The neuroscience of creativity
Susan Greenfield is a scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords. She was also a keynote at last year’s Mind & Its Potential conference where she presented on this very subject, framing her talk around four specific questions: Is our creativity genetically determined? What happens in the brain during the creative process? How can we maximise the opportunities for creativity? How can we develop a sense of creativity?
Is our creativity genetically determined?
Greenfield tells us our genes are important but they’re not the whole story and that environment plays a key role. Not only that, we have the superlative ability to adapt to our environment, a state of affairs known as brain plasticity.
The upshot is that each and every one of us has our own unique configuration of brain cell connections shaped by our individual experiences, which in turn are driven by mental processes. “The critical issue is not the contraction of the muscle, it’s the thought that has preceded it, that has left its mark on the brain,” she says.
That’s her first main point. Her second is that the more connections there are – our brain cells work harder and these connections multiply when we’re engaged in a stimulating enriched environment – the more “you can see one thing in terms of something else, then perhaps it has a significance to you. That’s what we mean by understanding. In this way, by virtue of our neuronal connections, we can navigate the world [and] start to understand what’s going on.”
What happens to the brain during the creative process?
Greenfield shows a slide of a portrait that’s been painted in an abstract style to demonstrate that creativity requires three necessary steps. “Perhaps the first stage in creativity is to deconstruct to abstract sensations, to challenge dogma. The second is unusual associations.” The third? “[A work of art] only has validity if it has a significance and meaning, if it will therefore drive other connections in your brain.”
How can we maximise the opportunities for creativity?
Greenfield explores how our environment, which is changing in unprecedented ways due to digital technology, is affecting us cognitively.
She says that screen culture is leading to shorter attention spans and reduced empathy and recklessness. It’s also a world lacking in metaphor and abstract concepts, one not conducive to differentiating information from knowledge, to understanding what’s happening.
Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has even lamented, “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 …”
Greenfield is not suggesting that humans haven’t always interfered with and manipulated the environment to achieve mind states similar to those shaped by cyberspace. Her concern is “that with the computer world, we may be skewing things disproportionately. We must have this meaning and that’s not being served by the computer environment.”
How can we develop a sense of creativity?
In answer to this question, Greenfield suggests that it is “through developing a sense of identity. Perhaps at the moment, people don’t have a robust sense of identity if they’re constantly connected with others and demanding ‘look at me, look at me! Because if you don’t look at me, perhaps I don’t exist.’”