Creativity: The science behind the madness

Human brains evolved for creativity. We just have to learn how to access it.

RAINN WILSON: Creativity is absolutely for everyone. I firmly believe this. I think if you're the driest accountant with the plastic pocket pen protector it's in how you interact with the world. There's artistry in everything that we do.

ANTHONY BRANDT: The fact of the matter is we all are born with a creative license. We have this software running in our brains.

DAVID EAGLEMAN: What is it that's special about the human brain that allows creativity to happen? Because when you look at us compared to all the other species on the earth we have very similar brains. I mean obviously we're cousins with our nearest neighbors and all throughout the animal kingdom, it's a continuous family tree, but we're running around the planet doing something unbelievable. You don't have squirrels going to the moon or dogs inventing the Internet or cows doing theater plays for one another or any of the gajillion things that we do. What is below all of that? What is the basic cognitive software that's running in the human brain that takes ideas in and smushes them up and crunches them. It's like a food processor that's constantly spitting out new ideas.

SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN: So, many of you might have heard of the left brain right brain myth about creativity, that the left brain is not related to creativity much at all because it's really boring and logical and super serious and analytical, and that the right brain is where all the artistic beauty comes out and it's very poetic. Well, the reality is that creativity involves an interaction of lots of different brain networks that rely on both the left side and the right side of the brain.

WENDY SUZUKI: It really is the most creative people are using both sides of the brain together. So, this is an important concept that the brain is subdivided into two major hemispheres. We have two of each structure, almost all the structures of our brain are paired. So, the idea is well one side of the brain is for certain things and the other side of the brain is important for other things and the one thing we can say for sure is yes language is on the left side of the brain. But for creativity it actually makes more sense to me that with a function so broad as that you would benefit from having the most crosstalk possible between all parts of your brain, in fact that's what the neuroscience is showing.

KAUFMAN: When you have lots of different parts of the brain that are communicating with each other to solve a certain task then it's called a brain network. And you find that creativity draws on multiple interacting brain networks. In particular it draws on three brain networks that seem to be absolutely essential to creativity across whatever field it is, whether it's science or its art. One of those brain networks that is important is what's called the executive attention network. And the executive attention network allows you to integrate lots of information in your head at one time, hold stuff in your working memory, maintain strategies that you're currently working on at one time so you don't forget what your strategy is or forget what you already did and then redo it. The executive attention network it's also helpful for inhibiting the obvious responses or the first things that comes to your mind. And so, creativity is important to access remote associations so the executive attention network is going to be helpful to inhibit the most immediate obvious things that come to mind. People who are very good improv artists, for instance, the first thing that comes to their mind is usually not the most creative so they tend to like wait for the second or third thing and that's one of the improv activities. So, the second major brain network that's important is the default mode network, but I like to call it the imagination network because it's highly active every time we turn our attention our focus of attention inward and we focus on our daydreams, we focus on our future goals, on whenever we're trying to take the perspective of someone else. So, it's very important for having compassion for someone else because it allows us to imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling and so that's the imagination brain network. And then the third major brain network that's important for creativity that I think is a very underrated brain network it's called the salience brain network. And that's associated with what is most salient in our environment? What is most interesting to us? Before we think through consciously about a creative activity and even before we activate our imagination there's a process before both of that where we have a subconscious process where the salient brain network tags things as interesting or not interesting in our environment and it either feeds it to our imagination network or to our executive attention network to pay attention to. Creativity involves the interaction of all three, it's when we're captivated by the moment, we're mindful, but we're also imaginative and we're also motivated and passionate to engage in the creative activity.

EAGLEMAN: What's special about the human brain is that we, during the evolution of the cortex, got a lot more space between input and output. So, other animals have these much closer together so when they get some stimulus they make essentially a reflexive response. In humans as the cortex expanded there's a lot more room there which means that inputs can come in and sort of percolate around and get stored and get thought about and then maybe you make an output or maybe you don't. And there's one other thing that happened with the expansion of the cortex, which is that we got a much bigger prefrontal cortex, that's the part right behind the forehead, and that is what allows us to simulate what if's, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities. What if I did that? What if I had done that? What if I could do that? And so, we do this all of the time and the amazing part is now there are almost 8 billion brains running around the planet and as a result creativity, I mean the creativity of our species has gone up in this mad, amazing way because there's so much raw material to draw on and there are so many of us that are constantly saying what if this, what if that?

