Thursday, October 13, 2011

Inspiration and the Creative Spark: At the 2011 Conference of the Institute for Cultural Research, London, Part 1

On October 8 and 9 I attended the 2011 conference of the Institute for Cultural Research, London, entitled “Inspiration and the Creative Spark.” This year’s conference brought together presenters from the worlds of neuroscience, psychology, visual art, fiction writing, corporate leadership, myth and legend, and creativity training, to approach the subject from many different perspectives. So the conference itself was both a source of inspiration and sparks for creativity!

Neuroscientist Adam Zeman, author of Consciousness: a user’s guide, and A Portrait of the Brain, Professor of Neurology at the Penninsula Medical School in Exeter, and former Chairman of the British Neuropsychiatry Association, started the conference on Saturday morning with a look at creativity and brain function.

He addressed three typical misunderstandings about creativity and brain:

•The assumption that culture and biology are separate. They are not: culture influences the brain and the brain influences culture.

•The assumption that the brain is passive. It is not: the brain is continuously active. Even at rest it consumes the largest share of oxygen taken in by the body of any organ, about 20-25%, and that percentage goes up some, but not a great deal, when it is actively focused on a task.

•The assumption that imagination and creativity are rare. In fact, Zeman sees the brain as spontaneously, and more or less continuously, imaginative and creative, even while just doing the ordinary chores of life.

Zeman presented what he called the “Ski-D-y” model of creativity, consisting of three parts:

•Skill: what the brain has learned how to do through its interaction with culture, and it’s ability to continue to extend and modify that learning
•Detachment: the ability to step aside from what one is doing to take another look at both what one is trying to do and how one is trying to do it, in order to adapt, modify and improve both understanding of task and approach to it
•Spontaneity: the ability of the brain to suddenly find new connections within itself and responses to its environment, following the development of skill and a period of detachment (which could be of any duration)

Within the brain, “learning depends on modifying the numbers and strength of synapses.” Each of the one billion neurons in the brain have between 1,000 and 10,000 synapses, so there’s a huge potential for learning.

Digging deeper into his Ski-D-y model, Zeman considered “Skill” in four aspects:

•Language: the unique (as far as we know) ability of the human brain to construct complex and detailed systems of language to communicate knowledge of various kinds

•Learning: all those neurons in the brain creating new synaptic interconnections

•Theory of Mind: the interpersonal skill of creating implicit models of how other people are thinking and experiencing, including how they are experiencing us as we experience them

•Mirror Neurons: there’s a lot of scientific buzz about these recently discovered neurons that become active both when we do activities and when we watch other people doing activities. By including them within his “skill” category, Zeman seemed to be saying that mirror neurons both provide us with a biological model of how we can understand other people, and that we can learn to improve our understanding of other people as a fundamental skill that is associated with creativity and inspiration

Zeman next dug deeper into “Detachment:”

Crucially, detachment “allows us to choose how we want our minds to be engaged,” and is largely associated with the executive functions of the frontal lobes.

The capacity of imagination means that “We have acquired the ability to run our brains offline.”

Turning to a deeper consideration of “Spontaneity,” Zeman emphasized the brain’s continuous spontaneous activity:

The brain at rest uses about 20-25% of the body’s oxygen. When engaged it only increases that utilization by a percent or two. “So the resting brain is very active.”

There are networks of brain regions that are active even at rest, associated with seeing, hearing, moving, and also theory of mind and moral decision-making. Thus, even when we are not actively perceiving, brain regions associated with perception are active. Even when we are not actively interacting with others, brain regions associated with theory of mind (or social-emotional perception) are active. Even when we are not actively making moral decisions, regions of the brain involved in moral decision-making are active.

“When we dream, areas of the brain involved in memory and emotion are very active but parts of the brain associated with logic and laying down memories are not.”

Perception itself “involves ceaseless spontaneous background (activity) in the brain.”

Zeman emphasized the growing role of the brain in pre-human to human evolution. “Over the last three million years, body weight has remained fairly equal but brain volume increased substantially.” He showed a slide indicating increase in brain volume over Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, and Homo Sapiens. This evolution has produced a brain which is “intrinsically spontaneous, creative and imaginative.”

Drawing an analogy between the broad sweep of biological evolution and the particularities of human culture, Zeman commented that, “Biology, like human life, shows a tension between rule making and rule breaking. DNA passes on but occasionally mutates.”

Drawing another connection between culture and brain, Zeman noted that “The pressure of culture creates an evolutionary pressure to improve culture. Enriched environments make the brain grow.”

In reply to a question, Zeman commented on the “creative explosion” that has been dated to around 30,000 years ago; more or less at the time that cave paintings and artistic artifacts have been dated to. “The record may be misleading us, because there may have been creativity whose objects have been lost” prior to that time.

I asked Zeman a version of the question that has been at the core of my own interest and career in psychology: If the brain is so continuously spontaneous, creative and active, how is it that so many people live their way into cul-de-sacs, dead ends, which so much of my work as a clinical psychologist is about helping people find their way out of? In reply, Zeman returned to his theme of “rule making and rule breaking: “Rule making itself has to be learned,” and we can learn our way into a cul-de sac, so to speak, rather than refining the learning process and attitude toward learning. “Brain chemistry affects that as depression, which is associated with (excessive) self-criticism, (and) mitigates against creativity.”

