On creativity

Haruki Murakami, famous for his surrealistic novels, has likened the writing process to making music, and is apparently also a great fan of jazz. Picking up on this thread Rowan Hooper reports on recent research into what goes on in a person’s brain when they are being creative. A study done on jazz pianists who were scanned while improvising music to either a photograph of a woman smiling or one of her looking sad revealed that their dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes (the brain region involved in planning and monitoring actions) were deactivated, and the more so when they were creating happy music (in the case of sad music their brains’ reward centers became more active). Emotions therefore help dictate which parts of the brain’s creativity network are turned on or off and to what degree. This seemingly tells us much about creativity: during such episodes our planning and monitoring areas are shut down which allows a freer flow of ideas and the more so when positive emotions are involved. Happy feelings + turning off planning = spontaneity. Simple.

Only I doubt very much that it is that simple. And I doubt that we really understand here just what we are claiming to understand. Let me elaborate on this a moment because I think it’s an often overlooked point, particularly in recent decades (and yes, I’m guilty of this too). Ostensibly we have here a clear cause and effect link wherein the entirety of the process can be reduced to purely material causes. An example often cited in the literature when discussing the idea that all can – or cannot – be reduced to materiality is the simple equation Water = H20 (pardon the lack of subscript on the “2” there). What we call water is molecularly composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen; its qualities cannot, of course, be fully explained by such but that does tell us all that water “is”, so to speak. Fine and well. How can we translate this into something like consciousness though? How many parts of what put together equate completely to that? We have no idea. Michael Gazzaniga, one of the people at the very forefront of cognitive science, has written a very accessible book outlining what the current consensus picture on consciousness is called Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. The picture given is that consciousness should not be thought of as a single part or function of the brain but instead as a constellation of consciousnesses. That is, our consciousness is a network of many locally concerned regions of the brain communicating with each other and, somehow, appearing to us – experiencing it from the inside – to be unified. Consciousness is an emergent property.

Does this tell us what consciousness “is”? Not really, but it at least gives us a fuller picture of it. Do the brain scans of our jazz pianists tell us what creativity “is”? Again no, but they do add a piece to the puzzle. Where we err is in thinking that such is the entirety of the puzzle. Thomas Nagel raised this point in his (I believe) much misunderstood Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. If I read Nagel correctly what he wants to say is that although research like the above helps us understand what is going on it is missing at least one important part. The entirety of such processes do not seem to be fully reducible just to the purely material elements involved, and we can see this by the fact that we must resort to such descriptors as “creativity network” (or even “emergent property”) – an empty phrase that leaves everything up in the air. This is not to say that the science is wrong or that science cannot be explanatory; of course it can. Science is and will likely remain a very important tool for advancing human understanding. But the way we do science now may be missing something. What that something is is unfortunately not entirely clear but does call for unfettering our approach somewhat.

Writing may be like composing music, certainly I think that the analogy is apt. Both endeavors may well be assisted by positive emotions; why not? Such is not the whole of it though, and if we are seeking creativity and creative moments then I think it wiser to pay attention to our own experiences to see what works and what doesn’t. There is no easy formula for that.

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