Ten Habits of Highly Creative People, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

Adapted from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire (Perigee Books, 2015)

Neuroscientists have discovered that solitary, inwardly focused reflection employs a different brain network than outwardly focused attention.

by Carolyn Gregoire and Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. in The Greater Good

unnamedWhat exactly is creativity? So many of us assume that creativity is something we had as a child but we lost, or something allocated to rarified individuals that we can only admire from afar.

But science has shown that, in many ways, we are all wired to create. The key is recognizing that creativity is multifaceted—on the level of the brain, personality, and the creative process—and can be displayed in many different ways, from the deeply personal experience of uncovering a new idea or experience to expressing ourselves through words, photos, fashion, and other everyday creations, to the work of renowned artists that transcends the ages.

Neuroscientists who study creativity have found that creativity does not involve a single brain region or even a single side of the brain, as the “right brain” myth of creativity suggests; instead, it draws on the whole brain. This complex process consists of many interacting cognitive systems (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions, with different brain regions recruited to handle each task and to work together as a team to get the job done.

The discovery of the “default network” of the brain—the part of the brain at work when we are not purposefully engaged in other tasks—is one of the most important recent discoveries in neuroscience. The default network enables us to construct personal meaning from our experiences, imagine other perspectives and scenarios, comprehend stories, and reflect on mental and emotional states—both our own and those of others.  It should come as no surprise then that the activity of this network—as we like to call it, the “imagination network”—also informs our most creative ideas.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

The “executive attention” network of the brain is also crucial to creativity, however. Executive control processes support creative thinking by helping us deliberately plan future actions, remember to use various creative tactics, keep track of which strategies we’ve already tried, and reject the most obvious ideas. They also help us focus our imagination, blocking out external distractions and allowing us to tune into our inner experiences.

When we generate new ideas, these networks—along with the salience network, which is responsible for motivation—engage in a complex dance. Researchers have observed this cognitive tango in action through the brain scans of people engaged in their personal creative processes. Initially, their brain states resemble a state of flow or complete absorption in the task. The imagination and salience networks are highly active, while the more focused executive domain is relatively quiet. However, as creative people further hone and refine their work, the executive attention network becomes increasingly more active.

Creative people are particularly good at exercising flexibility in activating and deactivating these brain networks that in most people tend to be at odds with each other. In doing so, they’re able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought—cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous. Even on a neurological level, creativity is messy.

So, what can we do to augment this cognitive flexibility? In our book, Wired to Create, we explore how to develop creativity as a habit, a way of life, and a style of engaging with the world. We present many paradoxes—mindfulness and mind wandering, openness and sensitivity, solitude and collaboration, play and seriousness, and intuition and reason—that contribute to the creative process. We encourage people to embrace their paradoxes and complexities and open up to a deeper level of self-understanding and self-expression. It is precisely this ability to hold the self in all of its dimensional beauty that is the very core of creative achievement and creative fulfillment.

Here are the some of the habits of mind we recommend to foster more creativity in your life.

1. Imaginative play

Observing children in imaginative play reveals a wellspring of natural-born creativity. When engaged in pretend play, children take on multiple perspectives and playfully manipulate emotions and ideas.

As adults, cultivating a childlike sense of play can revolutionize the way we work.

Research shows that hybrid forms of work and play may actually provide the most optimal context for learning and creativity, for both children and adults, and that play and intrinsic joy are intimately connected, creating a synergy that naturally leads to greater inspiration, effort, and creative growth.

2. Passion

Passion often stems from an experience or a relationship that moved us somehow and can lead to inspiration. It is often the emotional fuel that starts one down a creative path, but it’s only a start. People who fulfill their creative dreams over the long haul balance the excitement about the future with realistic strategies for getting closer to their goals; inspiration with hard work; and dreaming with doing.

When someone advises you to “Follow your passion,” use caution: aside from being one of the most common clichés out there, it’s not very helpful advice. You must look for passion that is in harmony with your authentic self and is compatible with your other activities. Passion to prove yourself to others will probably not result in creativity, as it relies on your avoiding challenges that would otherwise lead to growth. So, while you should be open to what inspires you, don’t follow passion blindly. Make sure it truly resonates with you and your skills.

3. Daydreaming

Creative people know, despite what their parents and teachers might have told them, that daydreaming is anything but a waste of time. A review of the latest science of daydreaming has shown that mind wandering offers very personal rewards, including creative incubation, self-awareness, future planning, reflection on the meaning of one’s experiences, and even compassion.

Idle though it may seem, the act of mind wandering is often anything but mindless; it can lead to improvements in creative thinking. So, the next time you’re working hard on a creative project or work assignment that requires intense focus and creative chops, try taking a five-minute daydreaming break every hour. Try engaging in a simple activity that will allow your mind to wander, like walking, doodling, or cleaning, and see how it affects your ideas and thinking.

4. Solitude

The metaphorical “room of one’s own” is a basic need for many creative people. Now, science has reinforced what the work habits of countless artists have demonstrated: Time for solitary reflection truly feeds the creative mind.

Neuroscientists have discovered that solitary, inwardly focused reflection employs a different brain network than outwardly focused attention. When our mental focus is directed towards the outside world, the executive attention network is activated, while the imagination network is typically suppressed. This is why our best ideas don’t tend to arise when our attention is fully engaged on the outside world.

It’s important to make time for solitude, to give yourself space to reflect, make new connections, and find meaning. Unfortunately, solitude is widely undervalued in society, leading many people to shy away from alone time. We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted or as an indication of an antisocial or melancholy personality. But the ability to enjoy and make productive use of our own company can trigger creativity by helping us tap into our thoughts and our own inner worlds. So, don’t avoid it…embrace it!

