Nina Slanevskaya. Interdisciplinary Neuroscience



Health and a creative process

 The development of a creative potential of the population is necessary for (1) the economic prosperity, (2) psychic healthy of the population due the feeling of well-being arising from the realization of creative thinking, (3) treating illnesses. Perhaps, everyone has noticed that the thoughts of the previous day come in the morning of the next day, and it is difficult to get rid of them. Neurons demand their usual “food”, i.e. electric impulses and chemical stuff, which they had during the thoughts and emotions of the previous day. Conscious suppression of intrusive thoughts is possible, if we substitute them with other ones at our will; or rewind our thinking process during meditation, or in the creative process, or while learning new things, or due to physical exercises, which force blood to flow to new areas of the brain. A creative process satisfies the demands for nutrition of a greater part of the healthy normal brain. The neuroscientist Natalia Bekhtereva says that the creative process keeps the brain in good condition and preserves its healthy functioning up to the end of life (Бехтерева, 2008). New neuropaths start working to solve a creative task involving many “lazy” neurons. Neuroscientists use creative tasks in art therapy to treat psychological and physiological disorders. Getting into the creative state called “creative flow”, people are fully engrossed in what they are doing, which helps them to switch to another mode of thinking and treat their own psychological and physiological problems. They enjoy the process of self-expression and feel the fullness of life.


Social factors and creativity

Human creativity transforms the world. The world could be quite different without scientific discoveries, inventions, works of art, and ideas of societal organization. To put it simply, it would be the world of animals. Creativity is a systemic phenomenon. There is an interaction between a creative person and socio-cultural context. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that we should rather study what kind of socio-cultural surrounding gives the upsurge of national creativity than what a creative person and creativity are (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). In his opinion, the best atmosphere for the rise of creative initiative is multicultural surrounding and high business activity. The mixture of different ideas and values produces a specific and original way of thinking. Besides, there must be economic prosperity and well developed educational and expert systems. The creative potential must be in demand in the society, highly appreciated by people, and easily implemented.


Neuroscience about creative thinking

As a rule, neuroscience does not include the wider social aspect of creativity and limits itself to the study of neurophysiological processes in the brain. But this narrower field has its own challenges: what is consciousness and what is the exact mechanism of transformation of neural firing into an abstract thought? Only after answering these questions, we can reliably define what is a creative insight and how to enhance human creativity.
The creative insight is difficult to study with the help of scanning in the laboratory conditions, because the owner of such an insight never knows when it will come to him/her. So neuroscientists have to restrict themselves to the studies of neurophysiological characteristics of creative people and to scanning the brain during various tests on creativity.
The tests on creativity are usually on divergent thinking and consist mostly of verbal tasks. However, the creative people, who are tested, work in different spheres (literature, music, science) and can see an image or hear sounds as a creative solution without any words or conscious thinking. It means that, perhaps, their neuronal activation patterns in the creative process will differ and they are not what the test-designers suppose. And, perhaps, a highly creative person might be unwilling to answer such irrelevant to his work a question as: “How many uses can you think of for a brick?”
In other words, how do we know that the existing tests on creativity identify the creativity, indeed? And what kind of level of a creative person is studied by a neuroscientist: a clever original conversationalist, a creative person whose creativity is directed at himself or a person who has changed the public culture and science? Everyone is mainly interested in the third phenomenon, but neuroscientists never discriminate between these three categories of creative people, though it is clear that their brains will work differently. There are also some technical and data assessing challenges in neuroscience. The creative activity of the brain is scanned and usually compared with a base line, when the brain is considered to be in a passive state. But the brain is never passive at all and it is, perhaps, when the person is not thinking consciously about the solution of the problem that a creative insight takes place due to the formation of uncontrollable unconscious associations in the mind.

