there, I guarantee, making critical contributions and often inventing the damn shit in the first place.
Women have made those contributions in spite of astonishing hurdles. Hurdles like not being allowed to go to school. Hurdles like not being allowed to work in an office with men, or join a professional society, or walk on the street, or own property. Example: look up Lise Meitner some time. When she was born in 1878 it was illegal in Austria for girls to attend school past the age of 13. Once the laws finally eased up and she could go to university, she wasn’t allowed to study with the men. Then she got a research post but wasn’t allowed to use the lab on account of girl cooties. Her whole life was like this, but she still managed to discover nuclear fucking fission. Then the Nobel committee gave the prize to her junior male colleague and ignored her existence completely.
Men in all patriarchal civilizations, including ours, have worked to downplay or deny women’s creative contributions. That’s because patriarchy is founded on the belief that women are breeding stock and men are the only people who can think. The easiest way for men to erase women’s contributions is to simply ignore that they happened. Because when you ignore something, it gets forgotten. People in the next generation don’t hear about it, and so they grow up thinking that no women have ever done anything. And then when women in their generation do stuff, they think ‘it’s a fluke, never happened before in the history of the world, ignore it.’ And so they ignore it, and it gets forgotten. And on and on and on. The New York Times article is a perfect illustration of this principle in action.
Finally, and this is important: even those women who weren’t inventors and intellectuals, even those women who really did spend all their lives doing stereotypical “women’s work”—they also built this world. The mundane labor of life is what makes everything else possible. Before you can have scientists and engineers and artists, you have to have a whole bunch of people (and it’s usually women) to hold down the basics: to grow and harvest and cook the food, to provide clothes and shelter, to fetch the firewood and the water, to nurture and nurse, to tend and teach. Every single scrap of civilized inventing and dreaming and thinking rides on top of that foundation. Never forget that."
Reblogging again for that paragraph because that is the part we forget the most.
Why are we still on Facebook, ten years later? Maria Konnikova investigates: http://nyr.kr/1ipZ8gM
“While the reasons for joining and using Facebook were not entirely homogenous, one factor kept emerging as the strongest motivation for use: the desire to keep in touch with friends. Sure, some people joined because of social pressure or expediency, but the overwhelming majority of users were looking for something much more fundamental: social connection.”
Photograph: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty.
Why Facebook still exists: elevating our capability to groom our friends more publicly.
"Part of what I want to understand and part of what the people I’m working with want to understand is what are the conditions that lead to collective intelligence rather than collective stupidity".
Wonderful article on attention, intention and everyday awareness
A moving article on emotional intelligence education for children.
Image:Credited to Alex Schlegel, Dartmouth College
New insights into ‘mental workspace’ may help advance artificial intelligence
Philosophers and scientists have long puzzled over where human imagination comes from. In other words, what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?
The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network — the brain’s “mental workspace” — that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas.
Their findings, titled “Network structure and dynamics of the mental workspace,” appear the week of Sept. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively," says lead author Alex Schlegel, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines."
Scholars theorize that human imagination requires a widespread neural network in the brain, but evidence for such a “mental workspace” has been difficult to produce with techniques that mainly study brain activity in isolation. Dartmouth researchers addressed the issue by asking: How does the brain allow us to manipulate mental imagery? For instance, imagining a bumblebee with the head of a bull, a seemingly effortless task but one that requires the brain to construct a totally new image and make it appear in our mind’s eye.
In the study, 15 participants were asked to imagine specific abstract visual shapes and then to mentally combine them into new more complex figures or to mentally dismantle them into their separate parts. Researchers measured the participants’ brain activity with functional MRI and found a cortical and subcortical network over a large part of the brain was responsible for their imagery manipulations. The network closely resembles the “mental workspace” that scholars have theorized might be responsible for much of human conscious experience and for the flexible cognitive abilities that humans have evolved.
Do our dreams dream us?!
Where Do Dreams Come From?
Dreamland might not require so much imagination after all.
When we close our eyes and drift off to sleep, something in our mind spins us fanciful tales of teeth falling out, bouncing around in giant marshmallows in the sky, failing midterms in classes we’ve never taken, taking a walk in the park down the street that’s also a spaceship. Common as they are, there’s not a lot of definitive science on how we dream.
Are dreams the work of the imagination, or the work of some reflex in the brain? A team of French researchers suggest at its most basic, dreaming is generated by the brainstem, the part of the brain that connects to the spinal cord and plays a role in regulating sleep—a “bottom-up” process rather than a result of the brain’s higher functions.
The study looked at patients with auto-activation deficit, a syndrome characterized by extreme apathy. People with auto-activation deficit lose the ability to spontaneously activate any cognitive or emotional processes. They report that they don’t have any thoughts at all, called “mental emptiness.” They often sit quietly in the same place all day without speaking or moving. If someone prompts them, they can answer questions and recall memories, but left to their own devices, their minds remain blank. So if these patients don’t have spontaneous thoughts, do they dream?