5. Intuition

Intuition arises from unconscious, or spontaneous, information-processing systems, and it plays an important role in how we think, reason, create, and behave socially. Over the past thirty years, cognitive scientists have made huge strides in demystifying the power of the unconscious mind, leading to the recognition of a dual-process theory of human cognition—or the “fast and slow brain” theory. Intuition is part of the fast brain system.

The fast brain is structurally more sophisticated than the slow brain. It helps us assimilate new information into our existing knowledge structures, and aids us in complex pattern recognition and in making unconventional connections that lead to more original ideas and solutions. The fast brain plays the largest role when generating creative ideas, while the more deliberate slow brain play a larger role when exploring those ideas and playing around with them, to determine their uses and applications. Both the fast brain and slow brain have a role to play.

6. Openness to experience

Openness to experience—the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds—is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement. Openness can be intellectual, characterized by a searching for truth and the drive to engage with ideas; aesthetic, characterized by the drive to explore fantasy and art and experience emotional absorption in beauty; or affective, characterized by exploring the depths of human emotion.

Research has found that the desire to learn and discover seems to have significantly more bearing on the quality of creative work than intellect alone. So, if you want to boost your creativity, try out a new creative outlet or a totally different medium of expression, or take a new route home from work, or seek out a new group of people with different interests or values that you might learn from. Openness to new experiences can help increase your integrative complexity—the capacity to recognize new patterns and find links among seemingly unrelated pieces of information.

7. Mindfulness

While the capacity to observe the present moment without distraction or judgment is a vital skill for anyone who seeks joy and fulfillment in life, it’s particularly important for creative thinkers.

A large body of research has associated mindfulness—both as a practice and as a personality trait—with many cognitive and psychological benefits like improved task concentration and sustained attention, empathy and compassion, introspection, self-regulation, enhanced memory and improved learning, and positive affect and emotional wellbeing. Many of these are central to creativity.

However, for optimum cognitive flexibility and creativity, it’s best to achieve a balance of mindfulness and mind wandering. Some forms of mindfulness may actually work against creativity—specifically, those that encourage one to let go of thinking rather than accepting thoughts in a more open manner. Interestingly, open-monitoring meditation, which emphasizes tuning into one’s subjective experience, has been found to increase both the activation and the functional connectivity of the imagination network. So, try practicing an open-monitoring or nondirective form of meditation, and allow for constructive mind-wandering while also boosting attention.

8. Sensitivity

If we think of creativity as “connecting the dots” in some way, then sensitive people—those who have a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and also an intensified experience of sensory input, like for sound, lighting, and scent—experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection.

Sensitivity can be both a blessing and a curse—leading to a greater intensity of experience as well as emotional overwhelm. Journalist Andrea Bartz wrote in Psychology Today that “those who learn to dial down the relentless swooping and cresting of emotion that is the almost invariable accompaniment to extreme sensitivity are able to transform raw perception into keen perceptiveness.”

So, rather than trying to harden yourself, you may want to harness your sensitivity into artistic expression.

9. Turning adversity to advantage

Experiences of loss, struggle, suffering, and defeat can be powerful catalysts for personal growth, creativity, and deep transformation. It is often through suffering that we learn compassion, from loss that we learn understanding, and from overcoming struggles that we come to discover our own strength and beauty.

Adverse events can force us to reexamine our beliefs and life projects, and therein lie their power and creative potential. After the experience of adversity, the mind is actively dismantling old belief systems that no longer hold up and creating new structures of meaning and identity. To make meaning of difficult experiences, try expressive writing, which research has found can lessen symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression, while improving some cognitive functions, like working memory.

Interestingly, research has also found that extreme positive events—in particular, those that evoke feelings of awe, wonder, inspiration, and connection to something greater than the self—can also encourage creativity. Positive emotions build a person’s psychological resources, broadening attention, inspiring new thoughts and behaviors, and stimulating creative thinking. So, if you’re looking for a creative boost, treat all of life’s meaningful moments—the good and the bad—as potential sources of inspiration and motivation.

10. Thinking differently

Creative people are united by their unwillingness to abide by conventional ways of thinking and doing things. In choosing to do things differently, they accept the possibility of uncertainty and failure—but it is precisely this risk that opens up the possibility of true innovation.

The secret to creative greatness appears to be doing things differently even when that means failing. Especially during idea-generation phases, trial-and-error is essential for innovation. Dean Keith Simonton, who studies creativity, found that the quality of creative ideas is a positive function of quantity: The more ideas creators generate, the greater chances they will produce an eventual masterpiece. Doing things differently means you will probably do things badly or wrong; so expect that and don’t let caution get in the way of creativity.

Will following all of these routes to creativity mean you will become a creative genius? Not necessarily. But, when the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. If we learn to embrace our own messy, creative selves, we give others permission to do the same. We help create a world that is more welcoming of the creative spirit, and we make it possible to find a greater connection with others and with ourselves in the process.

 

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Carolyn Gregoire is a Senior Writer at the Huffington Post, where she reports on psychology, neuroscience and mental health.

The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

by Maria Popova in Brainpickings

Martha C. Nussbaum
Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, who holds appointments in both the philosophy department and the law school.

“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect. To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.

The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Nussbaum writes:

A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.

[…]

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

One of Nussbaum’s central points is that the complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form — that is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality, which of course is the great psychological function of literature and the reason why art can function as a form of therapy. What emerges is an intelligent manifesto for including the storytelling arts in moral philosophy.

