Superhuman innovators: How experimentation and struggle fuel new ideas

Why Django Reinhardt might just be the greatest musical innovator you've never heard of.

DAVID EPSTEIN: One of the most important and influential modern musicians still shows up in the backgrounds of Hollywood blockbusters like The Matrix and hit video games like Bioshock, and yet his name isn't as well known as it probably should be.

Django Reinhardt was a Roma musician, born in Belgium in 1910. He lived, then, in an area of France called La Zone, which actually was where cesspools were emptied from the city. But he grew up surrounded by music. So Roma caravans, there was music everywhere, usually violin because it was so portable. And they would teach in a call and response mode, where adults would play and kids might try to play back to them. And Django did that, but he didn't really like violin, but when he was a boy, someone gave him this kind of hybrid banjo guitar. And then he had found his thing. He got obsessed with it. He would play, he would improvise instruments, use a piece of whale bone to try to play and make different sounds and he went around Paris busking with a hunchback named Lagardére, and improvising on the streets. And he started to get quite good, and eventually got a real guitar.

But when he was a teenager he had an unfortunate accident. His wife was making cellophane flowers, basically, in their wagon and one of them caught fire. And Django was burned over half of his body. For the rest of his life, the pinky and ring finger on Django's left hand, his guitar fretting hand, were useless pieces of dangling flesh. And you would think that his budding guitar career was probably over. But instead, Django taught himself a new way to play the guitar with the still-working fingers of that left hand sprinting up and down the frets and improvising and playing with new fingerings that other people hadn't because he had to invent something different. Django emerged after that accident with a completely new style of music that fused dancehall music from France with styles from jazz in the United States. And it was so indescribable compared to anything else that existed that it was only called, at the time, "Gypsy Jazz". And Django's improvisations, and his virtuosity on the guitar, were really in some ways the start of the modern guitar solo and influenced performers like Jimi Hendrix who had Django's music in his personal collection, and in fact named one of his groups Band of Gypsies.

And Django's story in some ways bears a resemblance to a lot of great musicians in jazz and in other creative forms of music. There's an old joke among jazz musicians that goes like this. One of the musicians asks the other if he can read music. And the musician responds, not enough to hurt my playing. Django couldn't read music. Django couldn't read at all, actually. One of his friends had to teach him how to sign his own name for fans. He was once in a taxi with Les Paul, the inventor of the solid body electric guitar, and Les Paul was a self-taught musician. And Django asked him if he could read music and Les Paul said that he couldn't. And Django laughed hilariously and said that he couldn't either; he didn't even know what a C was, he just played it. And the lesson that really comes from this, though, is something different. If we want people to be able to improvise and be flexible with their skills, they should actually learn things kind of like a baby. When babies learn to talk they get thrown in, they get immersed, they try and fail, and only later you teach the grammar. And that seems to be similar for improvisational forms of music where you kind of want somebody in and struggling and trying and listening before you teach them the more formal grammar. And that seems to lead to better creative outcomes.

  • David Epstein recounts the incredible life of 20th-century Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt, who couldn't read or write and who suffered a horrific accident that made two of his fret fingers useless.
  • Reinhardt didn't stop playing, instead he invented a new style that revolutionized the music scene and gave birth to the modern guitar solo, inspiring artists like Jimi Hendrix.
  • Anyone can innovate, says Epstein, it is in no way dependent on a formal education. In fact, our creative work may fare better if we learn like babies do: through trial, error, and struggle.

Why we mustn’t forget the effects of climate change on mental health

Suicide rates in Puerto Rico have risen by a third since Hurricane Maria.

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Mind & Brain

When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, it didn't just flatten houses and flood hospitals – it plunged the island into a darkness that many islanders have yet to emerge from, both literally and metaphorically.

Keep reading Show less

How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Sign of the times: School designed to limit impact of mass shootings

With little progress on other avenues to preventing mass shootings, one firm has employed architecture to save students.

Image source: TowerPinkster
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A school in Michigan is being remodeled in a way to minimize the effect of a shooter should the worst happen.
  • It features limited sight lines, bullet proof windows, and doors that can be locked at the push of a button.
  • Some research casts doubt on how effective the plans will actually be.
Keep reading Show less