Creativity and the Brain

“Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things, you simply must do things.” Ray Bradbury.

Is writer Ray Bradbury suggesting that creativity is only achieved when the brain is in a meditative state, or in other words, once the mind has switched off all of its thoughts? Is this when artists experience their creative spark or “aha” moment?

Although this could be true for some artists, Professor of Psychology Paul Verhaeghen believes there is a link between creativity and the ruminating personality, or one that thinks incessantly. He stresses that this personality type is more prone to mood disorders such as depression and bipolar illnesses.

Verhaeghen who is also a novelist claims that he is somewhat mood disordered - “One of the things I do is think about something over and over again, and that's when I start writing.”

Researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have recently discovered that families with a history of bipolar disorders and schizophrenia were more likely to produce artists and scientists.

In this study of approximately 1.2 million patients and their relatives, those being treated for bipolar disorder were more common among artists, dancers, photographers, and scientists. While writers in particular were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The study also claimed that writers were 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

In episode twelve of Charlie Rose's Brain series, neuropsychiatrist Dr. Eric Kandel speaks of a theory where if the left hemisphere of the brain is compromised as it is in an individual with dyslexia, it appears to free up creative potential that is latent in the right hemisphere of the brain in the same individual.

He believes that much can be learned from artists such as Chuck Close who suffers both from severe dyslexia and prosopagnosia or face blindness. The latter is a disorder where the ability to recognize faces is impaired.

Although Close suffers from these disorders he is considered to be one of the greatest artists of our time. He may not remember faces, phone numbers, or addresses but he is known to have the ability to draw a floor plan of every room he has ever been in, as well as the ability to create extraordinary works of art.

Artist Amanda LaMunyon who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a disability similar to Autism, writes: “When I put a paintbrush in my hands for the first time, I instantly felt my life change. I could finally focus without getting distracted and my paintings helped me convey everything I had difficulty expressing.”

Yet not all artists suffer from brain disorders, for some it may simply be that their ability to imagine is greater.

A study published in Personality and Individual Differences examined personality traits and dream recall in 193 college students. The study confirmed that the students who scored higher in creativity had more unusual dreams as well as the ability to remember them in vivid detail.

Does it simply come down to an individual's personality and the way one views the world? Is it a certain unique type of character that produces such bizarre mental abstractions?

Although this may be true, it cannot be ignored that a person's character will depend upon various factors such as genealogy, culture, upbringing, and environment.

An individual's environment in waking life will affect one's imagination and therefore what kind of dreams one will have. It seems that a person living in a rural area will probably dream differently than one who lives in an urban environment where life tends to move at a faster pace.

Stress is shown to hinder creativity in some studies. The assumption is that deadlines or difficult criteria, including rejection and criticism can frustrate and therefore block one's creative processes.

Yet this theory will be disputed by those artists who claim that it is precisely this type of pressure which acts as a motivator to both work harder and be more creative - “Constant acceptance breeds complacency and mediocrity. Rejection breeds determination and ultimate success.” - Robert Wade, watercolor artist.

Perhaps for these creative types the inherent need to problem solve leads to inspiration. A need to push through obstacles by discovering innovative ways to achieve a positive result the next time around.

In the Daily Mail German researchers claim that clutter may increase creative thinking. Chaos produces a need in the brain to problem solve, as in the desire to simplify a chaotic environment such as a messy desk. In this respect an individual must draw upon their creative solutions and employ them directly to their environment.

Researcher Mel Rhodes breaks creativity down into 3 components, person, environment, and process. A person has a certain set of characteristics and perceptions unique unto themselves which is affected by their environment, while the process lies is in their understanding and formulating of ideas.

Sculptor Richard Serra believes that ideas lead to more ideas, and new creative discoveries are made by this continuity of thought. This may be the type of brain activity where inspiration is derived from - by way of thinking and producing, trying things out, making choices, eliminating what isn't working and keeping what is.

It may be during these thought processes coupled with action which produces that creative spark, or that “aha” moment. Perhaps it is here where the creative magic lies.

This might be what writer Ray Bradbury meant in his earlier statement; that one must not sit around thinking endlessly while hoping to be enlightened by some brilliant idea.

As portrait artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”


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