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The Science of Stress and How Our Emotions Affect Our Susceptibility to Burnout and Disease, by Maria Popova

Memory, it turns out, is one of the major factors mediating the dialogue between sensation and emotional experience

How your memories impact your immune system, why moving is one of the most stressful life-events, and what your parents have to do with your predisposition to PTSD

by  • Brainpickings

neurocomic7I had lived thirty good years before enduring my first food poisoning — odds quite fortunate in the grand scheme of things, but miserably unfortunate in the immediate experience of it. I found myself completely incapacitated to erect the pillars of my daily life — too cognitively foggy to read and write, too physically weak to work out or even meditate. The temporary disability soon elevated the assault on my mind and body to a new height of anguish: an intense experience of stress. Even as I consoled myself with Nabokov’s exceptionally florid account of food poisoning, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming malaise that had engulfed me — somehow, a physical illness had completely colored my psychoemotional reality.

This experience, of course, is far from uncommon. Long before scientists began shedding light on how our minds and bodies actually affect one another, an intuitive understanding of this dialogue between the body and the emotions, or feelings, emerged and permeated our very language: We use “feeling sick” as a grab-bag term for both the sensory symptoms — fever, fatigue, nausea — and the psychological malaise, woven of emotions like sadness and apathy.

thebalancewithin_sternberg

Pre-modern medicine, in fact, has recognized this link between disease and emotion for millennia. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian Ayurvedic physicians all enlisted the theory of the four humors — blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm — in their healing practices, believing that imbalances in these four visible secretions of the body caused disease and were themselves often caused by the emotions. These beliefs are fossilized in our present language —melancholy comes from the Latin words for “black” (melan) and “bitter bile” (choler), and we think of a melancholic person as gloomy or embittered; a phlegmatic person is languid and impassive, for phlegm makes one lethargic.

And then French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes came along in the seventeenth century, taking it upon himself to eradicate the superstitions that fueled the religious wars of the era by planting the seed of rationalism. But the very tenets that laid the foundation of modern science — the idea that truth comes only from what can be visibly ascertained and proven beyond doubt — severed this link between the physical body and the emotions; those mysterious and fleeting forces, the biological basis of which the tools of modern neuroscience are only just beginning to understand, seemed to exist entirely outside the realm of what could be examined with the tools of rationalism.

For nearly three centuries, the idea that our emotions could impact our physical health remained scientific taboo — setting out to fight one type of dogma, Descartes had inadvertently created another, which we’re only just beginning to shake off…

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Stress Curve

See Also:

Honeymoon from Hell: Micro-Worldviews and the Volcano in Your Backyard, by Gary David Stratton

Gut-Level Knowledge: Micro-Worldviews, Attachment Theory and the Enneagram, by Gary David Stratton

Psychology Backs the Power of Developing a Positive Worldview, by Todd W. Hall, PhD

Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections, by Gary David Stratton

Why Spiritual Transformation has a lot to do with the Brain, by Rob Moll

Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

This is your Brain on Beethoven! Daniel J. Levitin and Understanding the Neuroscience of Music

The relationship between music and science is more complicated (and beautiful) than you ever imagined

I love the interplay between art and science, because it often demonstrates my conviction that we have more than one set of “senses” by which we interpret reality. While our five physical senses–touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell–are critical for apprehending the physical universe, it is our “spiritual senses”–what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refer to as the “eyes of the heart”–that enable us to comprehend the spiritual universe. Music is but one place where the interaction between the two is so evident… and so beautiful. We’ve reposted Pam Belluck’s excellent introduction to Levitin’s work and Cory Turner’s report on a practical application of it for those less interested in the technical jargon.  -GDS

To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons

By Pam Belluck • The New York Times

Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University in Montreal researches the effects of music on listeners. (Photo: Yannick Grandmont)

The other day, Paul Simon was rehearsing a favorite song: his own “Darling Lorraine,” about a love that starts hot but turns very cold. He found himself thinking about a three-note rhythmic pattern near the end, where Lorraine (spoiler alert) gets sick and dies.

The song has that triplet going on underneath that pushes it along, and at a certain point I wanted it to stop because the story suddenly turns very serious,” Mr. Simon said in an interview. “The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.

The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.

Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians.

And what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns…

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What Does It Mean to Be Musical?

by Daniel J. Levitin • McGill University

Musical ability is popularly regarded to be innate: one either is or is not born with musical talent. Increasingly, neuroscientists are collaborating with geneticists to understand the links between genes, brain development, cognition, and behavior (Ebstein et al., 2010; Posner et al., 2011). Music can be seen as a model system for understanding what genes can accomplish and how they relate to experience. On the practical side, identifying genetic components that underlie musical ability can also help us to predict who will succeed or, more interestingly, what types of instruction will be most successful for individuals according to their geneticcognitive profiles. In all domains, successful genotyping requires an accurately described phenotype. Unfortunately, the latter has not yet been accomplished for music, creating a significant hurdle to further progress. Part of the difficulty in describing the musical phenotype is its heterogeneity, the wide variety of ways in which musicality presents itself (Sloboda, 2008). My goal in this article is to review those factors that might be associated with the phenotype and to discuss definitions, measurement, and accuracy, three common obstacles in understanding the genetics of complex behavioral phenomena (Ebstein et al., 2010), with the hope that this may stimulate discussion and future work on the topic.

