Jim Fleming: Dr. Jung If we're going to talk about the science of creativity, I think we really better start with the definition, how do you define creativity?
Rex Jung: Sure, well it's not my definition but it's one borrowed from big thinkers in the field of creativity and it's a production of something both novel and useful and this dynamic interplay of novelty and usefulness is particularly important with regard to what the brain is doing. There's two sides of this creativity coin, the novelty generator and the refinement of things that are in no doubt something useful. So creativity isn't one thing, it's at least two if not more, but it's this productivity thing and it's a refinement thing that the brain is doing.
Fleming: Like so many things, it can't be just one or just the other, it can't be just something new. I suppose you know, wearing a left orange sock and a right white sock is sort of new but not very useful.
Jung : Exactly, maybe novel but not particularly useful, so there is that dynamic interplay of novelty and usefulness that is at the heart of creativity and then again on the other side just sharing utility has been done to death. So it's that interplay of novelty and usefulness that gets you at the heart of creativity regardless of the particular area or domain that you're practicing creativity.
Fleming: What's fascinating about the research that you've been doing is that you're able to look at what's happening in the brain when you talk about creativity, is it really possible to figure out which specific parts of the brain are linked to creativity?
Jung: I hope so. That's what we're funded to discover and it's a complex problem to crack but I think we have the tools and techniques to at least get a glimpse if not the parts, the interplay of regions of the brain that underlie this back and forth of novelty and usefulness that underlies creativity and it is tough nut to crack but I think we are starting to get a handle on some of the mystery that have previously surrounded this concept of creativity.
Fleming : So what does it come down to, do you think? What is physiologically different in parts of the brain that leads you to suspects they are related to creativity?
Jung : It was somewhat surprising when we started doing this research, I've previously done research in intelligence, and in that area of brain research it's really a story of more is better, regardless of which of aspect of brain structure or function you're looking at, whether it's brain tissue, wiring of the white matter connecting up different regions of the brain or biochemical underpinnings of cognition, more is better, more activation, associated with intelligence. But with creativity when we started to look at our data, something very surprising emerged. And the story was, at least in our hands, that when we had our college subjects performing these tasks, less was better, they had lower levels of cortical thickness, lower white matter integrity, these wires that connect different networks of the brain and lower levels of biochemistry associated with better performance on our measures of creativity is very surprising.
Fleming : I think a lot of people have heard of grey matter, not least because of Agatha Christie's Poirot, but what is white matter?
Jung : So the grey matter is the thinking and computational parts on the surface of the cerebral cortex, cortex I believe means bark, and it looks literally like the bark at a tree that surface of the brain, and these are analogous to the computers that sit on your desk. The white matter is analogous I guess to the wires that connect your computers to the internet and these wires leverage the power of your computer with other computers to increase the processing power and the knowledge base. So, the white matter is myelinated axons, this is a fatty sheath that surrounds the axons , that insulates the axons, the wires to allow electric impulses to travel from one place to another throughout the brain, this is the way the brain communicates and allows information to transfer from one place to another.
So the grey matter is the thinking part, if you will, the white matter is the transfer of information part. These are the two major delineations or components of the brain structure and we look at both grey and white matter as it underlies brain function abd the behavior that comes out of the brain. So this has been really a recent phenomenon that we've been able to look at the white matter because of magnetic resonance imaging techniques that allows us to look at this aspect of brain structure more carefully. But it's in the last 10 or 15 years that we've been able to look at this structural correlates of brain and cognitive relationships.
Fleming : I'm curious about your use of the "more is better" phrase in relation to this, because as you just described it, it sounds to me as though, the grey matter is like what we would see as the copper-core of a wire and the white matter is like the sheath that goes around protecting it, the idea then in that case, is that the grey matter is able to work more quickly because it's protected from having its electrons dash all over the inside of the computer in that case, is that what we're talking about?
Jung : It's kind of a three part system, say you have the neurocell body, which is the grey matter and that is where the neurochemicals are being transferred to make communication happen between cells. And then you have the axon, that's the second part and that's the wire that you're talking about, the copper-core. And then you have the sheath, the myelin, the white matter, the myelinated part, the fatty sheath that is the third part that surrounds the axon. So it's a three part system, you've got the computational part at the end of the nerve cell body, the axon, which is the inner core of the wire, and then the sheath surrounds the wire that allows the electric transmission to be transmitted more rapidly.
