Neuroscience Sheds New Light on Creativity

By | May 28, 2009

Neuroscience 2Close your eyes and visualize the sun setting over a beach.

How detailed was your image? Did you envision a bland orb sinking below calm waters, or did you call up an image filled with activity — palm trees swaying gently, waves lapping at your feet, perhaps a loved one holding your hand?

Now imagine you’re standing on the surface of Pluto. What would a sunset look like from there? Notice how hard you had to work to imagine this

scene. Did you picture a featureless ball of ice with the sun a speck of light barely brighter than a star along the horizon? Did you envision frozen lakes of exotic chemicals or icy fjords glimmering in the starlight?

What you conjured illuminates how our brains work, why it can be so hard to come up with new ideas — and how you can rewire your mind to open up the holy grail of creativity. Recent advances in neuroscience, driven by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that lets scientists watch brain activity as never before, have changed what we know about key attributes of creativity. These advances, for example, have swept away the idea that there is a pleasure center in the brain that somehow acts as an accelerator to the engine of human behavior. Rather, chemicals such as dopamine shuttle between neurons in ways that look remarkably like the calculations modern robots perform.

Creativity and imagination begin with perception. Neuroscientists have come to realize that how you perceive something isn’t simply a product of what your eyes and ears transmit to your brain. It’s a product of your brain itself. And iconoclasts, a class of people I define as those who do something that others say can’t be done — think Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or Florence Nightingale — see things differently. Literally. Some iconoclasts are born that way, but we all can learn how to see things not for what they are, but for what they might be.

Perception and imagination are linked because the brain uses the same neural circuits for both functions. Imagination is like running perception in reverse. The reason it’s so difficult to imagine truly novel ideas has to do with how the brain interprets signals from your eyes. The images that strike your retina do not, by themselves, tell you with certainty what you are seeing. Visual perception is largely a result of statistical expectations, the brain’s way of explaining ambiguous visual signals in the most likely way. And the likelihood of these explanations is a direct result of past experience.

Entire books have been written about learning, but the important elements for creative thinkers can be boiled down to this: Experience modifies the connections between neurons so that they become more efficient at processing information. Neuroscientists have observed that while an entire network of neurons might process a stimulus initially, by about the sixth presentation, the heavy lifting is performed by only a subset of neurons. Because fewer neurons are being used, the network becomes more efficient in carrying out its function.

The brain is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat. It doesn’t want to waste energy. That’s why there is a striking lack of imagination in most people’s visualization of a beach sunset.

via Neuroscience Sheds New Light on Creativity – Rewiring the Creative Mind | Fast Company.

Why waste mental energy with an elaborate sunset visualization? If my sunset has ships in the distance, shooting starts and an evil jazz musician on a flaming pie, does that mean I have too much brain energy?

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