Sunday, January 31, 2016

Moving In Flow

           How do bodies move through space? What leads them? Motivates them? Some move more gracefully than others. Is it all because of training? Talent? Perception? What role does music play? How about playing music? (So much word-play in English. It’s wonderful.)
            This week in Neuro Dance, we had a tap-dance instructor come in and talk to us, and I was surprised by how much she sounded like a percussionist. She kept using phrases like, “how the music speaks to me,” and how you have to “find the beat and find your feet.” When I thought about it a little, it made perfect sense. Tab-dance isn’t just dance. The whole point is to make sounds with your feet; to add to the music in a way that no other type of dance can; to feel the rhythm with your feet instead of your hands. She talked about the two main different types of tap: ballroom and ‘street.’ In ballroom, you move on the balls of your feet and glide above the music. In street, you’re much more grounded and dance into the music. In a similar way, percussion can either drive the song or garnish it, depending on what piece one happens to be playing.
            A piece we also read for Neuro Dance, “Thinking In Movement” also really resonated with my background in percussion. Like playing trap (drum set), dance improvisation is almost pure movement. No thinking. No real planning. Just movements that run together somehow. When I’m drumming (and occasionally playing tennis or writing), the thinking part of my brain seems to shut down, and I slip into flow. When I’m in flow, time plays tricks on me. One minute, the sun will be out. The next, it will be dark and my stomach will be empty.
            In the piece, the author says that, “the process of creating is the dance itself;” you can’t separate the dancer’s thoughts from their actions because their thoughts are their actions. They’re no longer thinking in words. Only movement. A tired leg raising. A slick arm stretching across a taut body. Green eyes beckoning another dancer forward. Neuroscientists can try to map the brains of dancers; try to find the exact pattern of activation every movement has, but doing so would miss part of the point. Dancing is communication in its rawest form, and only looking at a heat map of activations is like missing the forest for the trees. It misses some essential beauty that you know only by experiencing. By feeling with your body.

            Now, that’s not to say that looking at a dancer’s brain wouldn’t be incredibly fascinating. It would be super interesting to see if there are any similarities in how tap-dancers and drummers perceive music neurologically and to find the parts of their brains that are active while they’re practicing their craft. I would bet six shiny pennies there are more similarities between drummers and tap-dancers than there are between drummers and other dancers. 

The Neuroscience of Creativity

             I’m going to be up-front with you. This isn’t an academic piece. It’s not going to make an argument. It’s not going to outline everything it’s going to talk about before talking about it. It’s going to try its hardest to avoid big words and complicated sentences. There will be jokes. Hopefully, it will achieve the goal of all good pieces in academia – to spread knowledge – but it won’t use any of the classical techniques I’ve been taught. Instead, it will be fun. (Which, in my opinion, is the most underrated measure. Who wants to read something that isn’t enjoyable to read?)
            In order to understand the neuroscience of creativity, we first need to dispel one common myth: we do not use only 10% of our brain. We use all of it. Period. End of Story. If we only used 10% of it, we would only need that 10%, and soon that 10% would become 100%. That’s how evolution works. If it wastes energy and you don’t need it, you get rid of it. I don’t care what Morgan Freeman was paid millions of dollars to say. Just because he says it doesn’t make it true.
            Okay. With that out of the way, how does the brain work? How does that cause creativity? Well, those are pretty fascinating questions and there are a lot of answers to them. The simplest answer is that the brain is made up of billions of tiny, microscopic cells called neurons. That’s right. Billions. About a 100 billion according to most estimates. That’s more than all the stars we can see without a telescope. Each of these little neurons is connected to a whole bunch of other little neurons. How interconnected are they? Well, it’s commonly accepted that two neurons are separated by more than four orders of separation. That means you only need to jump across four neurons to reach any other neuron. To put this in perspective: there are roughly seven billion people on the planet and it’s usually said that any two humans are connected by six or seven orders of separation. Imagine every single person you’ve ever met in your life. A single neuron has ten times more connections than that. (A commonly accepted measure is that neurons can have up to 10,000 connections.) Mind-blowing, isn’t it?
            It gets cooler. Neurons are incredibly quick. Imagine someone is throwing a basketball at you, and you are not ready for it. It’s generally considered that the average human reaction time is .25 seconds. In that time, hundreds of sensory neurons in your eyes have fired, causing thousands of interneurons (literally just neurons that are in-between other neurons; neuroscientists don’t have much of an imagination) to fire along the tracts to your brain. Then, hundreds of thousands of interneurons in your brain fire, identifying the object as a basketball and planning the motion with your hands that will hopefully catch it. This causes millions of motor neurons to fire, which raises your hands. Throughout the whole process, the motor neurons report back to the interneurons and receive minor course adjustments as your eyes see an unusual spin on the ball. Then, you catch the ball and millions of sensory neurons in your fingers tell you that the ball is cool and textured like, well…a basketball. Surprise! Your nervous system is so smart.