Fleming : So when you're talking about "more is better" we're talking about a better balance between the three?
Jung : We're talking about all three actually, yeah. So, when we talk about more is better, we're talking about more neurons, we're talking about larger neurons, we're talking about faster transmission along the axon and we're talking about usually more myelin, more fatty sheath, so that the electric circuit can communicate more effectively. Now this is with regard to intelligence, our previous research that we studied intellectual faculties and found that more is better.
Now with creativity we're finding that in certain regions of the brain that the opposite is true particularly in the frontal lobes that less grey matter, lower levels of myelination and axonal integrity and lower levels of biochemistry are associated with increased cognition. Now, we interpret this as a, it's gonna sound complicated but it's actually not, disinhibitory network, now what this means is that there's fewer breaks on the system, the frontal lobes can be construed as providing breaks to the rest of the brain, as filters and breaks and telling you to look before you leap if you will, for the rest of the brain and preparing one for ongoing activity. So if you have fewer breaks on the system, it allows ideas to percolate and propagate more freely throughout the neural network.
Fleming : Now that gives you, is that what gives you the novelty, and if so then how do you put the brakes back on I suppose to get to the utility?
Jung : Exactly, so you've picked up on a very key point, this is only one half of the coin that we're looking at. Most of our tests are really polling for the novelty aspect of creativity, the utility or usefulness is less well measured, and we've come up with a term, not we but, we in the creativity field, of transient hypofrontality, so this is a transient down regulation of frontal lobe breaking if you will, in service of the novelty component of creative cognition. Later on, when one arise at a novel idea wants to refine and hold that idea, the utility components are up regulated and the frontal lobes come back on mind in order to push that idea forward out into the world. This is the other side of the bifurcated creativity system if you will.
Fleming : Is part of what's going on that the more heavily sheathed grey matter speeds things up, so that you can get straight to the useful end whereas the less myelinated sheath allows diversion-slower thought? Is it possible that creativity is simply a matter of thinking about things with less direction?
Jung : Yeah there's a couple of things that could be going on, so these are normal college aids subjects that we are studying, so it's unlikely that their brain is damaged and has low myelin as you see in something like multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury where you have de-myelination associated with over injury. So, it could be that there's less myelination associated with thinner axons, associated with just normal developmental processes, that's one thing that could be going on.
Another possibility, because of the vagaries of the MRI techniques that we're using is that they have more axons going in lots of different directions, linking up different networks of the brain as opposed to one big super highway. This would look similar to less integrity if you will as measured by our MRI techniques. So one of two things is going on, both of which, or either of which could lead to that slowing down process polling more ideas from distant parts of the brain.
Fleming : Maybe less releasing the breaks than opening the gates to the side passages.
Jung : Yeah, I've used the analogy of taking the side roads as opposed to the main highways, you're taking side roads and perhaps even dirt roads to get to the destination, you might see some more interesting things along the way, but you could be going full tilt in that direction down the dirt road, not quite knowing where you're going, it's not necessarily slower, it's just less of a direct path to some destination.
Fleming : You've talked about how much of your study has taken place with MRIs of the frontal lobe, but do we know that creativity is located in a particular area, is it mostly frontal lobe for instance?
Jung : Oh no, and nor is it left brain, rain brain, you certainly need your whole brain to be creative, that should be clear. However these are certain regions in your brain that are important to certain aspects or certain stages of creativity, so when we talked about this idea generation stage of creativity and down regulating the frontal lobes, that's certainly going to be dependent on frontal lobe disengagement, and what are you disengaging, you are disengaging the control over parietal-temporal-occipital cortices that are up regulated in the see-saw manner. So, you are actually tilting the various control mechanisms in the brain to leverage activation in a concerted way. So it's not a either/or, but a both kind of phenomenon with respect to how you're using your brain, it's not just frontal but it's perhaps less frontal in service of more back lobe if you will.
Fleming : Is there any indication of your study of these young people that we're choosing to do this, that we're choosing to let the breaks off?
