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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.

Making Eureka! Happen:  On Inviting Ah-hah Insights!

By Shlomo  Maital        


    All of us have experienced a “eureka” moment – a sudden flash of insight that yields a creative solution to a problem.   Eureka is Greek for “I have found it!”, allegedly shouted when Archimedes discovered his famous displacement principle.

   Can you do things that make ah-hah! moments more frequent and more powerful?  Apparently you can.  In researching neuroscience for an upcoming conference, I found an article, “The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight”, by John Kounios (Drexel U.) and Mark Beeman (Northwestern U.).  [Recent Directions in Neurological Science, 2009].  

   The authors use EEG (electromagnetic imaging) and fMRI (functional MRI imaging) of the brain to physically map eureka moments.  They give subjects a ‘compound remote association’ problem:  e.g., Find a single word, that can form a compound word or familiar 2-word phrase with EACH of three words.  E.g.,  crab, pine, sauce.    One answer: “apple” (applesauce, crabapple, pineapple).  They map brain patterns while subjects tackle the problem.  They then ask the subjects to say whether the solution “popped into their minds” (eureka) or resulted from analysis (e.g. ‘cake’…crabcake, but pinecake no; reject cake; crabgrass…no, applegrass doesn’t work..etc.).  

  Here is what they, and others, have found:  Eureka problem-solving “can be influenced by the prior preparatory state”.  As Pasteur said, “chance favors the prepared mind.”  Eureka comes to those who prepare for it.  A relaxed, pleasant state of mind is far better for eureka than tension. (Attention, companies that put workers’ feet to the fire to develop ideas).  Humor is very conducive to eureka.  And most important:  “individuals high in creativity habitually deploy their attention in a diffuse rather than a focused manner”.  I.e., we get to eureka, not in a straight linear line, but zig-zag. 

    The authors believe you can organize ‘eureka’ thinking, as a ‘cascade of processes’ that generate aha!    I agree.  Zoom in!  Think hard about a problem.  Then let your mind wander. Soar into the clouds. Zoom out!  Think of wild ideas that make you laugh.  Bring a shopping cart with you, and dump all the possible ideas into it.  At some point – pause.    Zoom in again.  Take your shopping cart and start to empty its contents.  Choose one solution in it you think will work.  Listen carefully to your gut.  This could be a eureka! Or aha!  Moment.  If it is – listen to it!  And then – get to work. 

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.

 How to Create Great Memories – And Why We Should

By Shlomo  Maital


Very few readers will recall the American comedian Bob Hope, whose radio theme song was Thanks for the Memory:      “Thanks for the memory,  of sentimental verse and nothing in my purse, And chuckles when the preacher said, “For better or for worse”,  How lovely it was…”  

   Today’s New York Times has a fine op-ed article by neuroscientist Kelly Lambert.  She observes that “neuroimaging evidence indicates that when certain events are recalled – presumably after being triggered by familiar sights, smells or sounds – emotional brain areas are activated as well as visceral responses. You relive the feelings you experienced in the past.”  I think this is a crucial observation.  Great memories are like a perpetual feast. You experience them once, you remember them many many times.  So it is crucial to shape HOW we remember things. 

   When you are about to make a decision, ask yourself,  how will I recall this?  Will I recall it as one of my finest moments, as an action true to myself, to my values? Or will I relive it, in shame, in sadness, in regret? 

   “Thanks for the memory, Of rainy afternoons that pulls me by the case,  And how I jumped the day you trumped my one and only ace,  How lovely it was…”

    According to Kelly Lambert, “addicted rats experience pleasure when they anticipate receiving cocaine, even if they don’t actually consume it.”  There is another key point here about how to live.  Don’t rush to seize pleasure.  Defer it.  Because the anticipation itself brings pleasure.   

    “We said goodbye with a highball   Then I got as high as a steeple  But we were intelligent people, no tears, no fuss,  Hooray, for us”

      What this means is:   Life is about before, during and after.    Before – if before a happy event – is full of pleasure and meaning.  Don’t rush it.  Create events that you anticipate and look forward to, well in advance.   Then during.  Seize the moment.  Enjoy.  Shape the memory!   And finally after.  Relive the good memories that you were wise enough to create. 

     “So, thanks for the memory, Of sunburns at the shore, darling, how are you?, You might have been a headache, but you never were a bore, I’m awfully glad I met you, cheerio and toodle-oo,  And thank you so much…”

       Lambert notes that there are “benefits of trying to assure that my girls have an emotional holiday portal for their future adult brains”, referring to Christmas.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital