Nancy Andreasen on Secrets of the Creative Brain

I read an excellent article in The Atlantic today, by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, in which she details her life-long study of trying to understand where creativity comes from, and why some people have that spark of genius and others don’t. For example, does a higher IQ prove more conducive to creativity, or does it not matter? Does upbringing – nurture over nature – play a bigger role? Do exceptionally creative people have a family history of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia or depression?

Nancy is still in the process of conducting her research with exceptional individuals, so this article serves as a mid-way discussion around what has been learned so far, and what questions are arising. Her article is fascinating in parts; below I’ve copied some of the key pieces.

One finding that emerged quickly was that being the youngest student in a grade was an excellent predictor of having a high IQ. (This is worth bearing in mind today, when parents sometimes choose to hold back their children precisely so they will not be the youngest in their grades.)

recorded how many books they’d read during the past two months, as well as the number of books available in their homes (the latter number ranged from zero to 6,000, with a mean of 328).

I’ve heard it said before that the amount of books a child has access to in their home (importantly, not anywhere else), is a predictor of excellence and creativity later on in life. Also coupled with this is the way parents regard reading as something important to set time aside for.

Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

Malcolm Gladwell also discusses this theory in Outliers, where he likens it to a basketball team – you have to be somewhat tall to play at the highest level, but over a certain height, it no longer matters how tall, other factors become far more important. Similarly, IQ is only one simple measure of ability, over a certain score (that of somebody who can study at college level) IQ becomes largely irrelevant – see his example of the smartest guy in the world, Chris Langan.

…creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see.

My individual jewels so far include, among others, the filmmaker George Lucas, the mathematician and Fields Medalist William Thurston, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jane Smiley, and six Nobel laureates from the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine.

Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.

Many creative people are polymaths, people with broad interests in many fields—a common trait among my study subjects.

The area of polymaths interests me. Those individuals that can master multiple disciplines, and produce high quality output in them, not just learn them. Bertrand Russell, Da Vinci, and Descartes are fascinating examples.

One thing I’ve learned from this line of questioning is that creative people work much harder than the average person—and usually that’s because they love their work.

One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.

As for how these ideas emerge, almost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed—during that state we called REST. “A lot of it happens when you are doing one thing and you’re not thinking about what your mind is doing,” one of the artists in my study told me. “I’m either watching television, I’m reading a book, and I make a connection … It may have nothing to do with what I am doing, but somehow or other you see something or hear something or do something, and it pops that connection together.”

Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings. Famously, three Silicon Valley creative geniuses have been college dropouts: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own.

Many creative people are polymaths, as historic geniuses including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were.

The arts and the sciences are seen as separate tracks, and students are encouraged to specialize in one or the other. If we wish to nurture creative students, this may be a serious error.

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