Where Does Creativity Come From?
Dr. Eric 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.
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.
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
Dr. Eric Kandel describes the "aha phenomenon" and speculates on ways that humans and groups can think more creatively.
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