How Hard Do We Need To Think To Convince Ourselves We Are Creative
Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 8:25PM
Ralph Kerle in Creativity, Jonah Lehrer, behavior, brain, creativity, learning, neuroscience

Everyone thinks about creativity and how it is applied differently. Every single creative conversation is different. Every single explanation for how creativity and its outcome, innovation. is correct. So how can we know and differentiate between which process is right for us, what works for us and doesn't?

Research around creativity and the way we behave has been going on for over 150 years. Out of the generally discredited science of phrenology in the 18th century grew 19th century psychiatry and now neuroscience. The Journal for Creative Behaviour, an unheralded academic journal, has been turning out erudite and insightful research articles quarterly for over 60 years on creative thinking, creative processes and creativity generally.

The recent release of two news books The Brain That Changes Itself, Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD and How We Decide by Jonah Lerner, though, demonstrates just how far we have traveled in trying to understand how the brain processes information and as a result, how we think and make decisions as a consequence.

The Brain That Changes Itself offers an excellent example of what happens when an idea challenges the prevailing orthodoxy and no matter how smart we think we are at recognising the new, how wrong we can be and how long it takes for an idea that changes a paradigm fundamentally to cut through and take hold.

As early as 1930's, Dr Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurobiological Institute had developed a topographical map of the brain's sensory and motor parts through brain surgery on epileptics and brain cancer sufferers that were able to remain conscious during surgery. By tapping on the patients' sensory map, Dr Penfold was able to determine what parts of the brain were healthy and what parts required removal. After many operations, he was finally able to construct a complete map of the brain's sensory and motor parts and each part's association with a part of the body such as the arm, the leg, the face and other muscles.

As wonderful a discovery as this was, the topographical map only served to convince the medical fraternity the brain was fixed and unalterable in its construct and conduct.

In the 60's, Dr Michael Merzenich, the Grand Father of Neuroplasticity, experimented with adolescent monkeys, by cutting the peripheral nerves to the thumb and crossing them, without touching, to the index finger. What he expected to find was the brain map quite chaotic and unordered. What occurred was the opposite!! The brain unshuffled the crossed nerves and topographically re-arranged them. Merzenich wrote a discussion paper hypothesizing not only was it incorrect to think the brain was hardwired; indeed, it was possible the brain could actual normalize itself in response to abnormal input.

The implications of his hypothesis were shelved for almost three decades because his supervisor marked it with a large "X" and the accompanying - "too much conjecture"!!

To-day this experiment and Merzenich's passion and commitment to prove his hypothesis was not mere conjecture has resulted in scientists' understanding the brain not only has the capacity to learn but is always "learning how to learn" even into old age and through this process, changing the very structure of the brain itself.

The old myth "people don't change" can finally be put to rest.

So if the brain can change structurally, what implications does this have for the way we think - the way we make decisions.

Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide uses some stunning case studies to demonstrate how neuroscience has discovered the brain doesn't think the way we think it does. The brain is constantly in argument with itself and if it's not then there is something wrong. If we recognize the types of arguments our brain is having, we then know what we need to do in order to be confident about the decisions we make. For example if it is a big decision such as buying a house, it is best to let our unconscious chew over the various details before making a decision. Here the emotions and intuition play the main role. However when we are dealing with numbers, such as buying stocks or calculating various interest rate options on loans then it is best to leave our emotions and intuitions out of the decision making process, although case studies suggest this is easy said than done. The reality is the brain is constantly fooling us. Self-delusion is the brain's elixir!!

So the trick is to determine when to use the different parts of the brain, and to do this, we need to think harder (and smarter) about how we think.

These two books will certainly give you some insight in how to do that!!


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