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    • Interview Part 2: Politics Thru Climate Change
      This second excerpt from my interview is more interesting and longer. This is the second clip from my interview with Ian Welsh (Ian blogs at ianwelsh.net). For this segment, we went on a wild ride discussing the big picture mess that is US politics and society more broadly. I asked Ian what might happen if […]
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The Neuroscience of Creativity

James Joyce: creative and a bit crazy

Spoiler alert: It’s not about your IQ.

According to the fascinating article in The Atlantic, Secrets of the Creative Brain, by Nancy Andreason, you can be a creative genius with an IQ of 120. That doesn’t mean that an IQ of 170 puts you at a disadvantage, only that extra points are unnecessary.

So, what is the extra something that contributes to creativity? It helps if you’re a bit mad but I’ll get to that later. There are more traits associated with creativity. For example, your personal “verbal lexicon”, the way you associate language to other information is very important to creativity.

Here’s another finding that I can relate to:

When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.

This has been my personal experience when I have had rare flashes of insight at work. I have no idea what my IQ is and would hardly put myself in the genius category. But I do have a strategy I call it “putting an elf on it”. Here’s how it goes: There’s a period of intense concentration and learning. I tend to learn better when I’m thrown in the deep end of the pool and have to struggle to keep my head above water (assuming there’s nothing else for me to worry about). The learning curve needs to be sufficiently steep and I need to be fully engaged. And then, just when I can’t focus on a niggling problem anymore, I need to stop doing that and do something completely unrelated for awhile. Sometimes that means surfing the net mindlessly or playing some mind numbing word game or listening to a book in an unrelated genre. Before I do that, I mentally gather the elves that are lazily sitting around in my mind and tell them I’m going home for the day and I’m assigning them the task of figuring the problem out or I send one down into the archives to retrieve that missing piece of information. Then I disengage and do something else while the elves do their thing without my supervision. It’s not long before the elves start forwarding their information. It usually arrives in bits and pieces, phrases or some nugget of an idea. Some assembly is required. I have some elves that are particularly busy at night and like to put little puns and riddles in my dreams.

My elf solution sounds a bit like what Andreason would call “random episodic silent thought” or REST. It’s like free association in a relaxed state.

Some other findings: the more associations you can make, the better your chances of doing something creative. Polymaths are more creative because they have a lot of interests and do multiple things well. Nurturing may have something to do with creativity. Did your parents indulge your creative whims with trips to the craft store, museums or other places of interest? It helps if your family also valued education and study. Creative people tend to work harder at their jobs because they love their work. I have to say that I really fell in love with my job during the last two years at work. This is when I felt like I was most creative and it was so much fun. Who knows if it would have lead to any breakthroughs but this study should be read by the people who are running R&D into the ground right now. True innovation requires happily engaged people who are allowed to disengage periodically without fear of being laid off.

What about madness and genius? Andreason says there is a link. The families of highly creative people are chock full of mood disorders. Many highly creative people have at least one relative who is schizophrenic, though schizophrenia itself could derail creativity. The reason why mental illness is important to the highly creative is because the brain is more easily unmoored and can find connections that other people can’t.

These are only a few of the findings of Andreason’s study. After having spent a good deal of time in the past twenty five years around scientifically creative people, I’d say she is on to something. Read the whole thing.