“Insight is not a matter of memory, of knowledge and time, which are all thought. Insight is the total absence of the whole movement of thought as time and remembrance. So there is direct perception. It is as though I have been going North for the last ten thousand years, and my brain is accustomed to going North, and somebody comes along and says, that will lead you nowhere, go East. When I turn round and go East the brain cells have changed. Because I have an insight that the North leads nowhere.
I will put it differently. The whole movement of thought, which is limited, is acting throughout the world now. It is the most important action, we are driven by thought. But thought will not solve any of our problems, except the technological ones. If I see that, I have stopped going North. I think that with the ending of a certain direction, the ending of a movement that has been going on for thousands of years, there is at that moment an insight that brings about a change, a mutation, in the brain cell.” —Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)
Sujata Krishna offered this passage from Questioning Krishnamurti after listening to our show with Rex Jung. During the interview, he described how the brain, with training, can actually change shape, beef up like a muscle that’s been trained:
“I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. It takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain and that is the thing.
The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently. So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.”
Think about that. We can actually change the shape of our brains. Time to get to work. Putting that idea to work, methinks this magnified image of stained neurons is a fitting pairing.
Image by Mr. McGill / Flickr
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
How do we prime our brains to take the meandering mental paths necessary for creativity? New techniques of brain imaging, neuroscientist Rex Jung says, are helping us gain a whole new view on the differences between intelligence, creativity, and personality.
“With intelligence, there’s the analogy I’ve used is there’s this superhighway in the brain that allows you to get from point A to point B. With creativity, it’s a slower, more meandering process where you want to take the side roads and even the dirt roads to get there.”
One of our most popular interviews in which Dr. Jung unsettles some old assumptions — and suggests some new connections between creativity and family life, creativity and aging, and creativity and purpose.
“Brainstorming is the worst thing you can do. The main reason why is because of this process of trying out strange new ideas versus when you put people together in a room, almost invariably they will try to conform socially. So you will get creative ideas, but you won’t get as creative when people are trying to please each other than when they’re trying to push the envelope. And so the studies invariably show that the quality of the creative ideas that people put out individually are invariably higher in quality than those done in a group format. So another myth bites the dust.” —Rex Jung
This interview with Dr. Jung on creativity is incredible. It’ll debunk myths and confirm ideas you may know instinctively but have given credence too.
Photo by Simon Drouin
Beautiful Minds: The Creative Brain Across Time and Cultures
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
There’s little doubt, most brain researchers agree, that genius looked much different thousands of years ago. With new tools and improving technologies, scientists are able to see traces of this evolution and observe how our brains are reshaping themselves. But, how are our ideas and commonly held assumptions about intelligence and the creative process being informed by these technologies?
In our most recent show, “Creativity and the Everyday Brain” with neuropsychologist Rex Jung, we featured this video from the World Science Festival. Here, uber-director Julie Taymor (a force of nature and creativity in her own right) and neuroscientists Rex Jung and Douglas Fields wrestle with the notions of genius over time and the possible effects of new technology on attention and creativity. It’s been one of our most popular pieces online, and I hope you’ll add your ideas to the mix.
A Heightened Potential for Creativity Even While Our Brains Slow Down
by Krista Tippett, host
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 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.
Brain Researcher Rex Jung: A Twitterscript
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Neuropsychologist Rex Jung is asking important questions about the origin and purpose of human creativity. He’s using the latest laboratory techniques to peek inside our mental process with brain imaging. What he has found along the way “unsettles some old assumptions” about intelligence, creativity, personality, and even how we perceive ourselves as aging creatures.
On February 23rd, we live-tweeted highlights of his interview with Krista Tippett and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
Commenting on Our Consciousness through Studying the Deepest Meaning of Human Language
by Krista Tippett, host
There’s a quality I’ve experienced during the years in some people who work lovingly with children across a long life. They nurture and retain an exuberance, a playfulness, in themselves. And they merge that with a delving intellect and spirit. Robert Coles, the psychiatrist who wrote famously about the moral, political, and spiritual lives of children, gave me the phrase “delving spirit” and embodied it:
“It’s our effort on this planet as creatures who have a mind and use language to ask questions and answer them through speculation, through story-telling, to explore the universe and answer those fundamental questions: Where do we come from? What are we? And where, if any place, are we going?”
It interests me, looking back now, to see how Robert Coles stressed language as inextricably bound with spirit. Jean Berko Gleason is, like him, a wisely child-like delver. A professor emerita of psychology, she continues to imprint and expand the field of psycholinguistics that she helped to create — the exploration of how human beings acquire language and what this says about who we are.
She began to make her mark on linguistics decades ago with a test that looks, on the surface, like it’s about basic grammar. She created the wug, a simply drawn mythical creature. This, it turned out, was a savvy tool for demonstrating that young children could apply complex grammatical rules and form new words that no one had ever tried to teach them. Even after 50 years in her field, Jean Berko Gleason remains amazed and delighted at the extremely ordinary human capacity to learn language and work with it. She infects me with that amazement.