            That’s all in just .25 seconds. Imagine what you could do with an entire minute. You just did it! Congratulations! That’s what thinking is. Cool, right?    
            But, there’s more. The brain is incredibly plastic. (‘Plastic’ is neuroscience-talk for ‘changeable.’) That means that the connections between neurons are always changing (and usually growing). So, imagine this: you just learned (or just reinforced, if you already knew it) another definition for the word ‘plastic.’ In your brain, the neurons responsible for the word ‘plastic’ just connected with the neurons responsible for the idea ‘changeable.’ That’s how learning happens. New connections are made between groups of neurons. The reality is a little more complex than that, (a better phrase for “neurons responsible for” is “patterns of activation” and these patterns are always different – like someone famous and dead said, “You never step into the same river twice” – ) but it gets the idea across. 
            This is where creativity comes in. There are a whole bunch of strange and different definitions for creativity (one for each scientist who studies it and ten for each person who actually creates), but a simple, commonly accepted one is “the ability to see one thing in terms of another.” By this definition, you were just being creative. ‘Plastic’ now has a meaning entirely different from its “synthetic polymer commonly found under your sink in the form of Tupperware” roots. Just look at the word ‘roots’ in the last sentence. What do trees have to do with containers you put food into? Once you start seeing it, creativity is everywhere. Neuroscience is everywhere.
            But, what makes the brains of ‘creative people’ different from the brains of ‘non-creative people?’ We’re all creative, but what makes some people especially more creative than others? What does ‘creative’ mean, anyway? Can we operationalize (a fancy word for “describe in a testable manner”) it?
In order to understand creativity, the first thing we have to do is separate it from intellect. Lewis Terman ran a relatively famous Psychology study that started in 1921 and followed 856 boys and 672 girls for thirty five years. They all had an IQ greater than 135. His study found that, “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.) (Andreasen, 2)” This shows that just because you have an extremely high IQ doesn’t mean you are necessarily creative (in fact, in some cases, having a higher intellect can hinder creativity, but I’ll cover that later). Later studies have shown that, “an IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius (Andreasen, 2).” So, if an exceptionally high IQ isn’t predictive of high creativity, what is?
Scott Kaufman, the Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania (that’s his real title; I’m not making this up), has spent his life answering that question. Despite his overly ornate name, he’s actually done some incredible work in the field, and (full disclosure) I have a major academic crush on his work.
Kaufman’s first job as a young, enterprising neuroscientist was to operationalize creativity. No small feat. “The ability to see one thing in terms of another” is great and all, but how do we test that? To me, that cloud looks like person with an extra arm throwing a foot-ball. To you it’s a squirrel with a strange tumor on its left paw celebrating the birth of its fourth daughter with its cousin Larry. For some reason, Larry doesn’t have any legs, but you think it’s probably because he lost them while fighting a mountain lion during one of his trips to the Rocky Mountains. Which one of us is right? Which one is more creative? Is one of us high right now?
Previous attempts at operationalizing creativity were even worse. “Thus the creative genius may be at once na├»ve and knowledgeable, being at home equally to primitive symbolism and rigorous logic. He is both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person. (Frank Barron, 1963)” and “If I had to express in one word what makes their (creative people’s) personalities different from other’s, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’ (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1996)” What!? The scientist in me is cringing. (The writer in me is applauding, but that’s completely beside the point. Be quiet writer. Just because you’re typing this right now doesn’t mean you have to speak.) (Full disclosure: I got both of those quotes and a fair portion of the next couple pages of material off of an excellent YouTube video of a talk Kaufman gave. It’s called ‘The Neuroscience of Creativity, Flow, and Openness to Experience.’ I highly recommend it.)
            How can we define creativity, then? Is there any way of testing it that doesn’t involve clouds? According to Kaufman, creativity is most closely associated with openness to experience across domains. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of other things are also highly related to openness to experience. (Including a preference for kinky sex, which Kaufman wrote about in a book he co-authored in 2011. I’m not making this up either. “Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love” Google it.)