Jung : There is indication that in these college students, some people's brain are structured to facilitate this transient hypofrontality more readily, so they have less of grey matter, or lower levels of white matter in certain regions that perhaps allows them to do this more readily, however if you talk to creative people, they invariably have techniques to facilitate this transient hypofrontality, whether it's meditation, taking a long walk, taking a long bath, having a stiff drink, lots of different techniques to take the breaks of the system in a transient way so that the ideas can more freely flow, and if you talk to writers or scientists or architects or musicians you'll find that they have their favorite technique to induce in a concerted way this transient hypofrontality.
Fleming : So you find the one that works for you.
Jung : Yeah.
Fleming : Most people I suspect would know, you're trying to remember the name of somebody you haven't met in the last ten years and you can't and you can't and you can't and then you go away and you're making coffee and it suddenly leaps into your mind, is that your brain doing this kind of searching for the right way around the breaks, so that it can find the information it wants?
Jung : Yeah, it's the tip of the tongue phenomenon where you, if you push harder, you will not find the name, but if you let it go, if you let it percolate in the back of your brain, it will bubble up to the surface, and this is putting the conscious thought into subconscious processes and the nodes of the neurons are still working on the problem at a subconscious level, they're making connections, they're working on it and then as I say can bubble up into consciousness at a later time.
But if you are actively trying to constrain that linkage, you're probably going down the wrong path and you won't find the name, so it's an analogous phenomenon, this tip of the tongue phenomenon that you described, that if you push harder it's likely not to come to you, but if you let it go, if you down regulate your frontal lobes, and let it percolate for a while, it will bubble up to the surface.
Fleming : Is this similar at all to what we all think of as the "aha! moment" you weren't thinking about that and all of a sudden you see the problem in a new light.
Jung : Yeah this "aha! moment" is the phenomena of the subconscious neuronal activity being made conscious, I think there's a constant cacophony of neural activity that's going outside of our conscious awareness, but things are going on in our brain and in our mind that is not in the spotlight of our attention or the spotlight of our mind's eye, and when it comes into that spotlight that is perceived as this "aha! moment" particularly when it's a problem that we've been working on for some time.
Fleming : How do you study this? I mean I've had a few "aha! moments" in my life and I can tell you I didn't know they were coming.
Jung : Yeah and it's not absolutely necessary to have an "aha! moment" to be creative, sometimes it happens, sometimes these things just slowly build over time and then eventually they click into place and off you go. But the "aha! moments" are let's see.
Fleming : You're about to have an "aha! moment" aren't you?
Jung : [laughing] I doubt it, in my world the "aha! moments" are quite few and far between, I've forgotten your question, I'm sorry.
Fleming : Well my question was : How do you study this because you can't know when an "aha! moment" is coming.
Jung : Yeah, people do study the "aha! moment" and we do study creativity and we do this in very funny ways with very, what sounds like silly measures, for example this looking for novelty, we measure with something we call "diversion thinking" and diversion thinking is giving people some common object and having them think of as many novel uses as they possibly can. These tests have been around since the 1950's, and it goes something like this, tell me as many creative ways you can think of to use a brick. So it's a very common object and you start to say well you can build a house, you can use it as a door stop, you can use it as a mark coffin at a Barbie funeral. That last one is different from the former ones, and like your sock example, it might be novel but not creative, so you can judge this production of novelty in terms of its novelty and also in its usefulness, when you get to the "aha! moment" there are methods called "remote associates test", so you give 3 words like mind, lick and shaker, and you are to think of one word that binds them together into compound words.
Fleming : Salt is that what we're looking for?
Jung : Exactly, salt-mind, salt-lick and salt-shaker. And it tends to pop into your head not through a process of elimination but through that moment of insight, that "aha! moment" so that's the silly way that we measure insight or the "aha! moment". These are analogous to what we think of as the creative process, but it's pretty far removed as you can imagine from creativity, proper, these are attempts at getting at the cognitive processes underlying creativity through something called diversion thinking, remote associates tests, we have people improvise, we actually also do look at things like actual creative achievement, what people do out in the world, we look at things like openness to new experiences, personality variables, we look at intelligence, the knowledge base that people have in their brain. We look at all sorts of different aspects of cognitive components that are important to creativity.
Fleming : There's been a lot of study over the years of course into intelligence.
Jung : I just lost you.
Fleming : Can you hear me now?
Jung : Yes.
Fleming : Good. There's been a lot of study over the years into intelligence and what it is, and how to understand it, does that actually help or hinder the study of creativity?
