Eric Kandel
Professor of Brain Science, Columbia University

Where Does Creativity Come From?

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Dr. Eric Kandel describes the "aha phenomenon" and speculates on ways that humans and groups can think more creatively.

Eric Kandel

Dr. Kandel is University Professor and Fred Kavli Professor and Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. His most recent book is The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present.

By probing the synaptic connections between nerve cells in the humble sea slug, Eric Kandel has uncovered some of the basic molecular mechanisms underlying learning and memory in animals ranging from snails to flies to mice and even in humans. His groundbreaking studies have demonstrated the fundamental ways that nerve cells alter their response to chemical signals to produce coordinated changes in behavior. This work is central to understanding not only normal memory but also dementia and other mental illnesses that affect memory.

Kandel's research has shown that learning produces changes in behavior by modifying the strength of connections between nerve cells, rather than by altering the brain's basic circuitry. He went on to determine the biochemical changes that accompany memory formation, showing that short-term memory involves a functional modulation of the synapses while long-term memory requires the activation of genes and the synthesis of proteins to grow new synaptic connections. For this work, the Austrian-born Kandel was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The traumatic events of Kandel's childhood likely influenced his later interest in the biological mechanisms of memory. He was only eight when, in 1938, Nazi Germany annexed his homeland, but the humiliation and discrimination that Kandel, his family, and other Jews suffered under this oppressive regime were forever seared into his memory. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, his family fled Austria for the United States.

As a college student at Harvard, Kandel majored in history and literature, but he was drawn to psychoanalysis after befriending a native Austrian student whose parents were prominent psychoanalysts in Sigmund Freud's circle. Kandel went to medical school at New York University with the goal of studying psychiatry and becoming a psychoanalyst himself. But thinking that he should know more about how the brain works, he took a neurophysiology course that shifted his interest toward research into the biology of memory. "The cell and molecular mechanisms of learning and memory struck me as a wonderful problem to study … It was clear to me even then that learning and memory were central to behavior, and thus to psychopathology and to psychotherapy," Kandel recalled.

Initially, he focused on recording the activity of nerve cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain vital to memory formation. The mammalian hippocampus, however, with its seemingly infinite number of neurons and synaptic connections, made it difficult to study learning and memory at the cellular level. Kandel soon realized he needed a simpler system and chose the invertebrate sea slug Aplysia, much to the dismay of his colleagues who thought that no self-respecting neurophysiologist would abandon the study of learning in mammals to work on an invertebrate.

This bold decision paid off, though, and Kandel now works to instill in his students a sense that risk-taking is important to good science. "I try to convey to students my love of science and my conviction that exploring the biology of the brain is an unmatched scientific adventure," he explained. "I also encourage them to think boldly and to work carefully; to take gambles on their ideas and to try new approaches. I also tell them never to be embarrassed in exposing their ignorance … We are all here to learn, and the learning never ends."

More recently, Kandel has expanded his studies of simple learning and memory in Aplysia to include more complex forms of memory storage in genetically modified mice. These studies have focused on explicit memory (the conscious recall of information about places and objects), revealing the importance of a balance of activation and inhibition in memory storage so that animals as well as humans do not store information in their memories that is not important to recall.



Eric Kandel: Leonardo, for one, spent a fair amount of time dissecting human cadavers because he wanted to know how the various bones related to one each other and how the muscles related to the bones. So he wanted to have a realistic understanding of the human anatomy because he was depicting real live people sitting, gesturing, walking, and he wanted to get this as absolutely correct as possible.

In order to understand how the body functions, we need to know something about the anatomy of the body, it’s sort of obvious.The more we want to depict the mind, the more it helps to understand the mind, and one way to understand the mind is to understanding the brain. So it is conceivable that as we get deeper and deeper insights into the mind, artists will get ideas about how combinations of stimuli affect, for example, emotional states that will allow them to depict those emotional states better.

But in addition, we’re beginning to get in very, very primitive terms, some insights into the nature of creativity. Hughling Jackson, the great neurologist in the 19th century, thought that the left hemisphere is involved in language. We know this is true. And the left hemisphere is primarily involved in logical processes, calculation, mathematics, rational thinking. The right hemisphere, he thought, is more involved with musicality, which is true. The sing-song in my language comes from the right hemisphere, the grammar and the articulation comes from my left hemisphere. Okay? So he thought that the right hemisphere is more involved in musicality in, you know, synthesis, putting things together and an aspect of creativity. And he felt that the two hemispheres inhibit one another. So if you have lesions of the left hemisphere, that removes the inhibitory constraint on the right hemisphere and frees up certain processes. And he found that certain kids that develop later in life, let’s say, later in their teens, aphasia, a language difficulty; it freed up in them a musicality which they didn’t have before.

People have returned to that more recently in the analysis of a dementia called Frontotemporal Dementia. Frontotemporal Dementia is a dementia somewhat similar to Alzheimer’s disease, it actually begins earlier, that primarily affects the temporal lobe of the brain and the front lobe of the brain. If it’s only expressed on the left side, people with Frontotemporal Dementia begin to show creativity that they’ve never shown before. So if you were painting before, you might start, if you develop Frontotemporal Dementia on the left side, to use colors that you’ve never used before to try forms that you’ve never used before. If you never painted before, you might take up painting for the first time. So this is really quite unusual.

There are also a group of people who have studied aspects of creativity. I can give you a problem that can be solved in one of two ways, systematically working your way through it or putting it together, take a guess, an Aha Phenomenon. And they found that when people do it in a sort of creative way, the Aha Phenomenon, there is a particular area in the right side of the brain that lights up. And they show this not only with imaging, but also with electrophysiological recording.

So this is really quite interesting. You have a number of sort of indirect, not the most compelling evidence in the world, the Aha Phenomenon is well-documented, but it’s only a component of creativity. Number of suggestions, there are aspects of the right hemisphere that might be involved in creativity. But look, as we have been saying all along, we are at a very early stage in understanding higher mental processes, so it’s amazing we know anything about creativity, but this is certainly – we are heading into an era in which one can really get very, very good insights into it and the kinds of situations that lead to increased creativity... you know, is group think productive? Does it lead to great – greater creativity or does it inhibit individual creativity? Lots of these questions are being explored, both from a social psychological and from a biological point of view.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


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