            But, what is ‘openness to experience?’ How is it different from ‘intellect?’ In 1994, John A Johnson separated intellect from openness to experience in one of his experiments using some basic tags. Some examples include: high intellect = someone who searches for truth, seeks out philosophical discussions, easily understands abstract ideas, and thinks quickly. High openness to experience = someone who searches for beauty, sees beauty in things others might not notice, sees patterns in nature others might not notice, believes in the importance of the arts, and often day-dreams.
            Kaufman took Johnson’s ideas a couple steps further and turned them into ‘rational thinking’ and ‘faith in intuition.’ Here’s a sample of his tags: Rational thinking = I have a logical mind. I prefer complex problems to simple problems. I usually have clear, explainable reasons for my decisions. Faith in intuition = I trust my initial feelings about people. I like to rely on my intuitive impressions. I hardly ever go wrong when I listen to my deepest gut feelings to find an answer. In his study, Kaufman asked all of his subjects how much they agreed with each of these statements, and then performed a test that Shelly Carson, Jordan Peterson, and Daniel Higgins had first done in 2003.
            Carson, Peterson, and Higgins were studying the preconscious (literally “before consciousness”) gating mechanism in the brain that is commonly thought to tag stuff as important/not important (it’s also called latent inhibition; for some reason neuroscientists thought it would be fun to rename it something more confusing, but ‘preconscious gating mechanism’ or just ‘gate’ describes it much more clearly). It’s this gate that stops functioning properly in people with schizophrenia (which I’ll talk about towards the end of the piece) and seems to function less in highly creative people. To study this gate, Carson and her group – and later Kaufman – ran a pretty ingenious study. First, they had all of their subjects wear headphones, listen to a string of nonsense syllables, and count how many times a certain syllable was repeated. At random intervals, nonsense static would play. Then, in the second part of the task, the subjects were asked to listen a similar recording while watching an ever increasing number of yellow circles appear on a screen in front of them. The goal was to figure out which sound caused the next yellow circle to appear before thirty-one circles appeared on the screen. Surprisingly, the subjects varied wildly in their ability to complete the exercise (some even didn’t). The trick in the second exercise was that the random static from the first recording was actually the sound that caused the next circle to appear. Some people had such a well-functioning gate that once their brains dismissed the static as irrelevant, it never entered their conscious perception again. What was especially interesting was that the experiment found that people with the highest IQs had the highest functioning gate, which makes sense. The brain only has a certain amount of processing power, and when you’re problem solving you don’t want to waste that processing power on irrelevant information, and if you have a high IQ, you’re good at problem solving because that’s what classic IQ tests measure.
            From questions asked prior to the testing, Carson’s group quickly realized that the participants who performed exceptionally well on the tests were the ones with the highest creativity, and they decided that, “decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals. (Carson, Peterson, and Higgins, The Title of Their Paper – like I said, neuroscientists don’t have much of an imagination –).
            Like I mentioned earlier, Kaufman ran the same study again in 2009, except this time he had a different set of questions. He found that faith in intuition, creative achievement, and a leaky preconscious gate were all incredibly strongly related. He also noticed that everyone seemed to fall differently on his scale of rational thinking to faith in intuition, hinting to him that there was something deeper at work here.          
            For a long time, neuroscientists have studied two major patterns of activation probably found in all our brains: the Default Network and the Executive Attention Network (but, because I consider myself an imaginative fledgling neuroscientist, I’m going to call them Dreamer and Problem Solver respectively.) Because these were enterprising, logical, rational scientists, they mostly focused on studying Problem Solver, and labeled Dreamer the ‘Default Network,’ hinting that “it’s just default; it doesn’t really matter; why should we pay attention to it?”
            In 2010, Kaufman set out to study Dreamer more closely, and he specifically wanted to study a concept called implicit learning. Implicit learning is basically unconscious learning. It’s learning that takes place without involving the regions of our prefrontal cortex (the regions directly behind our forehead that are usually associated with conscious thought). In his study, he tested both his subject’s implicit learning and their working memory. What he found was that openness to experience (and faith in intuition) was extremely closely connected with implicit learning while intellect (and rational thinking) were extremely closely connected with working memory.
            So, what are Dreamer and Problem Solver? How do they relate to all this? As I mentioned earlier, Dreamer and Problem Solver are widely considered to be the two major patterns of neuron activation in the brain. They’re coterminous, which means they both interact with the same areas of the brain, however, one is always dominant, and they switch which one of them has control based on what one happens to be doing. They both interact with the neocortex (a fancy neuroscience word for “new (evolutionary-wise) brain matter.” It’s widely considered that an enlarged neocortex is one of the main differences between our brain and a monkey’s brain and is one of the main things that makes us human.)