Jung : Both, it certainly helps in that you need a knowledge base in order to be creative, that 10,000 hours or 10 years things, that 10,000 hours or 10 year saw is likely correct, that you have to have some concerted effort and experience devoted to one domain in which you're going to be creative. And that requires some intelligence, the ability to acquire new knowledge and to adaptively use it over time, so intelligence is going to be important in order to acquire that knowledge base.
But it can become limiting at extremes if you are going to devolve to that known knowledge base and not think of new ideas, you will devolve to the useful at the expense of the novel and there's this threshold hypothesis that intelligence and creativity tend to be correlated up to a certain threshold of about 120 IQ after which they tend to disentangle from one another, they're not correlated with each other, which is interesting. We found the same to hold true in our biochemical research, MRI, showing that subjects that lower levels of IQ had different brain organization underlying their creative cognition than those with higher levels of IQ, so it's a very interesting relationship between intelligence and creativity, there probably is something there.
Fleming : What about genius? Are the brains of geniuses wired differently from the brains the rest of us work with?
Jung : Probably, I've only met you know maybe one genius in my life, they're very rare, but geniuses is really the exquisite interplay of intelligence and creativity, I would guess, you have such an exquisitely well developed knowledge acquisition capabilities and novelty generation and usefulness generation capabilities that we call it genius, it's something unique in the world, I think we overuse that term, but genius is relatively rare, and I would guess that the brain organization is rare at that extremes of genius because you have the more is better phenomenon of high intelligence and the less is better phenomenon of high creativity manifested in the same brain at very extreme levels.
Fleming : One of the things that people fear I think, and so bring it up all the time is that there is a link between creativity and mental illness, do you see such a link?
Jung : We set out to disprove some of the myths that we thought existed in the creativity literature, including the link between intelligence and creativity, the link between mental illness and creativity, right brain associated with creativity, but again something surprising happened and we needed to follow the data in our research looking at white matter associations with creativity, we found some things surprising, that the region in which our subjects had lower fidelity if you will of white matter was precisely the same region that subjects, patients with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia had lower white matter fidelity and these were subjects that performed high on our creativity measures.
So there might be a continuum of creativity in psychopathology where others have hypothesized and psychopathology, in particular psychosis might be an overshoot of something as evolutionarily useful like creativity. There is genetic work that is being done, there's neuroimaging work that's being done, but why does psychosis and psychopathology persist in the gene pool when it's such a devastating disorder, socially and interpersonally and occupationally? Maybe because creativity is so highly valued evolutionarily that there's occasionally overshoots into psychosis.
Fleming : Creativity is so important that we're willing to allow it to have some unfortunate offspring.
Jung : Yes, evolution is certainly and we are the beneficiaries of all of it.
Fleming : You've debunked the whole right brain thing which was what we used to tell people if they wanted to develop their creativity they should pursue, what do you do if you wish you were more creative than you are?
Jung : I think people can be more creative than they are based on some of the research that we're finding, I'm sure that like height and eye color and hair there's gonna be you know, normal distributions or certainly variability individual differences, some people will be lower on that bell-shaped curve, and some people will be at the high end. But, I think that there are some perhaps tools, tricks and techniques that people can use to increase their creative capacity wherever they are in that curve.
One of the things is finding this method of transient hypofrontality that can work for them when they're undertaking creative cognition, to do idea generation, now this needs to be in service of a knowledge base, so you'd certainly have to pick one area of creativity, it appears where you dedicate that 10,000 hours or 10 years, under which you're going to be creative, so pick one thing, do it well, learn the tools and tricks and techniques of the trade and then learn also, a technique that allows you to do the idea generation, this transient hypofrontality, and then the third pillar, if you will, would be to persist, almost invariably creative are stubborn and persist over time because the rest of the world doesn't wanna hear all of the your creative ideas and rejects often times the usefulness, the utility of your idea unless you persist over time. So, those are the 3 things I think that people can tangibly do to increase their creativity.
Fleming : You've described this as, to some extent, a physiological issue, a difference in chemistry, does that suggest that there might certain drugs, methods to manipulate brain chemistry that might lead to more creativity?
Jung : It suggests it, but I think behavioral manipulations are much more effective and certainly much more targeted in terms of the brain networks that you would need to exercise like a muscle, when you think of drugs or medication, they almost always have side effects that are undesired, so while you might be able to target a particular chemical that might set the background music for creativity to happen, you're going to want to be much more targeted in terms of the network that you want to hit to facilitate creative cognition in one aspect or another.
