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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.


9 Responses

  1. I have an elf like yours. Back in my programming days, I used to wake up and go to the computer and write code; many times I didn’t remember doing it the next day. I liken creativity to an itch– one that starts and must scratched with something: art, music, writing, etc. My frustration with creativity and the assorted attempts at scratching the itch is that it has yielded nothing more mediocrity on my part. Jack of all trades, master of none seems to be the rule for me. Perhaps my latest scratch, 3D modeling, will yield better results.

    • Autopilot elf!

      • Do you get good ideas when you run?

        • The best idea I get when I run is “stop running”. It’s never easy for me and takes all my concentration.
          Tedious, repetitive tasks sometimes help. They don’t take any thought. The brain takes a mini vacation and just floats. That’s when the best ideas happen. I used to like cleaning the crystallization pins for good tedium. They’re these tiny, I’m talking microscopic, nylon loops that we used to use to mount tiny protein crystals for data collection at the syncrotron. When they came back from the syncrotron, they were full of dirty burned out crystal. I would clean them under a microscope in isopropyl alcohol. That was just repetitive, mindless and satisfying enough to get my elves all excited.

  2. Love this post — Now I’ve got a word (elf) for that background brain work. In my programming life, it’s happened many times. For me walking was/is the best way to lure the little guys out.

    • It’s pretty amusing when I meet people who think that research is all about thinking all. the. time. without respite. They are kinda missing the big picture which is the big picture. At the heart of it is a problem that needs to be solved. But there are many intermediate and iterative steps in between gathering data, planning experiments and doing the stuff that needs to be done. It’s not all Einsteinian imagining you are traveling at the speed of light. Even Einstein slept a lot. You can’t be go, go, go 24/7 without burning out. That’s probably why so many people on Wall Street have to take stimulants. Their employers push them too hard, expect them to be “on” all the time, and never let up. You can’t do that kind of thinking all the time without medication. And doing it will lead to mistakes while the medication leads to risk taking behavior.
      So, verily I say unto you employers out there: ease up and you’ll get better results. Down time is required. When that good idea finally starts to gel, you’ll get plenty of work out of people who will enter the flow state and lose track of time doing that thing that gives their brains mini orgasms of pleasure all on its own.

  3. Damn, my elves are like a heard of perverted kangaroos in a china shop the output not fit for genteel society. Some call it a disease but I like it.

  4. They taught us that this is how Kekule’ realized the benzene ring structure. . . . while on a coachride having an unbidden vision of dancing snakes grabbing their own tails and then spinning.

  5. My best ideas come as I’m waking up from sleep. You’ll see solutions you won’t while going toe to toe with a problem

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