Dreamer is active while we’re asleep (doesn’t the name make so much more sense than ‘Default Network?’.) It’s also active when we’re day-dreaming, and the first neuroscientists who studied it noticed that it was active whenever we were not actively working on a project (hence the original name.) However, Dreamer is so much more than just the Default Network. As Kaufman found, it’s also the network that is in some way responsible for our intuition, our ability to see patterns we could never discover logically, some part of our social ability, our ability to appreciate beauty, our creativity, and probably so much more. (Like flow or the ability to share knowledge between frameworks of thought, but Kaufman didn’t study those, so I can’t give him credit.)
To its credit, Problem Solver is just as essential to our lives. It’s what we consider our rational mind. It finds answers. Solves problems. Discusses philosophy. It’s the mind we’ve spent decades of our life training behind desks of ever increasing sizes. It’s literally the mind the runs the world. (Having had some experience in politics, I can tell you that the only thing the leaders of the world do is solve problems. It’s one thing after another for as long as you hold office, and if you’re ever day-dreaming at the wrong time, people could die.) That being said, it’s also the only mind we’ve ever had tested. The only mind we’ve been told that really matters. The mind that either gets us into college or doesn’t, regardless of any other skills we might have. In short, it’s the mind we classically think of as our brain because it’s the mind most neuroscientists have studied.
But not all! In 2008, Charles Limb (a self-proclaimed music nerd) wanted to study what our brains looked like when we were improvising music. Because not everyone can improvise music well (it’s shocking; I know), he sought out a number of talented musicians and stuck them in an MRI machine to study their brains while they were both improvising and playing prepared pieces. What he found probably wouldn’t surprise you: “Essentially,” Limb says, “the musician shuts down his (or her) inhibitions and lets his inner voice shine through.” But, what does this mean neurologically? Well, it means that the musician’s lateral prefrontal cortex and the majority of their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (among others) were under-activated and their medial prefrontal cortex, their left inferior prefrontal gyrus and their precuneus area (among others) became super activated. What does that mean in normal English?

Image courtesy of Limb, Braun, Greene
 is one of the images Dr. Limb found. The blue areas are under-activations during improvisation, – a decent map of Problem Solver – and the reddish orange areas are the heightened activations during improvisation – a somewhat less decent map of Dreamer. – Specifically, the medial prefrontal cortex is the area of reddish orange at the far left of the image – towards the front of the brain – that looks like two upside down cows. The dorsal prefrontal cortex is the large blue area above that. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the portion of reddish orange closest to the cows – the one that looks like a mushroom tilted to the right – (and the large areas of blue activation around it). The precuneus area is the area of orange that looks like a fat dragon with really stubby wings and no legs right next to the cap of the mushroom. The left inferior prefrontal gyrus is basically the area of nothing between the mushroom and the cows. Why are their Neuroscience names so similar and confusing? Because neuroscientists are paranoid wizards. They don’t want anyone else to understand their magic.
            What’s super interesting is that the blue in this picture usually turns red when someone is being rational and solving problems. What’s even more interesting is that (according to research so far) this map is fairly similar (although there are some key differences – namely the inferior prefrontal gyrus –) no matter what type of improvisation or creation a person happens to be doing. (It’s worth reiterating here that all of our brain is active all the time. These ‘heat maps’ are found by taking a number of trial runs over a long period of time with a lot of subjects. It’s these areas of the brain that were consistently over and under activated across mostly everyone in the trails. In the same way that everyone is different, everyone’s brain is wired differently, which, if you believe in the God Neuroscience is the reason all of us are different.)
              What does all this mean? As hinted at earlier, the orange spots could be considered our ‘inner voice’ and the blue spots could be considered our inhibitory mechanisms. (A more creative-first way of looking at Dreamer and Problem Solver.) But, what do each of these orange spots do? How do they connect to the whole? What’s their function?
            The spot right below and including the cows is considered the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (we’ll call in Emotion Regulator for short) and it’s one of my favorite parts of the brain. Emotion Regulator is one of the parts of the brain that neuroscientists think is responsible for our sense of self and it’s the part of the brain where our own emotions are mixed with our logical judgement. Without it, we don’t seem to realize that our actions impact ourselves. Phineas Gage, the man who put a large metal rod through his head and lived, damaged this specific part of his brain and no longer had the ability to make (as my mom would say) “good choices with his life.” Logically, he still knew what he should do, but there was no mechanism connecting that logic with his actions, so he ended up acting incredibly impulsively. 