Recently, the attention of neuroscientists has been focused on the following questions in the study of creativity:
- What are the properties of a creative brain?
- What goes on in the brain during a creative process?
- How does a creative process influence the brain itself?
- How can we help the brain to be more creative?
- How can we use the process of creativity (for example, in art therapy) for curing disease?
Various research methods have been used for answering these questions and various hypotheses have been put forward:
- anatomical importance of some brain structures with unusual characteristics (the phenomenon of synesthesia) and, perhaps, the thickness/thinness of the brain cortex at certain places;
- inborn or acquired specific neurochemistry of the brain;
- genetic predisposition (rather close to the characteristics of schizophrenia);
- specific functioning of neural circuits in the brain under certain circumstances (tiredness, dream, beautiful landscape, a pleasant shock, etc.), i.e. the controlling neural circuits stop controlling or control less and new neural circuits start working and creative associations are formed;
- neurophysiological importance of specific brain waves at specific brain areas for a creative state.
Many neuroscientists also emphasize special traits of character of a highly creative person and a specific behavior: the courage of insisting on the non-conventional way of solving a problem, obstinacy and “doggish pursuit” of the task, the elimination of all irrelevant aspects of life which distract the attention from a creative process.

However elusive a creative process may be for studying with the help of brain scanning what makes things much worse is an unsolved mind-brain problem. The ontological position on the nature of consciousness and hence on creativity, makes a neuroscientist choose a matching epistemological approach for his research. For example, having chosen a materialist ontological position on brain and mind Rex Jung studies the thickness of the cortex as a physical property of creative thinking (Jung, et al., 2009). The thinner (or thicker) the cortex is at certain places, the more creative ideas one will produce. Meanwhile a non-materialist neuroscientist would draw our attention to the neuroscientific fact that the brain changes physically under the pressure of non-material thoughts (Beauregard and O’Leary, 2007). So the thickness of the cortex can develop after practicing creative activities for a certain period of time (if thickness/thinness is important for creativity at all). A non-materialist neuroscientist would also say that such an epistemological approach is wrong, it cannot show the true nature of creativity, however well and thoroughly Rex Jung might study the thickness of the cortex. The thickness/thinness does not cause creativity, it follows it. A materialist neuroscientist, on the contrary, would claim that any thought arises after and on the basis of neural firing, and so does creativity. However, none of them has yet discovered the exact working mechanism of interaction between a non-material abstract thought and a material biological neuron.
Science comes into our life and its conclusions influence social policy. Is it the brain whose neurophysiology should be changed for better creativity? Must there be the change of sociocultural climate for the better interaction between a person’s thought and sociocultural context? Is creativity similar to a mystic state when a human mind freely travels to get the information from the Universal Mind? Should meditation be introduced into schools and Universities to train a student to bring about a creative trance at will? Though the source of creative insight has always been one of the most interesting for people neuroscience is not ready yet for giving a definite answer to all these questions.

(a full story in the article “Creative brain” by Nina Slanevskaya in "Encyclopedia of Creativity, Invention, Innovation and Entrepreneurship", ed. Elias G. Carayannis, Springer, 2013, pp 271-275)

- Бехтерева, Н.П. (2008) Магия мозга и лабиринты жизни, Москва - С.Петербург, Сова.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York, Harper Perennial
- Dietrich, A. (2004) “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity” in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Psychonomic Society.
- Gruzelier, J., Egner, T. (2004) “Physiological Self-regulation: Biofeedback and Neurofeedback” (Chapter 11) in A. Williamon (ed.) Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance, Oxford University Press: 197-219.
- Jung, R. et al. (2009b) “Biochemical Support for the ‘Threshold’ Theory of Creativity: A Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy Study” in The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(16): 5319-5325.
-  Jung, R.E., Segall, J.M., Bockholt, H.J., Flores, R.A., Smith, S.M., Chavez, R.S.,  Haier, R.J. (2009a) “Neuroanatomy of Creativity” in Human Brain Mapping, published online in Wiley InterScience,
- Kuszewski, A. (2009)“The Genetics of Creativity: a Serendipitous Assemblage of Madness”, in Método Working Paper No 58, Método Foundation, March, 1, 2009.

Nina Slanevskaya. Interdisciplinary Neuroscience


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