Creativity and Human Brain

The new book of Elkhonon Goldberg
Read time: 8 mins

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.


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