Heather Berlin on Genius and Creativity
Neuroscientist Heather Berlin explains current research into creative "flow states," examining what happens in the brain when rappers and jazz musicians improvise.
Dr. Berlin conducts research to better understand the neural basis of impulsivity, compulsivity, and emotion with the goal of more targeted treatment. She employs neuroimaging and neuropsychological and psychopharmacological testing of brain lesion and compulsive, impulsive, and personality disorder patients. She is also interested in the neural basis of consciousness and dynamic unconscious processes. Dr. Berlin has conducted clinical research at hospitals in both the US and UK including Bellevue Hospital and the Institute of Psychiatry in London.
Carl Zimmer: Hi, I’m Carl Zimmer, a columnist for The New York Times and I’m in conversation with Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. So Heather, I mean "genius" is this word that we all use but I am really curious what people like you think about the word.
Heather Berlin: Yeah, I guess well, I mean I can describe it looking through my lens as a neuroscientist. I mean I think just the word genius is a really all-encompassing term and what we try to do is kind of break it down to the constituent parts and try to understand the neural mechanisms that drive those things. So, for example, I think a really big part of what it means to be a genius is to have a great deal of creative or like novel thinking. Making these novel associations between ideas. Having a lot of pattern detection. So it’s not just about collecting a bunch of data and knowing a lot of facts, but it’s making these novel connections between ideas. And I think what we want to look at is, for example, what is the neural correlate of something like divergent thinking or thinking outside the box, having novel associations between ideas. And that’s the kind of thing that we can begin to measure.
Carl Zimmer: So how can you measure something like that?
Heather Berlin: So it’s been actually quite a problem how to quantify this; not just genius, but let’s say creativity. We’re breaking it down — particularly what I’m interested in is improvisation. So when people are being spontaneously creative.
Carl Zimmer: Why is that important to you? What does that get at?
Heather Berlin: So I think that a lot of what’s happening in the brain is happening outside of awareness and we — when we have our sort of conscious brain highly active, it’s kind of suppressing a lot of what’s going on outside of oneself. Sometimes when people are being creative they say it almost feels like things are coming from outside of them when they’re in this sort of flow state. And we’re starting to understand a little bit more about that state and it seems to be that when people are being creative in the moment that the part of their brain that has to do with their sense of self, self-awareness, self-consciousness is turned down. It’s called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Carl Zimmer: Where is that?
Heather Berlin: It’s sort of like right here. It’s part of the prefrontal cortex on the lateral side.
Carl Zimmer: So you can actually see that change? Like the activity in there is changing in these kinds of situations?
Heather Berlin: Yeah, so for example there’s been a few studies, and we’re doing a new one now, but in the studies all seem to show that, for example, when a jazz musician is improvising compared to when he does a memorized piece or even a rapper when he’s doing a freestyle rap compared to doing a memorized rap there’s a similar pattern of activation across the improvising rappers and the improvising jazz musicians. And they have a decreased activation in that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has to do with self-awareness, monitoring your ongoing behavior and making sort conforms with social norms. But they have also increased activation in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, which is sort of like right here if you go straight back a little bit. And that is turned up and that has to do with the internal generation of ideas. It’s coming from within. It’s stimulus-independent.
So if you think of this state you’re having this sort of free flow of unfiltered information coming from within that’s not being inhibited by that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. You don’t have to worry about how do people think about me. And that free flow of information allows for the novel associations to be made. If you think about a similar pattern of brain activation happens during dreams or during daydreaming or some types of meditation or hypnosis where you lose your sense of self and time and place. And it allows the filter to come off so that novel associations are okay, you know. Dreams don’t all make sense. That’s where the creativity comes in. So that’s why I’m interested in that state to see what happens in people when they’re in that state because I think that’s a big part of what is involved with genius.
Carl Zimmer: So I’m picturing like someone in a scanner rapping. And it’s hard to picture. So I mean what does this look like? I mean how do you — these experiments are so difficult to set up. You’ve figured something out so how does it work?
Heather Berlin: Yeah, so what we’re doing is — and again it’s hard to make something ecologically valid or sort of simulate what it’s like in the real world when you’re lying in this, you know, tube and there’s this big clicking sound. So what it is, is so there’s a loud clicking noise in the scanner and we picked a beat that matches the clicking beat in the scanner, you know, so that it’s not distracting. And what we do is in one condition we have them do a memorized rap. And there was a similar study that was done by another group and a small group of rappers, but we’ve kind of elaborated on that. And in the improvised state we have — we show them random images and they have to improvise and incorporate those images into their rap in real time and we’re giving them real-time audience feedback. So we’re having other professional rappers with a dial going up or down. Because that’s part of the real-world situation. When you’re improvising, it’s about audience feedback whether it’s comedy improv, theater improv. And we want to see how that feedback affects their sort of creativity.
Carl Zimmer: But how does that feedback in other people, being aware of other people listening to you — how does that connect with your ideas about how these circuits that are involved with the self are coming down when you’re being creative? I mean I would think like, you know, if you’re in that flow state, you could be performing in front of an empty room because you’re just all — it’s all about what’s coming from within.
Heather Berlin: Yeah, so what we think is — so there’s something called the default mode network. And that seems to be sort of active. It’s sort of a neurocircuit of the brain that’s active when your focus of attention is internal. So when they’re in a kind of flow state, we see activation of the default mode network. But what we think is that there’s occasionally this — they have to monitor the environment seeing, you know, how am I doing? So then they’ll switch into what’s called the executive network, which is looking externally and sort of monitoring the behavior.
Carl Zimmer: So a different circuit of neurons we’re talking about?
Heather Berlin: Yeah.
Carl Zimmer: We’re sort of flipping back and forth.
Heather Berlin: Yeah, between these two sort of internally focused and generating new ideas and externally focused kind of to monitor your situation. Because if you think about it when — if you just are having a random flow, it’s not like a jazz musician is just playing random notes or a rapper is just saying random words. It has to make sense, you know. It has to be kind of have a certain appeal. And so you do have to monitor at some level. If it’s just like a dream state — although it’s getting at that novel thinking it’s not necessarily being creative because just random thoughts with making no sense isn’t really what we’re looking for either. So there’s that switching back and forth between the two networks.
What do originality and invention look like in the brain? In this interview with The New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer as part of Big Think's partnership with 92Y's Seven Days of Genius series, neuroscientist Heather Berlin explains current research into creative "flow states," examining what happens in the brain when rappers and jazz musicians improvise.
This is the latest installment in an exclusive, week-long video series of today’s brightest minds exploring the theory of genius. Exclusive videos will be posted daily on youtube.com/bigthink throughout 92nd Street Y’s second annual 7 Days of Genius Festival: Venture into the Extraordinary, running March 1 to March 8, 2015.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.