She also brings us up to speed on the evolution of this scientific field’s “nature versus nurture” debate. Every discipline, it seems, has one. When I was in college, the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky had taken the intellectual world by storm with his suggestion that we are born with universal, innate language templates that only need to be triggered for humans to speak.
Looking at the “wug test,” you might suspect that it tells some of the same story — of an innate skill that is biologically, not socially, rooted. But as Jean Berko Gleason has grown in her field and watched it grow with her, she has become increasingly fascinated by what we are learning about the intense interaction that draws forth, inspires, and hones that biologically-rooted capacity in all of us as children.
Moreover, Jean Berko Gleason suspects, there is something instructive in the adult human’s compulsion to speak with children, to engage them in language. In ways we’ve barely begun to scrutinize and study, she says, we are unfolding with children as we help them unfold language. The technologies we now have to study the brain are showing us remarkable things — like the physical markers of babies born in bilingual households with bilingual brains. But these technologies, Jean Berko Gleason insists, will never replace our need to observe the miraculous results of mothers talking to their babies.
While we were producing this week’s show “Unfolding Language, Unfolding Life,” a number of us tested this theory on our kids, with varying results. Putting a microphone in front of a five year old, or a thirteen year old, is not the straightest route to natural interaction. But I was amazed, for example, when my teenager, after he’d stopped being reluctant and sarcastic, began to reflect in quite a sophisticated way on the word “human” as “plural” — as pegging us not just as individuals but as part of something, as part of humanity. Which means, he says, that we also “have to do our part.”
This is a fascinating echo of a big idea Jean Berko Gleason leaves me with. In recent years, she’s delved into the fact that children in every language and culture studied by linguists have huge animal vocabularies. She’s puzzling, these days, over what that says about us as human beings. Certainly, we are drawn to life, to living beings. And more and more, we are aware that these beings think and may be conscious. We can’t fathom that, because they can’t tell us about it. But we are given a vast gift in our ordinary, inborn skill of language. Alone among the creatures, as Jean Berko Gleason puts it, we are able to reflect, to be conscious of ourselves, and to comment on that.
I’m grateful that she is out there studying the deepest meaning of human language, and I now appreciate it in a new way in my ordinary, day-to-day life.
Infographic courtesy of John Pasden/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0.
Tuesday Evening Melody: “Meeting Mirabelle” from Shopgirl
by Scott Inglett, guest contributor
Do you ever dream music? I do. It’s infrequent — with a recurrent form, a recurrent structure, and recurrent imagery accompanying it. The imagery always involves some form of flight, as if I am actually soaring on high.
A series of chord progressions begin with the tonal color or timbre of cellos, of violins, of bowed instruments of some sort. The ground quickly drops beneath me until I’ve risen to a height that’s perhaps a tree length above the tallest trees appearing below, with a forward motion, a forward acceleration, that rapidly picks up speed, until the green leaf rooftop of some forest speeds underneath or the ripples of water, perhaps the surface of some river or ocean, rapidly dart behind me.
From time to time I might cross a small town, never a large city of any sort, but with streets and buildings that quickly disappear from my peripheral vision as I shoot across them. The music that accompanies my flight pulses and weaves with no discernible melody, just a mass of flowing chords that seem to match my speed, that seem to be the force propelling me. And, accompanying it all, there’s a mixed sense of exhilaration, of joy, and a deep longing that, in turn, makes me long to keep dreaming soon after I wake.
One day I saw the movie Shopgirl and felt exactly the same longings I felt in my dream, the longings the composer obviously wanted to ascribe to Mirabelle, the heroine of the film.
The reason I bring this up is Daniel Levitin’s book, This Is Your Brain on Music. He’s a neuroscientist who currently runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University, but was at one time “a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer working with artists such as Stevie Wonder and Blue Oyster Cult.” Levitin mentions a few things in his book that have me wondering about just what might be possible:
“When I was in graduate school, my advisor, Mike Posner, told me about the work of a graduate student in biology, Peter Janata. … Peter placed electrodes in the inferior colliculus of the barn owl, part of its auditory system. Then, he played the owls a version of Stauss’s ‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ made up of tones from which the fundamental frequency had been removed. Peter hypothesized that if the missing fundamental is restored at early levels of auditory processing, neurons in the owl’s inferior colliculus should fire at the rate of the missing fundamental. This was exactly what he found. And because the electrodes put out a small electrical signal with each firing - and because the firing rate is the same as a frequency of firing - Peter sent the output of the owl’s neurons to a small amplifier, and played back the sound of the owl’s neurons through a loudspeaker. What he heard was astonishing; the melody of ‘The Blue Danube Waltz’ sang clearly from the loudspeakers.”
Might it be possible to record the music I dream? What would it sound like to my daylight mind? Would it affect me as profoundly while awake as when experienced while dreaming?
Scott Inglett works for a small, web-related software development company here in Rochester, Minnesota. I love the arts, am a bookish sort, and according to Myers-Brigg am also an INFP, which explains quite a bit.
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