The 13 auto-activation deficit subjects and 13 healthy control subjects were asked to keep a dream diary, which the researchers then “analyzed for length, complexity and bizarreness.” Not all the auto-activation deficit patients reported dreaming, but some did. Those who reported dreaming (only four out of the 13) had shorter, less bizarre dreams than the control group’s, dream about normal scenarios like walking or shaving, according to the LA Times. Not sitting on a park bench watching a lady’s hat turn into a wolf.
That patients who don’t have spontaneous thoughts during the day can do so when asleep suggests that dreaming might be a bottom-down process, essentially a reflex. But the simplicity and lack of emotional resonance of their dreams suggest that higher-order processes are required to create the strange scenarios most people find in their dreams.
The full study was published in Brain this week.
Children should be allowed to get bored so they can develop their innate ability to be creative, an education expert says.
Dr Teresa Belton told the BBC cultural expectations that children should be constantly active could hamper the development of their imagination
She quizzed author Meera Syal and artist Grayson Perry about how boredom had aided their creativity as children.
Syal said boredom made her write, while Perry said it was a “creative state”.
The senior researcher at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning interviewed a number of authors, artists and scientists in her exploration of the effects of boredom.
She heard Syal’s memories of the small mining village, with few distractions, where she grew up.
Dr Belton said: “Lack of things to do spurred her to talk to people she would not otherwise have engaged with and to try activities she would not, under other circumstances, have experienced, such as talking to elderly neighbours and learning to bake cakes.
“Boredom is often associated with solitude and Syal spent hours of her early life staring out of the window across fields and woods, watching the changing weather and seasons.
IST Austria Professor Jozsef Csicsvari together with collaborators succeeds in uncovering processes in which the formation of spatial memory is manifested in a map representation • Researchers investigate timescale of map formation • Inhibitory interneurons possibly involved in selection of map
During learning, novel information is transformed into memory through the processing and encoding of information in neural circuits. In a recent publication in Neuron, IST Austria Professor Jozsef Csicsvari, together with his collaborator David Dupret at the University of Oxford, and Joseph O’Neill, postdoc in Csicsvari’s group, uncovered a novel role for inhibitory interneurons in the rat hippocampus during the formation of spatial memory.
During spatial learning, space is represented in the hippocampus through plastic changes in the connections between neurons. Jozsef Csicsvari and his collaborators investigate spatial learning in rats using the cheeseboard maze apparatus. This apparatus contains many holes, some of which are selected to hide food in order to test spatial memory. During learning trials, animals learn where the rewards are located, and after a period sleep, the researchers test whether the animal can recall these reward locations. In previous work, they and others have shown that memory of space is encoded in the hippocampus through changes in the firing of excitatory pyramidal cells, the so-called “place cells”. A place cell fires when the animal arrives at a particular location. Normally, place cells always fire at the same place in an environment; however, during spatial learning the place of their firing can change to encode where the reward is found, forming memory maps.
In their new publication, the researchers investigated the timescale of map formation, showing that during spatial learning, pyramidal neuron maps representing previous and new reward locations “flicker”, with both firing patterns occurring. At first, old maps and new maps fluctuate, as the animal is unsure whether the location change is transient or long-lasting. At a later stage, the new map and so the relevant new information dominates.
The scientists also investigated the contribution of inhibitory interneuron circuits to learning. They show that these interneurons, which are extensively interconnected with pyramidal cells, change their firing rates during map formation and flickering: some interneurons fire more often when the new pyramidal map fires, while others fire less often with the new map. These changes in interneuron firing were only observed during learning, not during sleep or recall. The scientists also show that the changes in firing rate are due to map-specific changes in the connections between pyramidal cells and interneurons. When a pyramidal cell is part of a new map, the strengthening of a connection with an interneuron causes an increase in the firing of this interneuron. Conversely, when a pyramidal cell is not part of a new map, the weakening of the connection with the interneuron causes a decrease in interneuron firing rate. Both, the increase and the decrease in firing rate can be beneficial for learning, allowing the regulation of plasticity between pyramidal cells and controlling the timing in their firing.
The new research therefore shows that not only excitatory neurons modify their behaviour and exhibit plastic connection changes during learning, but also the inhibitory interneuron circuits. The researchers suggest that inhibitory interneurons could be involved in map selection – helping one map dominate and take over during learning, so that the relevant information is encoded.
Brain organization, not overall size, may be the key evolutionary difference between primate brains, and the key to what gives humans their smarts, new research suggests.
In the study, researchers looked at 17 species that span 40 million years of evolutionary time, finding changes in the relative size of specific brain regions, rather than changes in brain size, accounted for three-quarters of brain evolution over that time. The study, published today (March 26) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, also revealed that massive increases in the brain’s prefrontal cortex played a critical role in great ape evolution.
