M. Jackson Group Update – July 2014 – The Creative Brain

For July, this is another fascinating article from Dr. Ken Pope’s listserv. There is a link at the bottom to take you to the online article.

*The Atlantic* includes an extended article: “Secrets of the Creative Brain; A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ–and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness” by Nancy Andreasen.

Here are some excerpts:

[begin excerpts]

As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies creativity, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many gifted and high-profile subjects over the years, but Kurt Vonnegut–dear, funny, eccentric, lovable, tormented Kurt Vonnegut–will always be one of my favorites.

Kurt was a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, and participated in the first big study I did as a member of the university’s psychiatry department.

I was examining the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness, and Kurt was an excellent case study.

He was intermittently depressed, but that was only the beginning.

His mother had suffered from depression and committed suicide on Mother’s Day, when Kurt was 21 and home on military leave during World War II.

His son, Mark, was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia but may actually have bipolar disorder.

(Mark, who is a practicing physician, recounts his experiences in two books, The Eden Express and Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, in which he reveals that many family members struggled with psychiatric problems. “My mother, my cousins, and my sisters weren’t doing so great,” he writes. “We had eating disorders, co-dependency, outstanding warrants, drug and alcohol problems, dating and employment problems, and other ‘issues.’ “)

While mental illness clearly runs in the Vonnegut family, so, I found, does creativity.

Kurt’s father was a gifted architect, and his older brother Bernard was a talented physical chemist and inventor who possessed 28 patents.

Mark is a writer, and both of Kurt’s daughters are visual artists.


For many of my subjects from that first study–all writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop–mental illness and creativity went hand in hand.


Compared with many of history’s creative luminaries, Vonnegut, who died of natural causes, got off relatively easy.

Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.

My interest in this pattern is rooted in my dual identities as a scientist and a literary scholar.

In an early parallel with Sylvia Plath, a writer I admired, I studied literature at Radcliffe and then went to Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship; she studied literature at Smith and attended Cambridge on a Fulbright.

Then our paths diverged, and she joined the tragic list above.

My curiosity about our different outcomes has shaped my career.

I earned a doctorate in literature in 1963 and joined the faculty of the University of Iowa to teach Renaissance literature.

At the time, I was the first woman the university’s English department had ever hired into a tenure-track position, and so I was careful to publish under the gender-neutral name of N. J. C. Andreasen.

Not long after this, a book I’d written about the poet John Donne was accepted for publication by Princeton University Press.

Instead of feeling elated, I felt almost ashamed and self-indulgent.

Who would this book help?

What if I channeled the effort and energy I’d invested in it into a career that might save people’s lives?

Within a month, I made the decision to become a research scientist, perhaps a medical doctor.

I entered the University of Iowa’s medical school, in a class that included only five other women, and began working with patients suffering from schizophrenia and mood disorders.

I was drawn to psychiatry because at its core is the most interesting and complex organ in the human body: the brain.

I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains.

What, in short, is the essence of creativity?

Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not?

And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted?


As research methodology improved over time, the idea that genius might be hereditary gained support.


But despite the implications of the title Genetic Studies of Genius, the Termites’ high IQs did not predict high levels of creative achievement later in life. Only a few made significant creative contributions to society; none appear to have demonstrated extremely high creativity levels of the sort recognized by major awards, such as the Nobel Prize.

(Interestingly, William Shockley, who was a 12-year-old Palo Alto resident in 1922, somehow failed to make the cut for the study, even though he would go on to share a Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.)

Thirty percent of the men and 33 percent of the women did not even graduate from college

A surprising number of subjects pursued humble occupations, such as semiskilled trades or clerical positions.

As the study evolved over the years, the term gifted was substituted for genius.

Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative.

Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests.


A neuroimaging study I conducted in 1995 using positron-emission tomography, or PET, scanning turned out to be unexpectedly useful in advancing my own understanding of association cortices and their role in the creative process.

This PET study was designed to examine the brain’s different memory systems, which the great Canadian psychologist Endel Tulving identified.

One system, episodic memory, is autobiographical–it consists of information linked to an individual’s personal experiences.

It is called “episodic” because it consists of time-linked sequential information, such as the events that occurred on a person’s wedding day.

My team and I compared this with another system, that of semantic memory, which is a repository of general information and is not personal or time-linked. In this study, we divided episodic memory into two subtypes. We examined focused episodic memory by asking subjects to recall a specific event that had occurred in the past and to describe it with their eyes closed. And we examined a condition that we called random episodic silent thought, or REST: we asked subjects to lie quietly with their eyes closed, to relax, and to think about whatever came to mind. In essence, they would be engaged in “free association,” letting their minds wander. The acronym REST was intentionally ironic; we suspected that the association regions of the brain would actually be wildly active during this state.

