Book review: The creative brain

The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, by Nancy Andreasen. Penguin, 2006.

Creativity is something of a mystery. Where do brilliant innovative ideas come from, and why? Nancy Andreasen’s book about creativity does a good job of nailing down some of the basic characteristics of creative people and the creative process, and making a first pass at describing some of the neuroscience behind this mysterious human capacity. Andreasen, a neuroscientist and MD with a PhD in English literature, is well-qualified to write about creativity and to try to integrate the worlds of neuroscience and the arts (i.e., to further the consilience of which E.O. Wilson wrote).

The first couple of chapters describe some of the early research into creativity (of which there isn’t a whole lot) and discuss the nature of creativity, the relationship between creativity and intelligence, and the difficulties of defining and measuring creativity. Ordinary creativity is the kind we all employ all the time, coming up with never-before-spoken sentences, for example, or designing and building things. People likely fall along a spectrum for that kind of creativity, as they do for intelligence, with a bell-curve distribution. Extraordinary creativity is a spike at the high end of the scale, the possession of relatively few geniuses like Shakespeare, Mozart, Michelangelo, and Einstein. The book is mainly about extraordinary creatvity, although the exercises at the end are aimed at developing the ordinary kind. Andreasen explores the nature of creativity by analyzing accounts that creative people (including Coleridge, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Stephen Spender, and PoincarĂ©) have given describing how they work. I found these glimpses into creative minds fascinating. The personality profile of creative people was interesting too; it includes the following traits:

openness to experience, adventursomeness, rebelliousness, individualism, sensitivity, playfulenss, persistence, curiosity, and simplicity

Having examined what creativity feels like from the inside and looks like from the outside, Andreasen proceeds to discuss the brain areas involved in creative activity. Brain studies of creativity are a relatively new thing, so this is an exciting but little-explored area so far. She describes a a PET scan study she did that looked at the brains of experimental subjects who were “free associating”: not thinking of anything in particular but letting their minds wander (a crucial process that gives diverse thoughts and memories the chance to connect in possibly new and interesting ways). The association cortex, which integrates sensory input and links various brain areas, was most active during this state of free association, which indicates that it may play an important role in creative activity.

Folk wisdom holds that there’s a link between creative genius and mental instability (mood disorders and problems like alcoholism and drug abuse). I’m sure you can come up with a list just off the top of your head of tortured artists who drank themselves to death or committed suicide, but of course there have also been plenty of artists who didn’t suffer such dramatic problems. The scientific evidence for whether or not there really is a correlation is somewhat scanty, but what there is shows some consistent results. Andreasen has done a study of writers involved with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and she cites her own results and those of two other studies, both relatively small but all showing a higher incidence of mood disorders in writers and artists. (The evidence for an association between schizophrenia and creativity, by contrast, is not as solid so far.)

It seems likely that more creative geniuses are born than have the chance to develop their talents. (The book is dedicated to “the lost geniuses of the past”.) What conditions are required for genius to flourish? Andreasen mentions a number of periods in history that are noted for being rich in innovative ideas in science, the arts, and technology, in particular Renaissance Florence. She uses the lives of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci to illustrate the factors that she believes are necessary for genius to flower (e.g., a critical mass of creative people and the presence of mentors and patrons). These conditions are seen as allowing an innate talent to blossom; like so many things about humans, creativity is a result of nature as well as nurture. Whether creativity has a heritable component is not clear. It does seem to run in families, but creative families provide, in addition to shared genes, a favorable environment for nurturing creativity, so it’s hard to say what the mechanism is by which creativity is transmitted.

The book wraps up by discussing ways we can nurture our own ordinary creative abilities and make the most of them. The edition of the book I have says “Includes life-changing exercises for your brain” across the top of the front cover, which is a bit hyperbolic in my opinion. Marketing spin aside, the exercises (for adults and for children) all make sense to me as good mental hygiene. All in all, this was an engaging and informative book.