“For the first time, we can really identify what is so special about great ape brain organization,” said study co-author Jeroen Smaers, an evolutionary biologist at the University College London.
Is bigger better?
Traditionally, scientists have thought humans’ superior intelligence derived mostly from the fact that our brains are three times bigger than our nearest living relatives, chimpanzees.
But bigger isn’t always better. Bigger brains take much more energy to power, so scientists have hypothesized that brain reorganization could be a smarter strategy to evolve mental abilities.
To see how brain organization evolved throughout primates, Smaers and his colleague Christophe Soligo analyzed post-mortem slices of brains from 17 different primates, then mapped changes in brain size onto an evolutionary tree.
Over evolutionary time, several key brain regions increased in size relative to other regions. Great apes (especially humans) saw a rise in white matter in the prefrontal cortex, which contributes to social cognition, moral judgments, introspection and goal-directed planning.
“The prefrontal cortex is a little bit like the CEO of the brain,” Smaers told LiveScience. “It takes information from other brain areas and it synthesizes them.”
When great apes diverged from old-world monkeys about 20 million years ago, brain regions tied to motor planning also increased in relative size. That could have helped them orchestrate the complex movements needed to manipulate tools — possibly to get at different food sources, Smaers said.
Gibbons and howler monkeys showed a different pattern. Even though their bodies and their brains got smaller over time, the hippocampus, which plays a role in spatial tasks, tended to increase in size in relation to the rest of the brain. That may have allowed these monkeys to be spatially adept and inhabit a more diverse range of environments.
The study shows that specific parts of the brain can selectively scale up to meet the demands of new environments, said Chet Sherwood, an anthropologist at George Washington University, who was not involved in the study.
The finding also drives home the importance of the prefrontal cortex, he said.
“It’s very suggestive that connectivity of prefrontal cortex has been a particularly strong driving force in ape and human brains,” Sherwood told LiveScience.
Once rhesus monkeys learn to associate a picture with a reward, the reward by itself becomes enough to alter the activity in the monkeys’ visual cortex. This finding was made by neurophysiologists Wim Vanduffel and John Arsenault (KU Leuven and Harvard Medical School) and American colleagues using functional brain scans and was published recently in the leading journal Neuron.
Our visual perception is not determined solely by retinal activity. Other factors also influence the processing of visual signals in the brain. “Selective attention is one such factor,” says Professor Wim Vanduffel. “The more attention you pay to a stimulus, the better your visual perception is and the more effective your visual cortex is at processing that stimulus. Another factor is the reward value of a stimulus: when a visual signal becomes associated with a reward, it affects our processing of that visual signal. In this study, we wanted to investigate how a reward influences activity in the visual cortex.”
To do this, the researchers used a variant of Pavlov’s well-known conditioning experiment: “Think of Pavlov giving a dog a treat after ringing a bell. The bell is the stimulus and the food is the reward. Eventually the dogs learned to associate the bell with the food and salivated at the sound of the bell alone. Essentially, Pavlov removed the reward but kept the stimulus. In this study, we removed the stimulus but kept the reward.”
In the study, the rhesus monkeys first encountered images projected on a screen followed by a juice reward (classical conditioning). Later, the monkeys received juice rewards while viewing a blank screen. fMRI brain scans taken during this experiment showed that the visual cortex of the monkeys was activated by being rewarded in the absence of any image.
Importantly, these activations were not spread throughout the whole visual system but were instead confined to the specific brain regions responsible for processing the exact stimulus used earlier during conditioning. This result shows that information about rewards is being sent to the visual cortex to indicate which stimuli have been associated with rewards.
Equally surprising, these reward-only trials were found to strengthen the cue-reward associations. This is more or less the equivalent to giving Pavlov’s dog an extra treat after a conditioning session and noticing the next day that he salivates twice as much as before. More generally, this result suggests that rewards can be associated with stimuli over longer time scales than previously thought.
Why does the visual cortex react selectively in the absence of a visual stimulus on the retina? One potential explanation is dopamine. “Dopamine is a signalling chemical (neurotransmitter) in nerve cells and plays an important role in processing rewards, motivation, and motor functions. Dopamine’s role in reward signalling is the reason some Parkinson’s patients fall into gambling addiction after taking dopamine-increasing drugs. Aware of dopamine’s role in reward, we re-ran our experiments after giving the monkeys a small dose of a drug that blocks dopamine signalling. We found that the activations in the visual cortex were reduced by the dopamine blocker. What’s likely happening here is that a reward signal is being sent to the visual cortex via dopamine,” says Professor Vanduffel.
The study used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans to visualise brain activity. fMRI scans map functional activity in the brain by detecting changes in blood flow. The oxygen content and the amount of blood in a given brain area vary according to the brain activity associated with a given task. In this way, task-specific activity can be tracked.
Two is the magic number: Joshua Wolf Shenk on the role of collaboration in creativity
Paul McCartney & John Lennon
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