 Emotion Regulator also has numerous ties to the amygdala (the fear center of our brain; we’ll call it Fear for short), and is strongly suspected to have implications for patients with PTSD. In the brains of patients with PTSD, Fear is enlarged (both literally and metaphorically) and Emotion Regulator is shrunk. In other words, the mechanism that regulates strong emotional response is almost completely lost in patients with PTSD, which is one of the reasons why PTSD is such a difficult problem to solve. Emotion Regulator is also thought to have strong inhibitory ties to the limbic system (the areas of the brain that connect and form our emotions), as well as being involved in the process of extinction (unlearning behavior), and the processing of gender-specific social cues (basically, being able to quickly discern if someone is male or female.) 
Image courtesy of
            The precuneus area (Remembered Self for short) is probably the least well studied part of the brain. Because of its location towards the back of the brain (as shown on the picture to the right) it’s rarely damaged and it doesn’t seem to be the site of many strokes for some reason. (Which is why we don’t know much about it. Our greatest source of information about the brain is often inferred when parts of the brain are damaged.) According to recent studies, it is that it is the most active part of the brain when we’re asleep (and hypnotized) and is generally considered by many to be Dreamer’s central hub. When we are awake, it seems to have a major role in episodic memory (“memories of ourselves” in other words.) Remembered Self also plays a role in visual imaging and may be the part of the brain that helps coordinate what our visual system sees and how our motor system reacts. It’s hyper-active when we are thinking about ourselves and how we’re different/similar to others, and it might be an integral part of our imagination.
Image courtesy of Schlegal, et al.
            To the right, you can see a picture of our brain while it’s imagining. Peter Schlegel and a group of neuroscientists he worked with at Dartmouth in 2013 discovered it. They were studying what they called a “mental workspace.” The general thought behind the name and their experiment was that people work in their minds all the time, and Schlegel and company managed to find what our brains look like while we’re doing that.
Notice how Remembered Self (the precuneus area; it’s green in the picture) is hyperactive, as is almost all of the occipital lobe (the red part at the back of the brain, which is the part of our brain devoted to understanding and breaking down visual information. This high activation makes sense because you have to visualize what you’re working on in order to work on it.) Also notice how Emotion Regulator (our ventral medial prefrontal cortex) is barely active while our right precentral gyrus (Spoken Self, in light blue) is fairly active.  
Earlier, I talked about the left Spoken Self and how it was super active in jazz improvisation. In some rare cases, like one of the musicians Dr. Limb studied, both Spoken Selves are active during improvisation, however, this isn’t usually the case. (It’s worth mentioning here that the areas of the brain are usually symmetrical and if one half is active then the other half is active. However, this isn’t always true. – Which gave rise to the idea in popular culture that people can be ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained.’ This idea is largely inaccurate, but it does have some basis in reality. – The most notable exception to the “both halves fire similarly rule” is our language area in our left hemisphere (very rarely, it’s the right hemisphere in left-handed people.) It’s widely thought that our left hemisphere is the half that processes language, and the corresponding locations in the right hemisphere control our emotional sensitivity to other people – being able to distinguish tone of voice, body language, etc. – What all this means is that the right and left Spoken Selves have different functions. More so than pretty much any other pair in the brain.)
One really cool thing about Dr. Limb’s research is that he basically proved that our brain processes music as a language. Which is fascinating! It means that music actually speaks to you and, more specifically, speaks directly to your emotions. Because each individual note or harmony isn’t an understandable word, your brain never sends it through its language processors, so music bypasses almost every cultural or linguistic barrier we have and can be understood emotionally by everyone. (I say ‘almost’ because of a conversation I had with Eric Wiertelak, the professor who I’m originally writing this piece for. I told him about this idea, – which I had before I started doing the research that led me to Dr. Limb – and he reminded me that nothing the brain does occurs in a vacuum. You always bring your cultural upbringing (your values, previous ideas, memories, etc.) to everything you think about. That’s why no two people experience a song the same way. They might feel similar emotions, but it’s never the same.)     
            The specific area of the brain Dr. Limb studied was left Spoken Self, as shown by the picture 
Image courtesy of
to the right. This area (which neuroscientists know better as Broca’s area) is widely thought to control the meaning of words, the motor sequences used to produce those words, and, as we now know, jazz improvisation and the muscle movements necessary to produce it. It’s also one of the prime candidates for the ‘seat of consciousness’ mantle. Various neuroscientists have said that our consciousness developed as our ability to communicate effectively developed. (It’s one of the biggest differences between us and monkeys, after all.) They’ve said that as we became more communicative as a species, it created an increased need to understand our potential mates, which then led to an increased ability to understand ourselves. Because everything was originally tied to communication, some evolutionary-minded neuroscientists have said that left Spoken Self is really what makes us us.  