BRANDT: When I look at my heroes in composition they are all incredible risk-takers. And it's a constant reminder that you can introduce something new to the world and be certain of the results. And so, tolerating the risks, living with the risk, even enjoying it is, again, part of being a creative person.

KAUFMAN: Creativity requires both intelligence and imagination. Creativity requires our ability to know what has come before so we can stand on the shoulders of giants, it also requires the ability to have great foresight and vision to imagine the world the way that it could be and when we combined the two I think that makes us much more likely we'll have creativity.

ETHAN HAWKE: The beauty of jazz music is that there's no plan. There's a plan, there's an architecture. Let's take something obvious like my favorite things, John Coltrane is my favorite things. If people know one jazz thing often they'll know that one. And he takes this famous song and they all start riffing on it and the musicians start riffing on it and they find a new melody inside it and it changes and it changes and then mysteriously comes back around again. And spontaneity mixed with discipline and intelligence it evolves into something you cannot plan that is more sophisticated and more interesting than something the intellectual mind can plan. When you're really being creative at your best you've used your discipline to open up your subconscious.

WILSON: If it's a pure expression of yourself no matter what it is or what medium, it's going to shine. It's going to resonate. You could look inside of yourself and you can have a canvas and you can paint a dot in it, but if that's where your creative purpose is taking you then it needs to be that dot.

EAGLEMAN: We are vessels of our own space and time so the particular things we create have to do with what we have absorbed. So, if you compare 19th century Japanese music to 19th century French music to 19th century Kenyon music and so on, you'll see these are extremely different but it's not that a composer over here couldn't have done what a composer over here was doing, it's simply that it wouldn't have stuck in their culture, it would have been strange and wouldn't make sense. Why? Because what we're doing is building on the foundations of what has come before us.

HAWKE: In a way you're channeling yourself and you're channeling your own questions and your own seeking, which is deeply connected to your own. We all have it. We all have an essence, a center that is us. We have it the day we're born and when you can access it then you can access the subconscious and that's going to be more powerful and more true than anything your intellectual mind has to say.

BEAU LOTTO: Because nothing interesting begins with knowing, it begins with not knowing. Uncertainty is such a difficult dangerous thing that evolution has created a brain that tries to avoid it all together to the extent that we have things like conformational bias. Well, we'll start looking for evidence to confirm what we assume to be true already, that we would rather hold onto assumptions that we know don't work because that is safer we think than questioning them and stepping to a place that we don't actually know. We do almost everything to avoid uncertainty and yet the irony is that that's the only place we can go if we're ever going to see it differently. And that's why creativity, seeing differently, always begins in the same way it begins with a question, it begins with not knowing, it begins with a why, it begins with a what if.

EAGLEMAN: What good creators do is they cover the spectrum, this is as true of individuals as it is for companies, they cover the spectrum where they're doing some things that are sort of nearby and some things that are wackier and wackier and this is how they feel out the border of the possible, this is how they figure out what's going to stick with their society. Because the thing about any sort of creative act is that you never know what's going to stick, what will actually make a difference in your society.

SUZUKI: Then the question is, well, how do I up my creativity? That's what everybody is interested in.

EAGLEMAN: The key is that humans are really different from one another and for one person taking a hot shower might work and for another person a cold shower, one person works well in the morning and another person at night, for one writer they should go and sit in the coffee shop where it's loud and another writer it works better for them to sit alone in their quiet office and write. So, I suspect there's no single piece of advice that's going to apply to everyone.

WILSON: When people have "creative blocks", and I know my share of friends do as well if they're at some stuck point they're not sure what to do with their lives or their writing or their photography or their filmmaking or whatever it is that they're doing I think the best advice is you have to change your life up completely, to go on a trip, go spend a year being of service, be willing to take some major drastic action to get you out of your comfort zone and go inside not outside. I think our society is all about focusing on the externals, oh these people like me, I'm successful because of these people, they view me as being good and we need to take that vision and instead of expanding it outwards we need to look inside ourselves.

  • An all-star cast of Big Thinkers—actors Rainn Wilson and Ethan Hawke; composer Anthony Brandt; neuroscientists David Eagleman, Wendy Suzuki, and Beau Lotto; and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—share how they define creativity and explain how our brains uniquely evolved for the phenomenon.
  • According to Eagleman, during evolution there was an increase in space between our brain's input and output that allows information more time to percolate. We also grew a larger prefrontal cortex which "allows us to simulate what ifs, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities."
  • Scott Barry Kaufman details 3 brain networks involved in creative thinking, and Wendy Suzuki busts the famous left-brain, right-brain myth.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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