When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.
This suspicion was based on what we had learned about free association from the psychoanalytic approach to understanding the mind. In the hands of Freud and other psychoanalysts, free association–spontaneously saying whatever comes to mind without censorship–became a window into understanding unconscious processes. Based on my interviews with the creative subjects in my workshop study, and from additional conversations with artists, I knew that such unconscious processes are an important component of creativity. For example, Neil Simon told me: “I don’t write consciously–it is as if the muse sits on my shoulder” and “I slip into a state that is apart from reality.” (Examples from history suggest the same thing. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once described how he composed an entire 300-line poem about Kubla Khan while in an opiate-induced, dreamlike state, and began writing it down when he awoke; he said he then lost most of it when he got interrupted and called away on an errand–thus the finished poem he published was but a fragment of what originally came to him in his dreamlike state.)

Based on all this, I surmised that observing which parts of the brain are most active during free association would give us clues about the neural basis of creativity. And what did we find? Sure enough, the association cortices were wildly active during REST.

I realized that I obviously couldn’t capture the entire creative process–instead, I could home in on the parts of the brain that make creativity possible. Once I arrived at this idea, the design for the imaging studies was obvious: I needed to compare the brains of highly creative people with those of control subjects as they engaged in tasks that activated their association cortices.

This time around, I wanted to examine a more diverse sample of creativity, from the sciences as well as the arts. My motivations were partly selfish–I wanted the chance to discuss the creative process with people who might think and work differently, and I thought I could probably learn a lot by listening to just a few people from specific scientific fields. After all, each would be an individual jewel–a fascinating study on his or her own. Now that I’m about halfway through the study, I can say that this is exactly what has happened. My individual jewels so far include, among others, the filmmaker George Lucas, the mathematician and Fields Medalist William Thurston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, and six Nobel laureates from the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine. Because winners of major awards are typically older, and because I wanted to include some younger people, I’ve also recruited winners of the National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award and other prizes in the arts.


We begin the actual study with an MRI scan, during which subjects perform three different tasks, in addition to REST: word association, picture association, and pattern recognition. Each experimental task alternates with a control task; during word association, for example, subjects are shown words on a screen and asked to either think of the first word that comes to mind (the experimental task) or silently repeat the word they see (the control task). Speaking disrupts the scanning process, so subjects silently indicate when they have completed a task by pressing a button on a keypad.

Playing word games inside a thumping, screeching hollow tube seems like a far cry from the kind of meandering, spontaneous discovery process that we tend to associate with creativity. It is, however, as close as one can come to a proxy for that experience, apart from REST. You cannot force creativity to happen–every creative person can attest to that. But the essence of creativity is making connections and solving puzzles. The design of these MRI tasks permits us to visualize what is happening in the creative brain when it’s doing those things.

As I hypothesized, the creative people have shown stronger activations in their association cortices during all four tasks than the controls have. (See the images on page 74.) This pattern has held true for both the artists and the scientists, suggesting that similar brain processes may underlie a broad spectrum of creative expression. Common stereotypes about “right brained” versus “left brained” people notwithstanding, this parallel makes sense. Many creative people are polymaths, people with broad interests in many fields–a common trait among my study subjects.

After the brain scans, I settle in with subjects for an in-depth interview. Preparing for these interviews can be fun (rewatching all of George Lucas’s films, for example, or reading Jane Smiley’s collected works) as well as challenging (toughing through mathematics papers by William Thurston). I begin by asking subjects about their life history–where they grew up, where they went to school, what activities they enjoyed. I ask about their parents–their education, occupation, and parenting style–and about how the family got along. I learn about brothers, sisters, and children, and get a sense for who else in a subject’s family is or has been creative and how creativity may have been nurtured at home. We talk about how the subjects managed the challenges of growing up, any early interests and hobbies (particularly those related to the creative activities they pursue as adults), dating patterns, life in college and graduate school, marriages, and child-rearing. I ask them to describe a typical day at work and to think through how they have achieved such a high level of creativity. (One thing I’ve learned from this line of questioning is that creative people work much harder than the average person–and usually that’s because they love their work.)

One of the most personal and sometimes painful parts of the interview is when I ask about mental illness in subjects’ families as well as in their own lives. They’ve told me about such childhood experiences as having a mother commit suicide or watching ugly outbreaks of violence between two alcoholic parents, and the pain and scars that these experiences have inflicted. (Two of the 13 creative subjects in my current study have lost a parent to suicide–a rate many times that of the general U.S. population.) Talking with those subjects who have suffered from a mental illness themselves, I hear about how it has affected their work and how they have learned to cope.


