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What Happens to the Brain During Creativity?

By Shlomo Maital  

John Coltrane

   At the main bus stop, at my university Technion, there is a set of bookshelves, where people drop off unwanted books and others browse and take them. I’ve put a great many books there and they always disappear quickly.  

   One day this week I noticed some rather old copies of Scientific American. I took two of them, to read while on the bus. One of them had a fascinating article by Charles J. Limb, a surgeon who plays saxophone, does cochleal transplants, and loves John Coltrane. (The article was in the May 2011 issue, nearly 6 years ago).

     Using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), Limb asked, what happens to the brain when jazz musicians improvise?   Coltrane, legendary tenor sax player, did incredible improvisations.   How? Why?

   Here is what Limb found: “creativity is whole-brain…during improvisation, the lateral prefrontal region of the cortex shuts down (areas involved in conscious self-inhibition, self-monitoring, evaluation of rightness and wrongness of what you are doing). Another area of the prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, turns on…this is the focal area of the brain that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical has do to with sense of self.”

     Brief summary? Want to create? Turn off all inhibition, judging, evaluating, good or bad.   Turn them off.   Activate your own self, self-awareness, self-expression… express who you are, what you are, tell your story.

     And Coltrane? “He practiced. He was an obsessive—he practiced obsessively. He was after the ability to have an idea he had never had before…be profound, and be able to executive the idea.”

     John Coltrane was creative, had ideas…but he had technique, he mastered his instrument so that he could effortless IMPLEMENT his creative ideas. You need both. Discovery (creativity). And Delivery (practice, practice, mastery mastery!).

       That, according to Limb, is creativity.

Our Amazing Brains: It’s All About Connections

By Shlomo Maital


Synapses: human brain


       Some truly amazing facts emerged from a Horizon documentary featuring British anatomist Professor Alice Roberts.

  • We humans share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees. In fact, we are more closely related to chimpanzees, genetically, than chimpanzees are related to, say, gorillas.
  •    Our brains are very large, relatively. The brain weighs about 3 pounds (1.4 kilo), and has a volume of about 1,200 cm3. But it is not just the size that matters. What makes us smarter than chimps is the connections! A human brain has 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells. These neurons are connected by synapses. There are at least 100 trillion synapses, and maybe as many as 1,000 trillion. That means each neuron is connected to at least 1,000 other neurons, and maybe 10,000.
  • It is these connections that are crucial. The internal network of the brain is what makes us creative, able to think and reason, to link ideas together, and to imagine things that do not yet exist.
  • According to Prof. Walker, geneticists have discovered a key gene, that differentiates between our brains and that of the chimpanzees. This gene controls the size and number of the synapses, or network connections. Chimps have one such gene. Humans have four of them.   When the researchers genetically inserted the gene into mice, the synapses of the mice became thicker and more numerous. So —   humans have evolved to be smarter than chimps, because we have these four powerful genes that build our brainy networks.
  • Brains are ‘neuroplastic’. If part of the brain is damaged, by stroke for instance, other parts can compensate.   To some extent, the brain can reinvent itself, to do tasks normally assigned to brain parts that have been damaged.
  • Walker, an anatomist, dispels the “obstetric paradox” — women’s pelvis must be wide enough to permit birth, but not so wide as to hinder mobility, walking and running. Researchers have shown that in fact, the female pelvis, though angled wider than that of the male, is highly efficient in walking and running.   So why then are babies born at 9 months?  There is another reason.
  • Babies consume large amounts of energy.   Mothers’ ability to supply that energy continually grows, to meet the embryo’s needs – but the rate of growth slows. At 9 months, the ability of the mother to supply energy to the fetus exactly equals the needs of the fetus for energy. If birth were delayed, the fetus would be starved. So nature conspires to initiate birth, right when the supply and demand of fetal energy match.

     Humans have one more advantage over chimps, according to the Horizon documentary. Humans cooperate altruistically. Chimps cooperate too, but only to get an individual reward. Human children, even very young ones, cooperate, and then share rewards, if the rewards are given unequally (more to one child than to another).  

     This innate sense of fairness exists in children – but, in modern capitalism, seems to disappear. The very wealthy seem to believe they somehow deserve vast wealth. How then do we restore the innate sense of fairness that exists among young children?

BBC: Origins of US (Horizon).

Senior Brain:  ‘Googling’ Expands Your Mind – Honest!

By Shlomo  Maital     

             Google brain

  An article in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (Feb. 2009) by Small, Moody, Siddarth and Bookheimer,  is titled “Your Brain on Google:  Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching”.  It confirms something I personally have felt and believed – Google-ing is good for your brain and expands your mind.

   First the experiment. The authors took 24 subjects, 12 of whom had  minimal Internet search engine experience, and 12 of whom had extensive experience.  Ages were 55 to 76 years.  They used functional MRI scanning to study brain activity when subjects “performed a novel Internet search task, or a control task of reading text on a computer screen, formatted to simulate a printed book”. In both cases, the content was precisely matched. 