The Functional Neuroanatomy of Music

We now know that music activates regions throughout the brain, not just a single ‘‘music center.’’ As with vision, music is processed component by component, with specific neural circuits handling pitch, duration, loudness, and timbre. Higher brain centers bring this information together, binding it into representations of contour, melody, rhythm, tempo, meter, and, ultimately, phrases and whole compositions. The idea that music processing can be broken down into component operations was first proposed as a conceptual tool by cognitive theorists and has been confirmed by neuroimaging studies (Levitin and Tirovolas, 2009). The early distinction that music processing is right hemisphere lateralized and that language is left hemisphere lateralized has been modified by a more nuanced understanding. Pitch is represented by tonotopic maps, virtual piano keyboards stretched across the cortex that represent pitches in a low-to-high spatial arrangement. The sounds of different musical instruments (timbres) are processed in well-defined regions of posterior Heschl’s gyrus and superior temporal sulcus (extending into the circular insular sulcus). Tempo and rhythm are believed to invoke hierarchical oscillators in the cerebellum and basal ganglia. Loudness is processed in a network of neural circuits beginning at the brain stem and inferior colliculus and extending to the temporal lobes. The localization of sounds and the perception of distance cues are handled by a network that attends to (among other cues) differences in interaural time of arrival, changes in frequency spectrum, and changes in the temporal spectrum, such as are caused by reverberation. One can attain worldclass expertise in one of these component operations without necessarily attaining world-class expertise in others

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Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids' ability to process speech. (Annie Tritt for NPR)
Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids’ ability to process speech. (Annie Tritt for NPR)

This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music

by Cory Turner • NPR

Musical training doesn’t just improve your ear for music — it also helps your ear for speech. That’s the takeaway from an unusual new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found that kids who took music lessons for two years didn’t just get better at playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also helped kids’ brains process language.

And here’s something else unusual about the study: where it took place. It wasn’t a laboratory, but in the offices of Harmony Project in Los Angeles. It’s a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities.

Two nights a week, neuroscience and musical learning meet at Harmony’s Hollywood headquarters, where some two-dozen children gather to learn how to play flutes, oboes, trombones and trumpets. The program also includes on-site instruction at many public schools across Los Angeles County.

Harmony Project is the brainchild of Margaret Martin, whose life path includes parenting two kids while homeless before earning a doctorate in public health. A few years ago, she noticed something remarkable about the kids who had gone through her program.

“Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU,” Martin says, “despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our programs.”

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See also

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, by Paul J. Zak, PhD

Madness and the Muse: The Secrets of the Creative Brain, by Tom Bartlett

The Power of Perseverance: Advice to Young Artists from Jazz Legend McCoy Tyner of John Coltrane Quartet

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

Why has the Imagination been Sidelined in Literature? by Damien G. Walter

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

Imagination is a powerful force for progress. So why has it been sidelined in the one place it should be most welcome – literature.

by Damien G. Walter

51fqybsmj7lWhen Albert Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge (in 1929), those who knew about such things might have said putting a man on the moon was impossible. But those who imagined more, including writers of science fiction, knew better. We know that imagination is a powerful force for progress in our lives and in society. And yet it seems that in the place imagination should be most celebrated – in stories, fiction and literature – it has long been sidelined.

Ursula K Le Guin, arguably the greatest living writer of imaginative literature, made a powerful defence of imagination in her speech to theNational Book Awards on Thursday, at which she was presented a lifetime achievement award. Le Guin dedicated her win to the “the realists of a larger reality” who for 50 years had been excluded from literature’s awards, her “fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction – writers of the imagination.”

It’s hard to dispute the exclusion of writers of imagination from mainstream literature, not simply from its prizes but from every part of literary culture. But why has this happened? The standard explanation draws on one part quality – genres like science fiction simply aren’t “well written” enough – and two parts the idea that imagination is in some way childish. Writers of imagination are fine when they address children and adolescents, but adults are meant to get their head out of the clouds and keep their feet firmly planted in reality.

This idea reaches further than literature of course. Over the same five decade period Le Guin references, our education system has systematically sidelined the imaginative disciplines of the arts and humanities, until we find ourselves at the position today where any non STEM subject has seen a de facto obliteration of its status and funding…

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Damien G Walter is a writer of weird and speculative fiction. His stories have been published in Electric Velocipede, Serendipity and many other magazines as well as BBC Radio, and numerous anthologies. He reviews for The Fix and blogs for Guardian Unlimited. In summer 2008 he will be attending the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy workshop at UC San Diego.

Why Spiritual Transformation has a lot to do with the Brain, by Rob Moll

Heavenly Minded and Earthly Good

Many experiments have shown that neurons changed in an inattentive experience–surfing the Internet, flipping stations, or checking Facebook, etc.–revert to their original state shortly thereafter. Lasting change requires the kind of attention that many of us find difficult.

by Rob Moll • The Behemoth

Brain 2The brain is commonly said to contain around 100 billion neurons (though some recent research suggests it may be only 84 billion). Each neuron—or nerve cell—is connected to a thousand of its fellow neurons. So this gives the brain about 84–100 trillion connections between neurons. If neurons were the size of dollar bills, 100 trillion of them sewn together would make a carpet covering Texas and California combined. That’s a lot of neurons in a relatively small space.

Now consider this: Each of the trillions of connections between neurons can have various states. Computers have binary signals, ones and zeroes, on and off, as their basic signaling device. Neural connections may have ten or more possible states at just one of the 84–100 trillion junctures. This is why the brain is considered by many to be the most complex thing in existence. Fully understanding how the brain processes vision—with some neurons dedicated to processing movement, others to color, others to shapes, others to faces—is a task well beyond current science. But what we do know gives us a window into how God may use the brain to transform us.

How the Brain Works

Neurons communicate through a mix of electrical and chemical signals. Those signals can change, increase and decrease in strength, or develop from scratch. One neuron receives signals from another through its dendrites, which have a branch-like structure. They send an electrical impulse up their branches into the body of the neuron and then out through one or more of their many axons, which also look like branches. At the tip of the axon is the synapse, a gap between two nerve cells. Here the electrical signal in the cell changes to a chemical one, with chemicals being released at the tip of the axon to be received into “ports” in the dendrite of the next neuron.

