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.

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.

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