            There is even research into split-brained individuals that supports this idea. Split-brained people have had their corpus colosseum (a huge collection of neuron fibers that connect the two halves of the brain) severed. The hemispheres of these patents are thus unable to communicate with each other, and there is evidence to suggest that patients are not conscious of anything their right hemisphere is thinking. (If you’re interested in learning more, there was a really good paper written by Gonzalo Munevar. His work is titled “The Myth of Dual Consciousness in the Split Brain.” Unfortunately, it’s written in Neuroscience, but that can’t usually be helped. For some reason, scientists – and academics in general – really love making simple ideas utterly nonsensical to the ‘average’ person. I think it might be because they want to think they’re smart. It’s a confidence thing. – In all seriousness, I think it’s actually because it’s easier. Once you know the language, it feels much more natural to use the words because they’re more precise than words ‘average’ people understand. Like I mentioned earlier, “patterns of activation” is much more nuanced than “neurons responsible for,” but it’s not a collection of words a non-neuro person would easily understand. –)
             What about right Spoken Self? What can she do? If you go back to the rainbow colored picture Schlegel & Co. found, you’ll see that the left light blue Spoken Self is less active than the right light blue Spoken Self.  This probably means that the right side is more active when we’re imagining things. As I talked about earlier, it’s also active when we’re trying to understand other’s tone and body language. What’s really cool is that (depending on which scientist you ask) tone and body language make up anywhere from 80 to 93% of our understanding of another, showing how dramatically important this area is for communication.  
Oliver Sacks, (who’s probably my current favorite neuroscientist; he wrote “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat;” who wouldn’t want to read that?) wrote about patients who had lost all of their ability to understand spoken words. However, their right Spoken Selves were perfectly functional and they never really had any major problems in conversation. In fact, it was often difficult to fully diagnose their problem because the rest of their brain was so good at covering for it. Amazing, isn’t it? If there’s one book I could recommend to anyone interested in neuro (but who doesn’t speak Neuroscience), it would be that book.
Oliver Sacks mostly studied patients who had some form of abnormality, so what are some ways that the creative process can go wrong? Schizophrenia (which is different from multiple personality disorder) is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and a lack of interest in the “real” world. It’s widely considered that people with schizophrenia have faulty gating mechanisms, which leads to poorly timed firing of the part of the brain that controls pleasurable response. This leads to the reinforcement of “strange” behavior. – Or, as neuroscientists like to say: “There was increased dopaminergic activity in the ventral tegmental area, which caused increased and abnormally timed innervation of the nucleus accumbens.” – Why do they use such big, arcane words? Because 90% of being a successful scientist is sounding smart. If you sound smart, people believe you. I’m still not sure why.)
What’s especially interesting about schizophrenia is that it (like almost every mental illness) is a spectral disease (which means it exists along a spectrum; picture a square mile area of pure white fading into an area of jet black; no matter where you stand in that square mile, the color will never be the exact same.) One of the coolest things I learned in my first neuro class was that we all have schizophrenia. We all have “abnormal” little ticks, quirks, and strange habits that no one else has. They’re what make us unique. One could say that they make us normal. (Our abnormalities are the very things that make us normal. Isn’t that an interesting idea?) The problems come when these abnormalities interfere with our ability to be productive members of society, which, in a very literal way, means that our society and culture determine whether or not we “have” a mental illness. Pretty cool, right?
Throughout the years, a number of highly creative people have had problems with mental illness. Nancy Andreasen, whom I quoted earlier, spent a long time running a study trying to find out if there really was a relationship between mental disturbances and creativity. In her own words (from a great article in The Atlantic), “A full 80 percent of them (creative people she had studied) had had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group (noncreative people).” What Andreasen doesn’t talk about is whether or not their mood disturbances could have caused their creativity (rather than it being the other way around, as she seems to suggest). I know from personal experience that it’s usually the most emotionally traumatic events in my life that have led to both the largest creative outbursts and the most noticeable changes in the way I think. It makes a lot of sense that the brain would be fundamentally changed by an emotionally traumatic event. Like most things, the reality is probably somewhere in between and many more things than we are aware of play a factor.
Edgar Allen Poe, who probably had bipolar illness, wrote it best in Eleonora,
 “Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence – whether much that is glorious – whether all that is profound – does not spring from the disease of thought – from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in waking, to find that they have been upon the verge of a great secret.”