Much of the growth and development in the brain occurs in our synapses as we learn. Most medications that affect mood and behavior change the strength of the chemical signal passing through the synapses. This is where brain chemicals such as dopamine or endorphins come into play.

Using these neurotransmitters (the chemicals that jump across synapses), neurons communicate, and their ability to communicate increases the more they work together. The chemical signals sent from one side of the synapse become stronger, and the receptors on the other side become more sensitive, better able to pick up signals. As we learn a new activity, new information, or even a new dance step, neurons are strengthening these signals between existing nerve cells, and creating new connections with other nerve cells.

The brain does more than passively wait for input from the body and process it. The brain is always on alert, searching for new information and improving how it processes information, learning—and learning how to learn. Our brains will employ a host of neurons to help us learn, but as we gain proficiency, we need fewer nerve cells, which become specialized and fuse more tightly. They create neural pathways, a kind of high-speed internet cable in the brain.

Experience is constantly changing our brains. The cerebral cortex—the wrinkled outer layer of the brain involved in high-level thinking—gets heavier as it learns. It is 5 percent heavier in laboratory mammals raised in learning-enriched environments. Rats that are trained to solve mental problems have higher levels of acetylcholine, a chemical necessary for learning, in their brains. Neurons in those stimulated regions grow larger, developing 25 percent more branches to connect to other neurons. This extra work demands more blood supply. Examinations of human brains after death show that people with more education tend to have larger brains, because of these extra connections. So if the average brain has up to 100 trillion connections, a highly educated one will have many more. This physical learning process means that learning something new doesn’t necessarily require forgetting something old. By increasing the brain’s synaptic connections, we can also increase its capacity.

The brain is in many ways like a muscle, growing stronger the more it’s used. It has a basic structure or mode of operation, but within that framework it’s surprisingly flexible—even into old age and even after diseases hamper its function. While the extreme but necessary neural nimbleness of youth is lost shortly after adolescence, the ability of the brain to change and grow throughout life is only now being understood.

Building Neural Compassion

All this should encourage us; we are not set in stone. We can and do change dramatically. In addition to the change that occurs naturally over time, we can also choose to pursue other changes. Researchers in fact have been looking at how to create the brain changes that lead to other changes we desire.

And yet the brain is a conservative organ. Despite its capacity for change, it only changes significantly under certain conditions. For example, we must monitor closely what we are doing. We do not improve our brains while surfing the Internet, flipping stations, or checking Facebook. Many experiments have shown that neurons changed in an inattentive experience revert to their original state shortly thereafter. Lasting change requires the kind of attention that many of us find difficult.

The attention required in spiritual practices like deep prayer, contemplation, study, and worship is what the brain needs to grow in lasting ways…

Continue reading

Rob Moll is a Christianity Today editor at large. This article is adapted from his book What Your Body Knows About God (Intervarsity, 2014). 

See also

How Stories Change the Brain [Video], by Paul J. Zak, PhD

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, by Paul J. Zak, PhD

What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

Gut-Level Knowledge: Micro-worldviews, Attachment Theory and the Enneagram, by Gary David Stratton

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories Students Live By, by Gary David Stratton

Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc, by Paul J. Zak

Dramatic stories cause us to act more connected to the people around us. Here’s why.

From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story. Ben’s story does this. How will Ben’s father be able to enjoy his son’s last weeks of life? What internal resources will he draw upon to be strong and support his dying son?

by Paul J. Zak, Ph.D. • Claremont Graduate University

Ben is Dying

It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat.  I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching an amazing neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.

Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

We found that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Viewers will literally bond with the characters and share their emotions, and after the movie ends, they are likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.

Here’s how it works…

The Process of Transformation

“Ben is dying.”

That’s what Ben’s father says to the camera as we see Ben play in the background. Ben is two years old and doesn’t know that a brain tumor will take his life in a matter of months.

Ben’s father tells us how difficult it is to be joyful around Ben because the father knows what is coming. But in the end he resolves to find the strength to be genuinely happy for Ben’s sake, right up to Ben’s last breath.

Everyone can relate to this story. An innocent treated unfairly, and a protector who seeks to right the wrong—but can only do so by finding the courage to change himself and become a better person.

A recent analysis identifies this “hero’s journey” story as the foundation for more than half of the movies that come out of Hollywood, and countless books of fiction and nonfiction. And, if you take a look, this structure is in the majority of the most-watched TED talks.

Why are we so attracted to stories? My lab has spent the last several years seeking to understand why stories can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviors, and even inspire us—and how stories change our brains, often for the better. Here’s what we’ve learned…

Why the brain loves stories

The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.

Think of this as the “car accident effect.” You don’t really want to see injured people, but you just have to sneak a peek as you drive by. Brain mechanisms engage saying there might be something valuable for you to learn, since car accidents are rarely seen by most of us but involve an activity we do daily. That is why you feel compelled to rubberneck.

To understand how this works in the brain, we have intensively studied brain response that watching “Ben’s story” produces. We have used this to build a predictive model that explains why after watching the video about half of viewers donate to a childhood cancer charity. We want to know why some people respond to a story while others do not, and how to create highly engaging stories.

We discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world.

What makes a story effective?

Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life? Paul Zak is helping find the answer.Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life? Paul Zak is helping find the answer.

Any Hollywood writer will tell you that attention is a scarce resource. Movies, TV shows, and books always include “hooks” that make you turn the page, stay on the channel through the commercial, or keep you in a theater seat.

Scientists liken attention to a spotlight. We are only able to shine it on a narrow area. If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders.

