The Frontal Cortex

Creativity

I’ve got a short column for the Seed website on the neuroscience of improvisation. I begin with one of my favorite stories of improv, which is Al Kooper’s organ playing during the studio sessions for “Like A Rolling Stone”:

Al Kooper didn’t know what to play. He’d told some half-truths to get into Bob Dylan’s recording session – the musicians were working on some song tentatively titled “Like A Rolling Stone” – and Kooper had been assigned the Hammond organ. There was only one problem: Kooper didn’t play the organ. He was a guitarist.

The first takes were predictably terrible – Kooper was just trying not to get kicked out of the studio. But on take four, he suddenly found his chords. Kooper’s playing was pure improv – ”I was like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch,” he would later remember – but he ended up inventing one of the most famous organ riffs in modern music.

There is something profoundly mysterious about this kind of creativity. Kooper didn’t have time to think – the chorus was about to happen – and so he just started banging on the ivory keys. This same impromptu process defines some of the most famous creations of modern art, from John Coltrane letting loose on “A Love Supreme,” to Jackson Pollock dripping paint haphazardly on a canvas. These are works made entirely in the moment – their beauty is spontaneous.

But how does such an act of imagination happen? How does the mind create on command? William James described the creative process as a “seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.” In the last year, two separate experiments have attempted to see inside the cauldron, to figure out how a loom of electric cells finds the exact right notes on the upright organ.

On a related note, I just interviewed Dr. Richard Cytowic over at Scientific American about his new book on synesthesia:

LEHRER:In Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, you argue that investigations of synesthesia can help us better understand the neurological basis of metaphor and even creativity. Could you explain?

CYTOWIC: Artists are at ease using metaphors, and we have known for a long time that synesthesia is more common in creative individuals. Famous synesthetes include novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whose mother and son Dmitri also had it; composers Olivier Messiaen, Amy Beech and Billy Joel; and painters David Hockney and Wasily Kandinsky. Dmitri Nabokov, incidentally, wrote a charming afterword about his father and himself for “Indigo Blue.”

There is more to creativity than a capacity for metaphor, of course. Nonetheless, begin with the assumption that the gene for synesthesia lashes together normally unconnected brain areas, thus linking seemingly unrelated qualities such as sound and color. Having one kind of synesthesia gives a person a 50 percent chance of having a second or third kind, meaning that the gene expresses itself in two or three separate areas in that person’s brain. Suppose, however, that brain hyper-connectivity occurred not selectively here and there, but diffusely. One would have a generalized talent for cross connecting apparently unrelated concepts, which is the definition of metaphor: seeing the similar in the dissimilar.

And this is the reason several of us suspect that the synesthesia gene maintains itself at such a high frequency in the population. After all, one in 23 people are walking around with a mutation for an apparently useless trait. It must be doing something of inapparent value in order for evolution to select so strongly in its favor. When the gene expresses itself in sensory parts of the brain, people are outwardly synesthetic. But what are they like when the mutation expresses itself in non-sensory brain parts such as those concerned with memory, planning, or moral reasoning? Might it contribute to increased creativity, thereby making humans smarter as a whole?

Comments

  1. #1 DR
    May 13, 2009

    John Colapinto has an interesting profile of V.S. Ramachandran in the New Yorker (May 11, 2009). Ramachandran has done a lot of work on mirror neurons (those that respond, for example, to the physical movements and facial expressions of others as if they had occurred in ourselves). In some respect, these may be “empathy neurons,” helping us to appreciate the dichotomy of self-other, to see other peoples’ points of view. Ramachandran suspects that these neurons may play a role in the phenomenon of consciousness by allowing us to mirror ourselves within ourselves, i.e., to be “reflective,” to appreciate the subjectiveness of our own point of view.

    Further, it seems that in addition to whatever else they’re doing, mirror neurons participate in a body mapping capability which, when defective or disturbed, leads to phantom limb pain. This pain, which cannot be abated by anaesthetic, can often be eliminated by a visual trick with a mirror that seems to “fool” the brain into believing that an amputated limb actually exists, that there no longer appears to be a painful anomaly between what the body and the brain-map contain.

    Anyhow, Ramachandran has hypothesized that mirror neurons, in their body-mapping role, participate in synesthesia and indeed in metaphoric thought processes. In their role of mirroring the behavior of others, he is also interested in whether they hold a clue to autism, which often seems to involve a failure to account empathetically for other selves in the world.

  2. #2 Pierre
    May 13, 2009

    for having recorded in music studios, I can say that there is a phenomenal amount of energy in such place, my creativity flowed 10x faster than in my living room.
    In the case of Kooper, he certainly was in front of divine musical presence, that might have helped a bit.

  3. #3 Eli B
    May 13, 2009

    Hey Jonah. It’s the other Eli from the old neighborhood here. Im a jazz musician and I’ve always been interested in helping my students open up musical connections in the brain through metaphor. What are your favorite sources of info on this topic?

    PS Congrats on all your recent sucesses. I’m inspired by your books and blog. Keep em coming!