As in the first study, I’ve also found that creativity tends to run in families, and to take diverse forms. In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role. Half the subjects come from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree. The majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued.


One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers.

(As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”)

They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, “The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it … When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.” Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path–one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.

One interesting paradox that has emerged during conversations with subjects about their creative processes is that, though many of them suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, they associate their gifts with strong feelings of joy and excitement. “Doing good science is simply the most pleasurable thing anyone can do,” one scientist told me. “It is like having good sex. It excites you all over and makes you feel as if you are all-powerful and complete.” This is reminiscent of what creative geniuses throughout history have said. For instance, here’s Tchaikovsky, the composer, writing in the mid-19th century:

It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a different form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch ere one thought follows another.

Another of my subjects, a neuroscientist and an inventor, told me, “There is no greater joy that I have in my life than having an idea that’s a good idea. At that moment it pops into my head, it is so deeply satisfying and rewarding … My nucleus accumbens is probably going nuts when it happens.” (The nucleus accumbens, at the core of the brain’s reward system, is activated by pleasure, whether it comes from eating good food or receiving money or taking euphoria-inducing drugs.)

As for how these ideas emerge, almost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed–during that state we called REST. “A lot of it happens when you are doing one thing and you’re not thinking about what your mind is doing,” one of the artists in my study told me. “I’m either watching television, I’m reading a book, and I make a connection … It may have nothing to do with what I am doing, but somehow or other you see something or hear something or do something, and it pops that connection together.”

Many subjects mentioned lighting on ideas while showering, driving, or exercising. One described a more unusual regimen involving an afternoon nap: “It’s during this nap that I get a lot of my work done. I find that when the ideas come to me, they come as I’m falling asleep, they come as I’m waking up, they come if I’m sitting in the tub. I don’t normally take baths … but sometimes I’ll just go in there and have a think.”

Some of the other most common findings my studies have suggested include:

Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings. Famously, three Silicon Valley creative geniuses have been college dropouts: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs–for many, the archetype of the creative person–popularized the motto “Think different.” Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own. Many of my subjects taught themselves to read before even starting school, and many have read widely throughout their lives. For example, in his article “On Proof and Progress in Mathematics,” Bill Thurston wrote:

My mathematical education was rather independent and idiosyncratic, where for a number of years I learned things on my own, developing personal mental models for how to think about mathematics. This has often been a big advantage for me in thinking about mathematics, because it’s easy to pick up later the standard mental models shared by groups of mathematicians.
This observation has important implications for the education of creatively gifted children. They need to be allowed and even encouraged to “think different.” (Several subjects described to me how they would get in trouble in school for pointing out when their teachers said things that they knew to be wrong, such as when a second-grade teacher explained to one of my subjects that light and sound are both waves and travel at the same speed. The teacher did not appreciate being corrected.)

Many creative people are polymaths, as historic geniuses including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were. George Lucas was awarded not only the National Medal of Arts in 2012 but also the National Medal of Technology in 2004. Lucas’s interests include anthropology, history, sociology, neuroscience, digital technology, architecture, and interior design. Another polymath, one of the scientists, described his love of literature:

I love words, and I love the rhythms and sounds of words … [As a young child] I very rapidly built up a huge storehouse of … Shakespearean sonnets, soliloquies, poems across the whole spectrum … When I got to college, I was open to many possible careers. I actually took a creative-writing course early. I strongly considered being a novelist or a writer or a poet, because I love words that much … [But for] the academics, it’s not so much about the beauty of the words. So I found that dissatisfying, and I took some biology courses, some quantum courses. I really clicked with biology. It seemed like a complex system that was tractable, beautiful, important. And so I chose biochemistry.
The arts and the sciences are seen as separate tracks, and students are encouraged to specialize in one or the other. If we wish to nurture creative students, this may be a serious error.

Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection. Asked what it takes to be a successful scientist, one replied:

Perseverance … In order to have that freedom to find things out, you have to have perseverance … The grant doesn’t get funded, and the next day you get up, and you put the next foot in front, and you keep putting your foot in front … I still take things personally. I don’t get a grant, and … I’m upset for days. And then I sit down and I write the grant again.
Do creative people simply have more ideas, and therefore differ from average people only in a quantitative way, or are they also qualitatively different? One subject, a neuroscientist and an inventor, addressed this question in an interesting way, conceptualizing the matter in terms of kites and strings:


In A Beautiful Mind, her biography of the mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar describes a visit Nash received from a fellow mathematician while institutionalized at McLean Hospital. “How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical truth,” the colleague asked, “believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” To which Nash replied: “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.

