Creativity is one of the most fascinating topics in the area of Neuroscience. It has generated a number of books, including a two-volume Encyclopedia, and countless essays. The amount of information available has now become enormously large, and continues to grow at an exponential rate: yet, gaps in our understanding of the process are still conspicuously evident. The book by Elkhonon Goldberg (Creativity: The Human Brain in the Age of Innovation, Oxford University Press, 2018) is unique in ways more than one: it fills many of the gaps, and it has the additional merit of being written in a particularly attractive way: the author is not only a first class Neuroscientist, he is evidently also gifted with the special talent that only born writers have.
Research on creativity has variously focused on its manifold aspects: psychological, humanitarian, socio-cultural, cognitive, evolutionary, pathological. Neuroanatomical and neurophysiological aspects have naturally also been considered: after all, no matter how one looks at the topic, creativity is the product of the activity of the brain. Surprisingly, however, in depth and comprehensive studies of brain anatomy (including microanatomy), and physiology are very scarce. This is why the book of Goldberg is uniquely important: it deals masterfully with the multifarious aspects of the creativity knowledge, but the background leitmotiv, sometimes overt, other times hidden, always is the anatomy and the physiology of the brain. No other contribution, to my knowledge, be it a book or a massive reviews, offers such a solid and all pervasive “brain” foundation for the development of ideas and propositions on creativity.
Take for instance the matter of the functional specialization of the two brain hemispheres: as expected, the book does justice to the once popular concept of the strict division of tasks between the two brain hemispheres: others have done it too, but the way Goldberg does it is the most comprehensive and detailed I could find in the literature. It provides very detailed evidence for the cooperation of the two hemisphere in the process of creativity, obviously disposing of the old dogma that the left hemisphere is the master, and the right hemisphere the obedient slave that only expresses creativity when it somehow manages to escape the domineering negative influence of the master. In the end, the painstaking analysis of connections, networks, and mutual influences leads to the objective conclusion that yes, the left is the rational hemisphere, and the right the creative hemisphere. We knew it already? Yes, but now we have the necessary experimental evidence to say it with all possible confidence. And perhaps, at the end of the game we could even afford to retain with the author some grains of the old discredited idea of the negative influence of the left hemisphere on the creativity of the right one: he says that, at least for certain tasks, the capacity of the right hemisphere to generate novel content “may benefit from liberating it from the stifling impact of the left hemisphere”….
Goldberg obviously loves the prefrontal cortex, which is the anatomical and functional protagonist of the book: he involves it in practically all discussions , including those not immediately related to creativity. But the book has a number of other important general points that are, in a sense, preliminary messages that the author shares with the reader to help him frame the more technical matters in the right perspective. One , right at the outset, is the declaration that creativity is a two-sided process: its generation by the creative individual, and its fruition by the consumer. I.e. the brain mechanisms involved, for instance, in creating a symphony and those involved in its appreciation are the same. A second “preliminary” point which the author also introduces at the very outset, and to which he insistently returns throughout the book, is the culture-dependence of creativity: or rather, more generally, of cognitive skills and habits. Later in the book the author adds details to the concept, even using the famous metaphor that important discoveries, i.e., acts of creativity, are made by individuals who stand on the shoulders of giants. To put it differently, creativity does not appear out of the blue. It is the obligatory expression of a cultural milieu in which the creative individual operates and which he owns. The idea is echoed by the famous statement of a famous photographer, maybe he was Robert Capa, who had said that in principle anybody could shoot the perfect photograph; as a rule, however, the person who does it is the professional photographer.
Then, and this is perhaps the most important preliminary point, there is the attempted definition of creativity: for the author, creativity is inexorably linked to novelty. Throughout the book novelty seeking and creativity are used interchangeably (only in later portions of the book some sort of distinction is attempted, when the author says that creativity is a more complex multidimensional construct than novelty seeking).. Understanding the brain machinery of novelty seeking is a crucial step toward understanding creativity. The point is important, because it generates conclusions of general significance, e.g. on the “negative” personality of creative individuals, on the “divergent thinking” and the attraction to novelty as a prerequisite of creativity. Interestingly, however, the emphasis on novelty seeking is tempered by a caveat: novelty seeking must stem from the recognition of established knowledge. Which is another way of saying that novelty is OK, it must be ahead of established thinking, but not too much ahead of it. Anything in creativity that is totally new is probably wrong. Goldberg insists on it, particularly in the discussion of creativity in scientific discoveries.
The discussions and conclusions on anatomy and microanatomy, on circuitry and connections, and on the two way activator and inhibitory influences are the man corpus of the book, and set it apart from all other contribution on creativity. However, the book also deals with other general points related to the mechanism and properties of the process. One is the lateralization of the brain activities , the importance of which is underscored by its presence even in organisms that are evolutionarily very distant from humans. Another is the well supported relationship between creativity and brain connectivity: to put it in simplified words, creative individuals have highly interconnected brains. Classical work had already shown that split brain patients have low creativity, but the book shows that increased connectivity involves more than the simple interhemispheric communication: it involves the ability of diverse brain regions to interact and cooperate. Still another conclusion of the book, a negative one in this case, is that creativity cannot be attributed to a single brain structure. The frontal lobes are certainly essential, and the prefrontal cortex pays a critical role. But even the prefrontal cortex, the darling of the author, is not the only player: to the point that Goldberg even warns against the “frontal idolatry”!
The book devotes ample space to the genetic basis of creativity, mentioning the numerous multigenerational families in which famously creative individuals have appeared with high frequency. These individuals, however, have acquired different types of prominence, for instance even as politicians. Even if their “creativity” must be considered with a grain of salt, it has nevertheless generated the idea that exceptional abilities could be inherited.
Coming to creativity proper, Goldberg describes in some detail the recent attempts to identify candidate genes that could control it, but warns that creativity is a complex multidirectional construct, and concludes that it would be naïve to expect it to be linked to a single gene or enzyme, in what he defines a “royal road” to creativity. The discussion of creativity genes leads him to discuss the interesting topic of axonal myelination and the genes that control it, which he considers a promising future path in the search for factors on the inheritance of creativity.
A particularly lively portion of the book deals with the cognitive skills of primates and other animals: the amazing abilities of Koko the gorilla and his mother Matata, of Chantek the orangutan, of Kanzi the bonobo and his vocabulary of 384 lexigrams, had been described by others, but Goldberg extends the discussion to the skills of other animals, from parrots to porpoises, and does it in a very entertaining way, concluding that we humans are not alone in displaying a range of individual differences in cognition. He even goes back to the metaphor that in producing cognition feats animals “stand on the shoulders of other”: meaning that the contact with human culture alters their behavior and even impacts their sense of self.
Toward the end, the book offers a very interesting discussion of creativity and intelligence, and of the concept of “divergent thinking”, i.e., the response to questions with no obvious, singular answers, as the hallmark of creativity. Divergent thinking and the tests to judge it have become popular, but consensus among creativity researchers, including Goldberg, is now growing that they are not valid measures of creativity. Goldberg colors the discussion of divergent thinking with the amusing logarithmic scale of productivity and creativity that the great physicist Landau had applied to some of his important physics fellows, and quotes extensively the discussion on the matter he had made in one of his previous books.