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Secrets of the Creative Brain

29 June 2014

From The Atlantic:

I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? My latest study, for which I’ve been scanning the brains of some of today’s most illustrious scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers, has come closer to answering this second question than any other research to date.

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Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative. Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

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One approach, which is sometimes referred to as the study of “little c,” is to develop quantitative assessments of creativity—a necessarily controversial task, given that it requires settling on what creativity actually is. The basic concept that has been used in the development of these tests is skill in “divergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with many responses to carefully selected questions or probes, as contrasted with “convergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with the correct answer to problems that have only one answer. For example, subjects might be asked, “How many uses can you think of for a brick?” A person skilled in divergent thinking might come up with many varied responses, such as building a wall; edging a garden; and serving as a bludgeoning weapon, a makeshift shot put, a bookend.

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A second approach to defining creativity is the “duck test”: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. This approach usually involves selecting a group of people—writers, visual artists, musicians, inventors, business innovators, scientists—who have been recognized for some kind of creative achievement, usually through the awarding of major prizes (the Nobel, the Pulitzer, and so forth). Because this approach focuses on people whose widely recognized creativity sets them apart from the general population, it is sometimes referred to as the study of “big C.” The problem with this approach is its inherent subjectivity. What does it mean, for example, to have “created” something? Can creativity in the arts be equated with creativity in the sciences or in business, or should such groups be studied separately? For that matter, should science or business innovation be considered creative at all?

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Meryl for the tip.


2 Comments to “Secrets of the Creative Brain”

  1. Precisely! You cannot toss all that into the same pot, stir, and come up with answers. In the arts, that elusive something used to be called talent. I never saw anything wrong with that. Of course, the artist may also need the drive to make the talent productive. Still, writers, painters, composers, sculptors, architects all have something in common: they produce/create something. In business and some of the other areas, the skill is not “creative” but rather has a lot to do with problem solving.

  2. I think the madmen in real life— [instead of easy picking authors and artists in a poorly designed and very subjective ‘studies’ –this one misusings the word archetype in opening paragraphs, when writer prob means human stereotype] are people like Papa Doc and son, Ceacescu, Hitler, Goebbels, Than Swe.

    I often wonder why the actual black evil in some humans is not called ‘madman’, and not studied to any useful effect to deter, rather than reserving one’s studies to presumed and anecdotal ‘madness’ re poets, painters, creators of such little power.

    I think those who want to ‘study’ human beings looking for phenomenological certitude as in ‘the bad old days’ [good luck with that] should choose another group to ‘study’… something simple rather than billion-faceted human nature …paramecium come to mind.

    I also object to depression being called mental illness. Look at the world outside one’s door, or inside one’s domicle… really look. Depression is a NORMAL reaction to much in our world. Much. Chemicological depression is not mental illness, it is a physiological issue. The misdiagnoses of persons long dead has to be confronted as bad science, given the plethoras of overdiagnosing prevalent in the last century. The old language tropes about mental variations that cause pain to a person, are still and often insulting, elitist and perpetuate marginalization.

    I find it low to suppose about Vonnegut now that he is gone, and cannot attest to his humor in many of his statements about his family. I knew Kurt and the throw-off by the author whom writes much about her ‘firsts and her creds”… “Vonnegut, who died of natural causes, got off relatively easy. “–that is not science. It is a crass thing to say about a person who had his challenges. Got off easy? Really. Subjective projection has not been, as far as I know, the province of any scientist worth their salt.

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