[end excerpts]

The article is online at:

Ken Pope


“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.”
–James Baldwin (1924-1987)

Take care,


M. Jackson Group Update – June 2014 – Thinking Quick and Locking In

This month’s article is excerpted from a talk I gave on this topic, a portion of which was extracted from the following book.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think (Kida, Thomas. (2006).  Don’t Believe Everything You Think:  The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking.  New York: Prometheus Books.

This book describes 6 basic mistakes that we make in thinking.  This book comes from the Skeptics Society tradition of looking at what prevents us from critical thinking.  Let’s take a brief look at these mistakes.

  • The first is that we tend to prefer stories and anecdotes to statistics or formal proof.  The example of this I recall from graduate school is the person who is picking a car.  While they may have data to tell them a certain car is very reliable, they are more likely to be swayed by a neighbour who tells them about a isolated bad experience with that car.  This is part of the “thinking quick” portion of this talk’s title, we like to get the broad sense of something and are much less inclined to evaluate the factual basis of the stories.  Weapons of mass destruction anyone?
  • The second is that we tend to seek to confirm, rather than to question our ideas.  This is part of the “locking in” that we do in making judgements.  We are prone to looking at and better remembering information that confirms our beliefs and potentially not even seeing information that disconfirms them.  The final impression we may be left with is that the evidence for our belief is simply overwhelming.  The alternative, pondering whether we have missed the point and need to re-tool is not an easy thing.  After the invasion of Iraq it was found that the evidence that had been carefully selected to support going to war was mostly incorrect.  This is a situation where a confirming strategy lead to dire consequences.  We can also see it with those who believe in psychics or unusual health interventions, they tend to remember the hits and forget the misses.  In fact, we are generally prone to remember the times we’re successful, and forget the times we fail.  Failures that are remembered may then tend to be reinterpreted in a way that supports our belief.  This is what the Harvard psychologist Eileen Langer calls the:  “Heads I win, tails its chance” phenomenon.
  • The third mistake is that we rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events.  We are prone to looking for meaning and causality in everything, which is generally good, but sometimes things just happen.  What I like to say to my clients, and is discussed in this book, is that if you flip a coin several thousand times, a run of 20 heads, for example, is still random.  You can see this kind of misplaced sense of causality in athletes wearing “lucky” clothes, and people putting their life savings into slot machines believing that they have warmed them up.  I had a client who had worked in casinos for many years who described a common phenomenon of people who actually win, but are then unable to step away from the tables at that point, and then as one would expect given the role of chance, end up losing. Gaming feeds off human nature.
  • The fourth mistake is that we sometimes misperceive the world around us.  It has been said that the saying should not be “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but rather, “I see it because I believe it.”  People who believe in ghosts or aliens are more likely to see them.  An example in the book was a radio personality staying that he had seen V-shaped vessels in the sky, resulting in many calls of sightings.  He had actually made it up.  We can see this in the social realm when, for example, we expect bad behaviour from someone and chastise them even though they turn out to behave quite well.
  • The fifth mistake is that we tend to oversimplify our thinking.  We are inundated with information all the time and our body takes care of us by paring things down.  Sometimes we do that in our decision-making too when we assume that because someone has some similar attributes to others we know, that they will behave in the same way.  This is seen in stereotypes, and other situations where we judge solely on the basis of information that readily comes to mind.
  • Finally, the sixth mistake discussed in this book is that we tend to have faulty memories.  Many assume wrongly that memory should work perfectly.  One other little nugget I have used with some clients is that about 7 billion people in the world think that they have a memory problem.  Some do, of course, many do not.  Not only do we selectively store information away, we can be selective in retrieving it.  Remembering is not actually going to a shelf to get the very same book that we put away, but rather a process of reconstructing the memory, or actually rewriting the book to a degree.  With time, there is more and more creative writing going on.  So, if I form a quick impression of you and lock that in, I may not notice, store away, or recall information that goes against that impression.

In essence critical thinking does not come naturally to us, we are uncomfortable with the uncertainty required as part of a search for truths, and we tend to be quick to believe things on the basis of incomplete or inappropriate evidence.  What we need to do is think about reasons why our particular judgements could be wrong.  Considering the alternatives is one of the most effective methods we have to counter many of our problematic judgment biases, but this takes practice.

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Take care,