Oh creativity, you’re so under-researched, yet so weirdly important. Operational definition? Last I checked it was sketchy at best, but that’s what inventories are for. And not gonna lie, creativity inventories are really fun. But I digress.
Researchers at Northwestern University have found some interesting ERP evidence that creativity comes with sensory overload, adding more to our physiological understanding of creative thinking in the brain.
A few of you probably looked at that last statement and wondered what I was coughing up, so we should probably get this out of the way now. ERP stands for “event-related potential”, and it’s basically distinct components of brainwaves from an EEG or MEG reading that are directly related to a stimulus, and it’s caused by multiple neurons firing all at once. They’re identified by whether they’re electrically positive or negative, as well as their time of occurrence in milliseconds after a stimulus onset. New techniques can magically and mathematically give a ballpark estimate of where these brainwaves come from anatomically, but it doesn’t have the same precision as an fMRI on that particular front. Got it? Got it.
“…highly creative people have reduced ability to tune out information – they call this “leaky” sensory gating…”
Moving on, the researchers ran participants through a battery of creativity and academic achievement measures, in particular a measure of divergent thinking (the ability to look at a lot of different options at once) and an inventory of creative achievements (one of those fun ones that measures how many books you’ve published). After that, they had the participants sit in a chair and listen to clicks while they took ERP readings with a 16 channel EEG.
While a few different ERP waveforms were looked at and the only one with any correlations to creativity was the P50, an early waveform indicative of sensory gating. Strangely enough, it positively correlated with major creative achievements and negatively correlated with divergent thinking, which is usually considered a component of creativity. The thought process the researchers have is that highly creative people have reduced ability to tune out information- they call this “leaky” sensory gating, and that there may be some distinction between the two abilities.
This raises a few questions about our current age, as never before have we had this much information competing for our attention. While it’s probably a “no duh” thing to say that the internet’s endless supply of information is advancing humanity pretty rapidly, highly creative people could be getting the effects compounded. Or maybe they’re tuning it all out. That’s what the authors seem to be suggesting when they bring guys like Kafka and Wagner, anyway.
This research was published in Neuropsychologia.
Cognitive Science and Social Psychology
Shifting gears quite a bit (shut up it was a slow news week), an opinion piece was published last week regarding how humans are so effective at adapting to their environments. “The repurposed brain” pretty well sums up a number of thoughts on how it is we got good and being on top, and may have implications for our future.
Just how is it that of all the animals in the animal kingdom, we’re the ones who are building things and coping with them without species wide extinction? Why do we have music while my cat just has that awful howl she makes to try and intimidate pedestrians passing by our apartment with a baby? Why do we even have an apartment while my cat- okay, you could make a reasonable case that she has an apartment too, but that’s not the point
The authors make the case that humans have three forms of “repurposing” at their disposal, only one of which is available in animals. Any animal can repurpose what evolution gave them, and the example the authors use is the concept of “closeness” in social groups being taken from our visual system’s ability to recognize distance.
Cultural repurposing, however, is one of the tools exclusive to humans, and it regards how cultural innovations can come about from existing evolutionary tools, such as how music uses language circuitry.
Last is instrumental repurposing, which is our ability to use evolutionary and cultural tools before evolutionary pressures have a chance to determine if it’s life or death. Charities using anecdotes instead of hard data as a way of gaining sympathy/greater donation rates is the example used by the authors, but I think we can all agree that there’s a reason bikini baristas probably make a bit more money that typical baristas for certain reasons. As I write this, I notice that I just used an anecdote to better make my point.
Asking the same questions as in our creativity study, what does this mean for the age of the internet? What does this mean for a future where technology is always advancing, always changing, and creating an environment completely unlike what we were originally adapted for? Well, probably not a lot, other than that as humans we’re less likely to drive ourselves to extinction. We’ve got cultural evolution on our side, something manatees and the rest of the animal kingdom are a bit lacking in. That said, something tells me my cat isn’t at too much risk of human caused extinction events.
This opinion article was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Doc Forre is not a real doctor, nor even a fake one – he just plays one in Shadowrun. His interests are sciences with unnecessary neuro- prefixes and how they can be abused in traditional game design. You can get in touch with Doc Forre via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @DocForre.