In fact, using one’s attentional spotlight is metabolically costly so we use it sparingly. This is why you can drive on the freeway and talk on the phone or listen to music at the same time.  Your attentional spotlight is dim so you can absorb multiple informational streams. You can do this until the car in front of you jams on its brakes and your attentional spotlight illuminates fully to help you avoid an accident.

From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story. Ben’s story does this. How will Ben’s father be able to enjoy his son’s last weeks of life? What internal resources will he draw upon to be strong and support his dying son?

We attend to this story because we intuitively understand that we, too, may have to face difficult tasks and we need to learn how to develop our own deep resolve. In the brain, maintaining attention produces signs of arousal: the heart and breathing speed up, stress hormones are released, and our focus is high.

Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with story’s characters. Narratologists call this “transportation,” and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train.

Transportation is an amazing neural feat. We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit James Bond must be feeling. And we begin to feel those emotions, too.

Stories bring brains together

Emotional simulation is the foundation for empathy and is particularly powerful for social creatures like humans because it allows us to rapidly forecast if people around us are angry or kind, dangerous or safe, friend or foe.

Such a neural mechanism keeps us safe but also allows us to rapidly form relationships with a wider set of members of our species than any other animal does. The ability to quickly form relationships allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space. By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.

We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate. I have dubbed oxytocin the “moral molecule,” and others call it the love hormone. What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us. In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage to help others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.

When people watch Ben’s story in the lab—and they both maintain attention to the story and release oxytocin—nearly all of these individuals donate a portion of their earnings from the experiment. They do this even though they don’t have to.

This is surprising since this payment is to compensate them for an hour of their time and two needle sticks in their arms to obtain blood from which we measure chemical changes that come from their brains.

How we learn through stories

But it turns out that not all stories keep our attention and not all stories transport us into the characters’ worlds.

We ran another experiment that featured Ben and his father at the zoo to find out why. I should mention that Ben was really a boy with cancer who has now died, and the featured father is really his father. In the zoo video, there is no mention of cancer or death, but Ben is bald and his father calls him “miracle boy.” This story had a flat structure, rather than one with rising tension like the previous story. Ben and his father look at a giraffe, Ben skips ahead to look at the rhino, Ben’s father catches up. We don’t know why we are watching Ben and his father, and we are unsure what we are supposed to learn.

People who watched this story began tuning out mid-way through. That is, their scarce attention shifted from the story to scanning the room or thinking about what to buy at the grocery store after the experiment concluded. Measures of physiologic arousal waned and the empathy-transportation response did not occur. These participants also did not offer much in the way of donations to charity.

This evidence supports the view of some narrative theorists that there is a universal story structure. These scholars claim every engaging story has this structure, called the dramatic arc. It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself.

This is another reason why we look at car accidents. Maybe the person who survived did something that saved his or her life. Or maybe the driver made a mistake that ended in injury or death. We need to know this information.

How stories connect us with strangers

We also tested why stories can motivate us, like the characters in them, to look inside ourselves and make changes to become better people.

Those who donated after watching Ben’s story had more empathic concern of other people and were happier than those who did not donate money. This shows there is a virtuous cycle in which we first engage with others emotionally that leads to helping behaviors, that make us happier. Many philosophical and religious traditions advocate caring for strangers, and our research reveals why these traditions continue to influence us today—they resonate with our evolved brain systems that make social interactions rewarding.

The form in which a narrative is told also seems to matter. The narrative theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in the 1960s that “the medium is the message,” and we’ve found this is true neurologically.  The video showing Ben with his father talking on camera is better at both sustaining attention and causing empathic transportation than when people simply read what Ben’s father has to say themselves.  This is good news for Hollywood filmmakers and tells us why we cry at sad movies by cry less often when reading a novel.

Does any of this matter to you?

We’ve recently used the knowledge we’ve developed to test stories that seek to motivate positive behavioral changes. In a recent experiment, participants watched 16 public-service ads from the United Kingdom that were produced by various charities to convince people not to drink and drive, text and drive, or use drugs. We used donations to the featured charities to measure the impact of the ads.

In one version of this experiment, if we gave participants synthetic oxytocin (in the nose, that will reach the brain in an hour), they donated to 57 percent more of the featured charities and donated 56 percent more money than participants given a placebo. Those who received oxytocin also reported more emotional transportation into the world depicted in the ad. Most importantly, these people said they were less likely to engage in the dangerous behaviors shown in the ads.

So, go see a movie and laugh and cry. It’s good for your brain, and just might motivate you to make positive changes in your life and in others’ lives as well.

Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., is the author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, and Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

See also:

What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories Students Live By, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

 

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, by Paul J. Zak, PhD

Via Alicia Crumpton, PhD| Johnson University| @AliciaDCrumpton 

If the story is able to create tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.

by Paul J. Zak, PhD | Claremont Graduate University | HBR

Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life?
Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life?

It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat.  I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching an amazing neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.

Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.

More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.

In subsequent studies we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation…

Continue Reading

Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., is the author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, and Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

See also:

How Stories Change the Brain [Video], by Paul J. Zak, PhD

What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories Students Live By, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

After the Apocalypse: Our Love/Hate Relationship with Technology, by Barry Taylor, PhD

Any new technology enhances, retrieves, reverses and obsolesces all that came before it

by Barry Taylor, PhD

Revolution-nbc-550x310

I have been thinking a fair bit about this fascination that there seems to be with the idea of post-apocalypse, post-technological collapse. It’s evident in things as diverse as The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, and JJ Abrams produced, Revolution‘s, exploration of a world without electricity.

It seems to echo the on-going love/hate relationship we have with technology. On the one hand we are enraptured with what technology can accomplish and how connected it allows us to be, and what it can deliver, literally into our hands. On the other hand, we speak a lot about the downside of technology-the loss of face-to-face communing, i-pod isolation, hyper-individualized mediation, and these shows seem to be wrestling with those duelling forces at work in our lives.