Okay. Let’s take a step back for a second. What does all this Problem Solver/Dreamer magic really mean? It’s really cool; it has a boat-load of implications for pretty much everything, but how does it relate to daily life? The most natural connection can be made to education. One of Kaufman’s best ideas is his new theory of intelligence, which could potentially revolutionize the way we educate people. In his own words: “Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and ability in pursuit of personal goals.” This theory puts engagement on the same level as talent, which makes an incredible amount of sense when I use Dreamer and think about my own life.
When I went back to my old high school this past week, I had a long conversation with my old Forensics (speech and debate; not dead bodies) coach. I told her about what I was working on now and told her both about Kaufman’s ideas and about Dreamer and Problem Solver. She was fascinated and reminded me of one of the kids I used to know in high school. He’s not very academically smart. At all. He had an incredibly tough time learning even basic algebra and most other similar subjects in school. However, he has an incredible vault of farming knowledge. She told me a story of a conversation her husband had with him, and her husband was blown away by how quickly, easily, and effortlessly the kid talked about every aspect of farming (where, when, and how to plow various fields, which individual model of tractor to use for what job, and how he seemed to have a photographic memory of each field he’d ever worked on.) We both agreed it was amazing.
I was also struck when I went back by how active kid’s Dreamer networks are. (Anyone who’s spent any time with kids will know what I’m talking about.) For fun, I hung out with my old Biology teacher for a couple periods and interacted with a couple of his classes. The first was his Seventh grade class who were creating a script for a play they were going to put on about Gregor Mendel’s work in genetics (he’s the pea-plant guy who discovered dominant and recessive traits among a whole host of other things). To entertain me, he had me work with one of his groups, “You’re a Creative Writing major. Help them write these.”
If only it was that simple. In fifteen minutes of conversation with them, I probably directed their attention back to the project six or seven times, and at the end of it I still wasn’t sure what the assignment was. What I did realize, however, was how effortlessly and creatively these little people made connections. Because my teacher had mentioned the idea of a college major, a girl in my group said this after about five seconds, “If people under 18 are called minors, why aren’t older people called majors?” I smiled and said, “I have no idea. It makes perfect sense.” She nodded. “I asked my mom the same question last night, but she just yelled at me for asking stupid questions.” Then, she went back to working as though nothing had happened. Damn adults. I thought. Why are some of them such bad parents?  
A little while later, I asked them if they had started studying skin pigments (which are controlled by a number of different genes; it’s the next step in the lesson). They said “no” and I told them there were a number of different genes that control the production of melanin, high levels of which cause darker skin. A Person of Color has pale palms because human palms don’t produce any melanin. “What about our lips?” The same girl asked. “Why are they red?” “You know, I have no idea.” She nodded, then went on to something else. Apparently, things like this happen to her a lot.
What’s really interesting is that everyone else in the group expected her to do all the work, like kids will almost always do when one of them doesn’t mind (or wants) to do it. In addition to having one of the most active Dreamers, so also apparently had one of the most active Problem Solvers. In all fairness, she’s probably one of the top kids in her class, and the chances of her going unnoticed are fairly slim, but that doesn’t change the fact that some people were actively discouraging her curiosity and possibly damaging her desire to keep learning. Something I find inexcusable. 
What’s even more interesting was the comparison between those seventh graders and the two seniors who came in for AP Bio the next period. (I’m from a small, rural town, which explains both the farming and the tiny class sizes.) Both of them were run-down. Tired. It’s clear they were motivated, but it was also clear they were feeling overwhelmed by all the problems they were being asked to solve. They had a test next Monday, and because there were only two of them, my Biology teacher just had them ask him any questions they wanted to. Between the four of us, we managed to figure out pretty much everything in the chapter. (It was amazing how quickly my brain fell back into its AP Bio pattern. I hadn’t thought about any of it in two years.) At the end of the hour, I was struck by how similar this conversation had felt like so many I’d had back at Macalester (my college). The topic was different, but it had the same exhausted, I’m-going-to-force-myself-to-learn-this-even-though-my-brain-is-so-tired feeling. I thought about telling them to take a nap, but then I remembered this was their senior year of high school and they were taking difficult classes. You don’t have time for naps. Or day-dreaming. Just school. Homework. College applications. A couple extracurricular activities. It’s a lot like college, actually. Only you have less control over your schedule and the classes are easier.