   Now, the results.  “Internet searching may engage a greater extent of neural circuitry not activated while reading text pages,  but only in people with prior computer and Internet search experience.”    They conclude:  “In older adults, prior experience with Internet searching may alter the brain’s responsiveness in neural circuits controlling decision making and complex reasoning”. 

     What this suggests is, perhaps, that Google-ing stuff is good for your brain.  When you Google a subject, you scan through a large number of pages of material, fairly quickly, and your brain works hard to spot precisely what you need and what is relevant.  And the more you do this, the better your brain gets at it – it’s a kind of exercise.   It is a skill that is not developed when you simply read a printed page. 

    In general, modern technology clearly alters our brains.  The way our children think, work and make decisions may become very different from the way we older-generation people think and decide.  In fact, the differences already exist.  Perhaps a good way for us Gen Senior to understand Gen Y is simply to make more use of the technology that they use.      

Unlocking the   Innermost Secrets of our Brains

By Shlomo  Maital

          brain map 1

In his excellent reportage, “mapping the brain’s inner language” (NYT Feb. 26, p. 7), James Gorman tells how R. Clay Reid left a top job as Harvard Medical School professor, to join the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, in 2012 (an institute funded by a huge grant from Microsoft scion Paul Allen).  He did it, for the freedom to research the mouse brain.  Why?  Because many kinds of research can’t yet be done on humans, and the brains of mice and even flies “share common processes with the human brain”. In particular, Reid has tackled the million neurons in the mouse’s visual cortex.  The visual cortex is the part of the cortex that processes visual information; it’s in the back of the brain (see above).

     Harvard too has a mouse project.  The Human Connectome project (after the ‘genome’ and ‘proteinome’ projects) tries to build a structural map of the mouse brain, down to the amazing level of packets of neurochemicals at the tips of brain cells!

    How do Reid and other neuroscientists study the mouse brain?  First, a mouse is trained to look at an image.  Then, it learns to press a lever when the original image appears, among several others.  Reid studies what happens in the two second period, during which the photons of the image hit the retina, the brain sends info to the cortex, the neurons in the cortex do some computation, and send a message to the mouse’s paws to press the lever.   This is a complex process involving genetics, electricity, and chemistry.  It is revealed in electron micrographs that show every neuron and every connection in the mouse’s visual cortex. 

     In the end, Reid notes,  the brain features the ‘molecules’ that underlie behavior.

     Understanding how the brain processes information and then tells us to act on it will be a huge breakthrough.  It may help us cure awful neurological diseases (ALS, Parkinsons).  Perhaps, one day, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I,  a terrible war no one wanted that needlessly, stupidly, killed 16 million people (civilians and soldiers) and wounded 20 million more !,   we will understand the parts of the human brain that create senseless violence and death.

The Creative Brain: It’s NOT Left-Right!

By Shlomo  Maital   

    creative brain

   There is an amazing explosion of resources and people studying the brain these days, and new results are sure to come.  Here is one, summarized in Scientific American (Aug. 19/2013) by Scott Barry Kaufman, “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity”. 

   Remember that left-brain-right-brain idea?  Left brain, is “L”, logical analytic, organized, rational.  Right brain is “R”,  creative, passionate, sexual, colorful, poetic, even irRational?

   Forget it.  The L-R distinction is “not the right one when it comes to understanding how creativity is implemented in the brain”, notes Kaufman.  “Creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain.  Instead, the entire creative process – from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification —  consists of many interacting cognitive processes and emotions.”    Different brain regions are recruited to handle the task, depending on the stage of the creative process.

  Many of these regions “recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain”.

  To simplify and summarize:  There are thre large-scale brain ‘networks’ critical for creativity.  1.  Executive Attention Network – recruited when a task requires that the spotlight of attention is focused like a laser beam.  Active when you’re concentrating on a challenging lecture, or solving a problem.  2. The Imagination Network:  used when “imagining alternate perspectives and scenarios”.  3.  The Salience Network:  monitors both external events and internal stream of consciousness and “flexibly passes the baton to whatever nformation is most salient to solving the task at hand.” 

   The key to understanding creativity, according to neuroscientists, is recognizing that “different patterns of [thinking] are important at different stages of the creative process.

  So, what can we do with all this, to be more creative?  According to Rex Jung:  a) allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and SILENCE THE INNER CRITIC!  Reduce the Executive Attention Network a bit, increase the other two.  Then, bring back the Executive Attention Network, to critically evaluate and implement your creative ideas.  In other words:  Zoom In, to understand the problem; Zoom Out, imagine, to seek many alternate possibilities; then, again, Zoom In, to choose the optimal alternative.  Organizing these stages is important. Skipping a stage will damage the process. 

      I am amazed that this neuroscience model fits precisely the model of my friend, colleague and former student Arie Ruttenberg, known as Zoom In/Zoom Out/Zoom In,  and presented in our forthcoming book The Imagination Elevator.  Ruttenberg derived his model by simply intuitively taking apart, and reconstructing, the ways he reached his own creative ideas.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital