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A Heightened Potential for Creativity Even While Our Brains Slow Down

by Krista Tippett, host

Tribute To Guitarist Pat Martino - Scan/Edit 03 07MRI of brain (image courtesy of Dr. Robert Zatorre/McGill University)

Few features of humanity are more fascinating than creativity; and few fields right now are more fascinating than neuroscience. Rex Jung puts the two together.

He spends half of his time working with people living with brain illness or injury. In this role, he says, he’s something like an “existential neuropsychologist.” And what he learns there informs the other half of his working life, in the laboratory applying the newest technologies of brain imaging to the interplay between creativity, intelligence, and personality.

What I like about this interview is the humanity Rex Jung brings to his science. This is a quality of all the scientists we bring on this program, I suppose — whether it’s James Gates on supersymmetry, Jean Berko Gleason on linguistics, or Mario Livio on astrophysics. I’m fascinated by the richness of this exchange between humanity and science when you simply shine a light on it. Rex Jung, for example, got interested in studying brains as a volunteer for the Special Olympics. He came to love and revere the participants with supposedly “imperfect” brains.

Rex JungRex Jung first made a mark in the field of deciphering the brain networks involved in intelligence. But he was always aware that there is something more than intelligence involved in lives of beauty and integrity and vigor.

Now he’s working on the emerging frontier of the study of creativity — and how it is different from, as well as related to, intelligence. He and his colleagues have notably helped identify a phenomenon they’ve called “transient hypofrontality.” That’s a daunting name for an experience many of us will recognize. Simply put, Rex Jung says that intelligence works like a “superhighway,” with massive numbers of connections being made between the different parts of the brain with speed and directness. When we become more creative, our powerful, organizing frontal lobes downregulate a bit. The creative brain is a “meandering" brain. The superhighways give way to "side roads and dirt roads," making possible the new and unexpected connections we associate with artistry, discovery, and humor.

One of the most helpful things about this conversation is the commonsense way Rex Jung describes the implications of his research. He says to take those famous stories we have of moments of great creative discovery — like Archimedes wallowing in his bath when he had his eureka moment — and be attentive to how we all prime our brains to be less directed, more creative. Some of us take a bath, some take a walk, some take a drink.

This cutting-edge research is a resounding affirmation of something we know we need in the 21st century but struggle to create: downtime. It’s a call to make this possible for our children too. Again, I think we all know this. For science to demonstrate it as a necessary precondition for creativity is bracing and helpful.

I appreciate the way this research validates the creativity of the everyday: of humor, of relationships, of social as well as personal, scientific, or artistic innovation. Rex Jung is also part of an emerging discipline called “positive neuroscience” — studying what the brain does well and, by implication I think, how what we are learning about our brains can be of benefit to our common life. He even believes that while there is loss in an aging brain — the phase many of our baby boomer brains have now entered — there is also a potential for heightened creativity in that very slowing down.

There are intriguing echoes between this research and neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s discoveries at the University of Wisconsin about how it is possible through behaviors — and with practice — to keep changing our brains across the lifespan. After listening to Rex Jung, I’ve become more aware of how I sometimes get myself into agonizing moments, when I need to be creative (on deadline, of course) but haven’t made the space for my frontal lobes to downregulate and let it happen.

I like feeling more in touch with my frontal lobes. I also like the way Rex Jung questions whether there is a necessary connection between creativity and difficult personalities (e.g. Steve Jobs). From my vantage point, I also feel we may be on the cusp of realizing new creative potentials in ourselves — again, in the everyday. I’ll let my brain meander here awhile to consider that. Talk about having your cake and eating it too; I get to delight in the purposefulness of meandering.

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