Neuroscience and Creativity

Susan Greenfield 2011 keynote presentation at the “Mind and Its Potential” conference delved into “the neuroscience of creativity”.

Creativity is defined by Bronowski as “the ability to find unity in what appears to be diversity” or stated in another way, “finding the thread that unites” (Science and human values, New York: Harper and Row, 1972). As per Heilman K. M. creativity can be defined as “the new discovery or understanding, development, and expression of orderly relationships” (2005, Creativity and the brain. New York: Psychology Press; Division of Taylor and Frances Books).

Dr. Greenfield is a scientist best known for her research on neurodegenerative disorders and her efforts to popularize understanding of brain mechanisms through public appearances and writings.

She notes that digital technology is affecting cognition – the screen culture is leading to shorter attention spans and reduced empathy and recklessness.

Indeed, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has stated, “I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information … is, in fact, affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that …”

While discussing the interplay of genetics and environment in creativity, Greenfield stressed the role of plasticity and multiplying neuronal connections as a way of understanding the world.

According to Greenfield, the creative process involves “deconstruct[ing] abstract sensations” and making “unusual associations”, resulting in something that is meaningful to yourself or others, whereas developing a sense of identity is a good way to build up creativity.

As per Kenneth M. Heilman “creative people are more than curious. Curious people do search and discover, but creative people are discovering and also developing that which is new and different”. They are novelty seekers.

In terms of neuroscience and neurophysiology, recent work has linked oxytocin in humans to creative cognition, whereas Heilman KM, Nadeau SE and Beversdorf DO suggest that “low levels of norepinephrine shift the brain toward intrinsic neuronal activation”.

According to these authors most likely the brains of creative people “are capable of storing extensive specialized knowledge in their temporoparietal cortex, be capable of frontal mediated divergent thinking and have a special ability to modulate the frontal lobe-locus coeruleus (norepinephrine) system, such that during creative innovation cerebral levels of norepinephrine diminish, leading to the discovery of novel orderly relationships”.

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