  4. #4 Matthew Putman
    May 13, 2009

    This is one of my favorite topics. As a Physics Professor and a jazz musician I am often asked about the process. Now more than ever people of various disciplines are interested in where the instinctive quality necessary for improvisation comes from, and in my case whether I think of the scientific process as being related at all to the process of musical improvisation. Truthfully they seem unrelated, however as I look at my own process I see some similarities. Both are described as experiments (for the free jazz musician and the experimental scientist that is). In a musical experiment we bring our preconceived notions into the gig or session, no matter how open we want to be. When the playing starts though, it goes in entirely unexpected directions. This happens with science as well. It is rare that the direction I expect an experiment to go in, is where the evidence, or my vision takes me. It becomes an improv of sorts.

  5. #5 David Oberlander
    May 13, 2009

    Jonah, great piece in Seed! Oscar Peterson probably had a right hemispheric stroke afflicting his left hand, so his Broca’s area was intact, but he never regained his pre-stroke acumen(he was still awesome with one hand). I was taught the right hemisphere is also central for the ‘musicality’ of music/or musical appreciation and, indeed, dissection of music.

    BTW, the late, great Oscar Peterson also suffered from severe arthritis and could not button a shirt since his teenage years. This adds even greater mystery to his talent.

  6. #6 David Oberlander
    May 13, 2009

    Not to malign a great, creative pianist, but it is well known that Bill Evans was ferociously addicted to heroin throughout his life. Yet, he was a great innovator in jazz. One wonders if there is some tie in between dopamine production and saturation and creativity. What was happening to Kooper’s dopamine during his recording? Was it through the roof? Perhaps there is some linkage between Bill Evan’s creativity and his need for dopamine? Did his numerous recording provide a ‘musical high’ that needed constant feeding? Does the ‘act of improvisation’ require a euphoric state?

  7. #7 David J. Cox
    May 17, 2009

    My experience is that of a jazz pianist and a facilitator of change teams. Both intentionally create/invent/produce some new reality–one private (playing the Yamaha through earphones), the other public (where a temporary team experiences being like a combo playing with the freedom and constraints of a jazz combo). My point is that minds teaming up/melding with other minds is a successful way for individual minds to acquire/learn the same disciplined freedom that experienced creative people enjoy so much. A workable setting for teams (and therefore for individuals on the team) is the game metaphor: What winning looks like; players agreeing to rules temporarily; a playing field; a rules enforcer; team plays; time constrains; game plans; etc. Change team experience seems to give individuals the high of (as someone else said) just going along with creative work/jazz for the ride, not having to work at it.

  8. Once I saw the document about the sevants – people in who special gifts (as reading 2 pages of book with 2 eyeballs at the same time in 7 seconds, never forgetting what they have once read or seen, learning difficult languages within 2 weeks etc) are mixed with serious social problems as autism and other serious disorders). I really appreciate those kinds of study so I was happy with this post.
    But practical person I would like to ask: how can we use the kowledge we have now? How can we develop the creativity of young if those results indicate genetic ground? I guess we could try with some medicine but I don’t find it convinceing… Can we try to develop this non-existing connections in brains with some exercises?

  9. #9 Sinema izle
    May 23, 2009

    J.P. Guilford
    Guilford[11] performed important work in the field of creativity, drawing a distinction between convergent and divergent production (commonly renamed convergent and divergent thinking). Convergent thinking involves aiming for a single, correct solution to a problem, whereas divergent thinking involves creative generation of multiple answers to a set problem. Divergent thinking is sometimes used as a synonym for creativity in psychology literature. Other researchers have occasionally used the terms flexible thinking or fluid intelligence, which are roughly similar to (but not synonymous with) creativity.

  10. #10 Dolores
    May 25, 2009

    All I can add here is OMG! All I ever read is nonsense in these blogs! NOTHING is taken

    seriously! Any one who works in the field of neurobiology KNOWS there is a lot to know.

    And, you most likely will NOT find it in these half wit blogs. People “sound” like they
    know hat they are talking about. but in reality they know nothing!!!! The frontal cortex is

    for all intents and purposes the region of the brain that controls impulses. If that region

    of the brain is damaged, say in a car accident, well, what do you think will happen?

    Exercising the brain won’t help! The damage is permanent! I can only add on parting.

    Where are the brains any way? I mean related to these ignorant comments. Has anyone

    studied the human brain? As a cocktail waitress, I can attest that the human brain of a

    man, from my dancing years, proves the brain is NOT in the human’s head. Oh noooo.

    It is much lower in the human anatomy. Closer to the stomach. If doubt (men only)

    explore your own body. Take your time. Now, what is YOUR brain saying? See? If your are

    not feeling a nice thought, explore more. This proves the entire brain theory is WRONG.

    For further proof of true brain location, consider the lobotomy. A total failure for

    producing relief. Men in particular need that operation lower. Will will guarantee—

    results! I will let your imagination run wild. Someone is messing with my spelling (again)

  11. #11 Alarm
    October 23, 2009

    J.P. Guilford
    Guilford[11] performed important work in the field of creativity, drawing a distinction between convergent and divergent production (commonly renamed convergent and divergent thinking). Convergent thinking involves aiming for a single, correct solution to a problem, whereas divergent thinking involves creative generation of multiple answers to a set problem. Divergent thinking is sometimes used as a synonym for creativity in psychology literature. Other researchers have occasionally used the terms flexible thinking or fluid intelligence, which are roughly similar to (but not synonymous with) creativity.

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