Fleming : What about aging? Do we see changes in the way that creativity builds or diminishes as we age?
Jung : I think the developmental process is interesting and you know we know that the brain doesn't complete myelination until, the early to mid 40's, the frontal lobes finish myelinating in their early 40's and then after that, it starts a gradual decline from front to back and de-myelination, so that implies if we're looking at hypofrontality as part of idea generation, that very young brains are certainly hypofrontal by definition, you know the screaming temper tantrums and inability to monitor one's own behavior is kind of a part an parcel of being a young child, that is part of developing one's frontal lobes as a child and creativity is perhaps going to be more efficacious in terms of its development at those young ages. Similarly as we age, and the frontal lobes start to unravel, it might be an opportunity to revisit that creative capacity and idea generation.
Fleming : I read in an article about you that you said your mother had become a quilter when she was in her 60's and I think you and I just before we went on the air, we were discussing this, my mother became a painter in her 60's and enjoyed increasing pleasure as the years went on, it suggests that maybe in those cases, it was just that the time was available, but it makes you wonder.
Jung : It does, and certainly people who are retired and their kids are out of the house and you have more time, but boy it sure seems like something is there, people pick up paint brushes, quilting, lots of.. music, revisit music that they had left behind years before, pick up lots of these creative undertakings, and not only do they enjoy them but they do really well at them, they thrive and they're good at it, so I would love to study this someday, I think that there's a real opportunity for the aging brain to not try to hold on to that intelligence that cognitive workhorse of a brain in the 30's and the 40's and even 50's, but to actually relish the unraveling of the brain as we age and the opportunity for the creativity that represents.
Fleming : Of course the other fear with unraveling, and I know you didn't mean it in this sense, is the fear that we all have of unraveling of our intelligence and specifically of Alzheimer, is there any relationship that you can see in this study of creativity to the changes that sufferers from Alzheimerâ€™s go through?
Jung : I think there's again, I think there's opportunity and we know that, again, there's 3 pillars of good aging, which is keeping physically active, keeping cognitively active and keeping socially active. Part of keeping cognitively active is undertaking these creative activities like your and my mother are doing, whether it's painting or quilting and that usually involves some social engagement, you have to get out there and see people to present your art, so that helps in the social activity as well. I think that can help stave off, that brain activity can help stave off Alzheimer disease over time. Active brains are making those connections, keeping those connections, that wiring in place against the ravages of these neurofibrillary plaques and tangles that are the hallmark of Alzheimer disease.
Fleming : You're obviously fascinated by all of this, is there a particular area that now that you've begun to study it seriously you really want to devote yourself to?
Jung : Right now we're funded to focus more specifically on scientific creativity, science, technology, engineering and math. So, we're talking about creativity a bit large but an under recognized area of creativity is the stem field. You enjoy your apple products, you enjoy the internet, you enjoy air conditioning, these came from scientists somewhere in the past and designed people that make these wonderful products and I think there is a great worry in our culture and in our country that we might be losing some of our edge in those stem fields, where's the next generation of scientists and engineers going to come from? Are we creating enough mathematicians to take the place of those who are retiring from the baby boom generation? Will we have the same quality of science to cure Alzheimer disease? To send men and women to outer space and to Mars and beyond? All these questions really are critically dependant on how we solve this creativity question and if we can locate and cultivate creativity in the brain of our young folks. So I'm really focused on scientific creativity and if we can, if we can legitimize the study of creativity we might be able to actually make a difference in the educational system and actually keeping more young scientists in the field.
Fleming : Is it the same thing creativity in the art and in science? Is it simply a matter of a different knowledge base?
Jung : I think so, I think it's different domains, but my working hypothesis is that the brain is too expensive an organ, and the space between your ears is too small to have a module for artistic creativity and a different module for dance and another module for scientific creativity I think there's a domain general thing that we do and it has something to do with this back and forth between novelty and usefulness, this see-saw between novelty and usefulness, that's the domain general thing and that's what we're after, and then it is applied to the specific domain that you spent your 10,000 hours in.
Fleming : Well I'm fascinated by it, you're quite articulate, thank you very much.
Jung : Thank you.