So, how can we solve these problems? How do we make our children the most well-rounded little people they can possibly be? How can we make ourselves the most well-rounded big people we can possibly be? There’re no hard answers for these questions, and each person’s answer will be different. I suppose answer to the last question is to take time for yourself. The only way you can find true happiness is if you know what you want to do with your life. Then, you have to go out and do it. I know it sounds too simple and I know you’re thinking “it’s much more difficult than that,” but very few things are impossible if you’re creative and keep solving the problems that get in your way.

As for the children? Let them be kids. Let them run around. Let them ask silly questions. It’s their nature to dream, so let them do it and don’t force them into any boxes. They’ll have plenty of time when they’re older to figure out what box they fit in. Let them think outside them for a while.  

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Empathy, Existentialism, and Penises

            There were a number of quite interesting ideas brought up in our readings for Dance and The Brain this week, “Man Has Always Danced” and “Existential Fit and Evolutionary Communities.” The basic idea behind both readings was that dance has been a special part of human existence for as long as we’ve been human, and it’s rather strange that various disciplines (namely philosophy) haven’t studied it closer. “Man Has Always Danced” specifically talked about how members of both genders from many species will move their bodies to attract mates. One specific example talked about was the ‘swagger’ male chimpanzees display by standing upright, swaying back and forth, and displaying their erect penis for every chimp to see.
            “Existential Fit and Evolutionary Communities” focused around the ways humans are unique (or at least different from other animals), and that’s where I want to start my discussion. From reading this piece and living twenty years of life, I’ve come to the conclusion that the thing that separates us from every other animal is our mental complexity. It’s not our opposable thumbs or our upright posture (why some scientists think it might be is beyond me; frankly, I think the notion that our up-rightness makes us human is absurd). This desire for complexity manifests itself in a number of ways in our society. For instance, if any human male decided to copy a chimp’s courtship ritual, he would be shunned by the world’s female population. They would find it disgusting and brutish. Not at all something a human would do.
            “Existential Fit and Evolutionary Communities” spent the last half of itself discussing a much more creative (and empathetic, but I’ll get to that later) approach to thinking dancing by comparing it to love-making. The basic idea was that in both activities, the participants are completely focused on their bodies and how they connect with one another. Obviously, there were some key differences between the two, but the similarities brought up were quite interesting. Here are some brief excerpts, “Lovemaking is a certain way of being a body in the world,” and “The experience of radical pleasure of the flesh can be understood only in the light of a body made for touching and being touched.” Both of these ideas seem almost anti-philosophy in some sense (if one takes philosophy to be pure thinking), which creates a cool contrast between the first half of the piece and the second. So, to make this response more interesting, I’m going to copy that idea.

            What is empathy?; empathy is feeling your body; it’s taking a deep breath and holding it for five heartbeats; it’s letting your mind wander to all the things it likes wandering to; your friends, family, lover, food, an interesting idea you came across in the Scientific American blog yesterday, a beautiful painting you saw last week while you went shopping with your husband; it’s letting that breath out; feeling your chest sink in; then feeling your ribcage expand; it’s taking a second to look around yourself; what color are the walls?; are there any walls?; is there a chair near-by?; are you sitting in it?; empathy is taking a couple minutes to think about what you truly want; if you could have anything in the world right now, what would it be?; something practical?; something physical?; something emotional?; is there someone you really enjoy spending time with?; your lover?; have you taken the time to appreciate your lover recently?; but maybe, like me, you don’t have one; maybe you feel an emptiness inside of you that you can’t explain; maybe you feel hollow; or maybe you feel whole; you have important people in your life; they love you; care for you; have you told them you appreciate them?; have you taken the time to dance with them?; tell them you love them?; but they’re just your friends; you can’t love your friends, right?; why not?; you care about them; they care about you; no one has ever said love is exclusively for lovers; no one has ever said you can’t feel their body against yours when you give them a hug; human contact is a wonderful thing; human relationships are wonderful things; empathy is knowing that; it’s also feeling free to disagree; sometimes (maybe always) you don’t like to hug people; maybe some of your friends are strange, but maybe some strangers might also be your friends one day; empathy is seeing the humans all around you; it’s trying on their shoes occasionally; just to see how they fit; are they too loose?; too tight?; the wrong color?; maybe these people think differently than you; can you accept that?; respectfully disagree?; but maybe some people are wrong; maybe some are evil; should that stop you from stepping into their shoes?; what is evil, anyway?; who decides is?; empathy is not knowing; it’s never knowing; never being sure; it’s having doubts, fears, insecurities; empathy is recognizing these things; it’s knowing everyone else goes through these things too; it’s part of life; part of being human.