There is an interesting article in Esquire magazine online about the role/s technology plays in enhancing and diminishing our lives – a worthwhile read. This is something that Marshall Mcluhan addressed with his laws of media tetrad, putting forward the view that technology, any technology, causes four major effects upon the user:  it (whatever “it” is) enhances, retrieves, reverses and obsolesces. We seem to live somewhere in the tension between those dynamics, each of us being pulled by various preferences, positions, access etc.

Mcluhan There are often times when I would happily give up my cell-phone, but the idea of going back to a pre-electric world–one that would also herald a return to the ‘dark’ in so many other areas, is not one that I care to visit. I think we have to find our own balance with technology and its use, misuse, disuse.

Much like Hunger Games–Revolution presents a sort of frontier-survivalist mentality–both interestingly, are heavily led by females–the girl with the crossbow in the NBC ad would not look out of place at all in the HG artworks, advertising and narrative ideology–this idea of living close to the land, technology-free, surviving off of ones wits and ancient-or older, close-to-earth wisdom, holds great appeal.

We rely so much on technology–and for most of us, most of it is a mystery in terms of how it actually works–i’m still stuck on radio-waves!!! Derrida used this idea to great degree in his writing on knowledge and our relation to technology. For him, the space created between our reliance upon and ignorance of, technology, was precisley the cause of a revived and renewed interest in animis, magic and mystery–i.e. religious belief is affected by technology relation.

And of course, all these shows draw heavily upon the American Obsession with all things apocalyptic–which continues to be expressed at the heart of much of our culturally mediated imagination. Oh, and AC/DC are still cool!

For more by Barry Taylor See:

Finding Soul, by Barry Taylor, PhD

Nevermind the Bricolage

Searching for the Soul Film Festival Explores Humanity in a Technological World

Investigating the Meaning of Humanity in a Technological World
A festival bringing together filmmakers, scholars, students, and the public to view and discuss three feature films asking important questions about science and the soul.


Saturday, October 13, 2012
Sutherland Auditorium
Screenings at 12:30, 3:00 and 7:00
For more Information visit the Searching for Soul Film Festival Web Site


Screening 1: 12:30-2 pm

Where does biology end and technology begin?

Feature: Welcome to the Machine
Short: Heart Stop Beating

Panelists:
Mike Gonzales (Moderator), Avi Zev Weider (Director), Doug Geivett

Screening 2:    3-5 pm

What is the cost of modernity?

Feature: Tea or Electricity
Short : The Maker

Panelists:
Fred Sanders (Moderator), Jérôme le Maire (Director), Jonathon Puls

Screening 3:     7-9 pm

What if souls could be extracted, stored and exchanged?

Feature: Cold Souls
Short: Time Freak

Panelists:
Evan Rosa (Moderator), Peg Medberry, Jon Anderson, Steve Classen


Center for Christian ThoughtSponsored by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought as part of their 2012-13 research theme Neuroscience and the Soul and Cinema and Media Arts. The film festival is an effort to reach both academic and non-academic audiences with nuanced Christian thought about the theme.The program is subject to change without notification. Films are not rated. Some films are not suitable for children due to life situations, medical photography and brief nudity. Suggest high school age and above.

For more information visit the Center for Christian Thought and Searching for Soul Film Festival websites. Or you can find us on Facebook.

The Source of Creativity?

I hate to do this ~ I really do, but as long as Jeffrey Kluger keeps writing articles like the one in last April’s TIME Magazine article, “Shhh! Genius at Work”, I’ll feel compelled to respond. I have nothing against the guy personally. I don’t even know who he is. But  he gets under my skin every time he puts pen to paper ~ or key to pixel, as the case may be. In a sentence, I take issue with his impoverished view of human beings. He is quickly becoming the populist journalist poster child of reductio hominem ad absurdum. Allow me to illustrate.

by Exfontibus

The blurb of his article, which is about how sleep helps creativity, reads, “New research explains why your brain may be at its most creative when you sleep.” Innocuous enough until you dig beneath the surface to the assumptions buried in that sentence. You are not creative, your brain is. Of course, we all know that a body part can’t be creative, so surely Mr. Kluger is speaking metaphorically. It’s like saying “My heart feels sad.” A heart doesn’t actually feel sad. In fact, it doesn’t feel at all. Why? Because it’s an it, andits don’t feel. Likewise, brains aren’t creative because its aren’t creative, at least not in the human sense of putting to use one’s imagination.

But here’s the kicker: Mr. Kluger was being literal. He actually means that your brain is creative. We’re not alarmed by this, of course, because over the last hundred years, we’ve slowly and irrevocably come to equate ourselves with our brains, a fundamental change in the understanding of human identity that appears almost to be complete. We’re about to cross a threshold, perhaps an irreversible one, where we become indistinguishable from it, and I offer Mr. Kluger’s article as the latest example (one of his many) of this historical shift.

Kluger’s favorite body part, the prefrontal cortex, once again makes a prominent appearance. We learn that the “human brain is a loud and messy and stormy place,” and though “the brain’s prefrontal cortex keeps order” during the day, at night it “punches out” and our occipital lobes (the vision centers of our brains) take over, and they apparently like to behave badly.

That’s a highly abridged synopsis of an article that reads like scientific porn, detailing the complicated goings-on between our ears with a cool, yet campy reverence for all things science (“scientific porn” because it reduces human beings to objects, which is what all pornography does at its core. Porn isn’t bad because it’s naughty but because it reduces human beings to things, and you can’t love a thing, and for Christians, the call to love is the central mandate of life.)

Scientists are the priests of this disenchanted age, and their methods and tools make up the liturgy of their practice:

“Neuroscientists have a growing arsenal of tools — fMRIs, PET scans, high-density EEGs — to watch the nocturnal brain at work and see how it ticks throughout the sleep cycle. To the surprise and delight of researchers, that’s finally helping explain one of the mind’s most ineffable qualities: creativity.”

Apparently not so ineffable after all, as a paragraph later we find out that “Dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state,” according to Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett, and that “in the sleep state, the brain thinks much more visually and intuitively.” I hasten to add that Ms. Barrett, like Mr. Kluger, uses the phrase “the brain thinks” quite literally. And all this time I’ve thought that we do the thinking and use our brains for that function. I guess our legs walk, too, and our hands write.

Turns out, the source of human creativity, which Kluger tells us has been the object of a hunt that “has been going on as long as people have been creating,” lies no further than the “hard drive in your head.” Well, that and plenty of sleep. The brain’s capacity to “run multiple programs at once” while you sleep is what allows for such creative breakthroughs. One of the most important of those (programs) is one that is “analogous to ‘running a repair-and-cleaning program on your computer to defrag the hard drive” (we have another leading light, Harvard psychologist William Killgore, to thank for that whimsical simile).

And those occipital lobes mentioned earlier? They’re the culprit, along with a hormone called cortisol. The occipital lobes act as a sort of PowerPoint presentation of the conversations between your left and right hemispheres, and the “result of the visual centers’ mixing images at will” (whose will?) can lead to such creative breakthroughs as Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein (a rather apt illustration), or Paul McCartney’s melody for “Yesterday,” or the sewing machine. And that’s where cortisol comes in. Cortisol “helps form new and imaginative ideas from the data that survives the defrag.” But then, why do all of these disparate entities work in concert to begin with? Because “the brain dislikes fragmentation, so it weaves narratives. And that, in turn, gives rise to novel thinking.” Did you catch that? Not only does the brain like and dislike, but it tells stories, too.

And just when we thought we’d finally figured out the holy grail of the source of our creativity, Kluger has to add one more ingredient into “the brain’s secret creative sauce”: Dopamine, levels of which “rise in pleasure centers of the brain both when we’re dreaming and when we’re being creative, [which] serves as a reward and reinforcement that keeps the dreams — and ideas — flowing.”

So there you have it. You and I have been thoroughly deconstructed, all the way down to our dreams. And we’ve learned in the process that our brains think, feel, like and dislike, create, reward, degfrag, tell stories… and if that isn’t quite enough, can also act as its own traffic-cop by keeping itself “focused on a particular conscious task [and screening] out thoughts that it decides you oughtn’t think at all” (that’s just a little frightening — our brains are telling us what to do). And what thoughts are those anyway, you might wonder? “Those deemed rationally inappropriate.” Naturally. But then, what are religious thoughts, and why doesn’t the brain keep those out, or the myriad other thoughts that don’t bend to rational inquiry? Details, details.

The most striking thing about this kind of writing (and this kind of thinking), which has become socially acceptable because it is so deceptively subtle, is how it interchanges the human person with one of our constituent parts — the brain — and furthermore, how the whole of who we are is at the behest of a single part. We are nothing more than biological hard drives, while the spirit, which has traditionally been summoned in questions about the source of creativity, has been silently excised from the conversation. We — as in my fellow humans and I, in our individual and collective physical and metaphysical identities — have become nothing more than our own GUIs; our faces and bodies (or rather, images thereof) merely the graphic user interface that people interact with. Facebook, anyone?

Our language determines our realities, not the other way around. So as long as articles like Kluger’s can be written in mainstream magazines with nary a tilt of the eyebrow from the reading public, our realities will slowly and irrevocably be altered. I don’t know about you, but I’m not taking that sitting down. In the immortal words of Marilynne Robinson (from her book, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought), “I miss civilization, and I want it back.”

You are more than your brain, and more than the sum of your parts. You have a spirit, a soul, that accounts for the creative impulse inside you. You are a mystery, finally and always. If we cease to believe that, we are no longer human
.

 

Who’s On First? « ex fontibus.

Is Free Will an Illusion? Neuroscience Takes a Calvinistic Bent

Fascinating (and troubling) forum in Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education

Free will has long been a fraught concept among philosophers and theologians. Now neuroscience is entering the fray.

For centuries, the idea that we are the authors of our own actions, beliefs, and desires has remained central to our sense of self. We choose whom to love, what thoughts to think, which impulses to resist. Or do we?

Neuroscience suggests something else. We are biochemical puppets, swayed by forces beyond our conscious control. So says Sam Harris, author of the new book, Free Will (Simon & Schuster), a broadside against the notion that we are in control of our own thoughts and actions. Harris’s polemic arrives on the heels of Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (HarperCollins), and David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Pantheon), both provocative forays into a debate that has in recent months spilled out onto op-ed and magazine pages, and countless blogs.

What’s at stake? Just about everything: morality, law, religion, our understanding of accountability and personal accomplishment, even what it means to be human. Harris predicts that a declaration by the scientific community that free will is an illusion would set off “a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution.”

The Chronicle Review brought together some key thinkers to discuss what science can and cannot tell us about free will, and where our conclusions might take us.

READ FORUM POSTS

 

You Don’t Have Free Will, by Jerry A. Coyne

The Case Against the Case Against Free Will, by Alfred R. Mele

Free Will Is an Illusion, but You’re Still Responsible for Your Actions, by Michael S. Gazzaniga

Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience, by Hilary Bok

The End of (Discussing) Free Will, by Owen D. Jones

Free Will Does Not Exist. So What?, by Paul Bloom