Reflecting on Zeman’s answer, it occurred to me that a great deal of the work of Idries Shah, founder of the Institute for Cultural Research (in 1965), was about helping us to “learn how to learn,” to develop an attitude about learning that prevented cul-de-sacs, or at least supported early recognition of them in order to remain psychologically free, and what I might call metacognitively supple. Furthermore, the teaching stories that Shah collected, revised and wrote provide us with a way to recognize the presence of patterns in our lives and cultures, and prepare our minds for new learning.

Artist Susan Aldworth was our next presenter. Misdiagnosed with a possible brain lesion around Christmas of 1999, and hospitalized for diagnostic tests, the experience of watching her brain imaged on a screen while she was experiencing herself in real time was a life-changing and career-changing event for her, as exemplified in this etching from her website (, “Apoptosis 1 (2007).” (I was unable to paste the etching into the blog, but it's worth seeing, along with her other work, on her website).

“I’m a very cerebral artist,” she said, “I think about my work,” but that doesn’t mean that it can be described in words. Aldrich is “interested in celebrating the mystery of brain and consciousness and bringing it out of the labs.”

Aldworth, who also has a degree in philosophy, showed a short film, “Going Native,” and then discussed the brain, science, philosophy, and the human condition, as muse to the artist.

• “The Brain as Muse:” After being discharged from hospital, Aldrich contacted the physician who had worked with her and asked if she could work with him, which led to her spending a day a week watching brain angiograms from behind a screen in the consulting room (with the patients’ permission, of course). Susan read from her diary about waking up in the operating room with her own monitor, watching an image of her brain in action created from a camera in a catheter which had been inserted in an artery in her groin and threaded into her brain.

• “Science as Muse:” Aldworth uses “quasi-scientific images” in her art, for example, “Birth of a Thought.” “We use brain-scans culturally as a kind of sign-post to the person.” She has created art based on the brain images of an epileptic patient, with eyes looking out, back at the viewer. These images had a very discernible and powerful effect on the audience. It was as if the person depicted in the image was both having a seizure and looking out from that experience at the view, simultaneously. Replying to an attendee’s comment about the power of that image, Aldrich commented that the eyes are associated with selfhood.

• “Philosophy as Muse:” Aldworth described the work of two physicians--I didn’t get their names--who weighed terminally ill patients just before and just after death, each of whom found a difference of about 21 grams. “A materialistic shorthand for the soul?”

• “Human Condition as Muse:” Aldworth works with people with Alzheimers, and has a work entitled: “Dissolution.”

Discussing creativity from her perspective as an artist, Aldworth said, “For an artist, creativity comes from being curious and interested. I do my research and then comes the hard work. For an artist, the accidents that happen on the etching plate” can make a profound contribution to the work.

“There’s a huge history to anatomists and artists working together. Before the 20th century, there were very few representations of the brain. Now there are many brilliant artists” working with brain images.

Aldworth received enthusiastic response from the audience when she talked about the deadening of inspiration in school. “In art school, assessment of students and ticking off boxes is killing creativity and inspiration. We have to look to what we’re doing as our culture.” Another attendee commented: “I trained as a teacher and decided not to go into it because it seems to me that we’re preparing sausages rather than human beings.” Aldrich replied, “It’s not done out of maliciousness, it’s done to raise standards, but the overadministration (ends up stifling inspiration and creativity in the name of higher standards).”

I had purchased the book, “Scribing the Soul,” containing essays by a neuropsychologist, an artist/writer, and a curator, around Aldworth’s images. Chatting in a small group afterward, I had mentioned the importance of constructive nagging, and Aldrich inscribed the book, “To my dear Naggers.”

Lunch was enlivened by conversation with attendees with diverse backgrounds, at a little cafe not far from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where the conference was held.

After lunch Ilona Roth, Senior Lecturer in Psychology in the Department of Life Sciences at the Open University, and an expert on Autistic Spectrum Disorders, spoke about “Strange Imagination: Insights from Autism.” (I also purchased her book, “The Autism Spectrum in the 21st Century.”)

“Consideration of creativity in people on the autistic spectrum challenges ideas of what creativity is,” Roth said. The autistic spectrum diagnosis is based on:

• Communication difficulties, verbal and nonverbal

• Social interaction difficulties

• The appearance of such difficulties before the age of 36 months

However, “shadow autistic traits,” autistic-like traits which do not rise to the level that would support a diagnosis, can show up early in life and then recede.

Roth showed several slides of drawings of outstanding artistic talent by autistic children. “Artistic talent in autistic children seems to show fully formed right away, rather than going through a developmental process,” she observed. She compared examples of Andy Warhol’s “realistic” art to those of autistic children, and noted that Warhol “seemed to have some autistic traits,” such as liking to talk to people on the phone rather than in person, even if they were close nearby.

“Some preliminary impressions suggest that the brains of people on the autistic spectrum may be more richly wired within local areas but less well wired between areas,” Roth said, which may make for “better attention to detail rther than cognitive flexibility.”

Elizabeth Archibald, Professor of Medieval Literature in the Department of English at the University of Bristol, gave the final presentation on Saturday, on “The Birth of Romance: Creativity and Inspiration in the Twelfth Century.” Archibald noted that there was a sudden flourishing of creativity in twelfth century Europe, in which Lone Ranger knights travelled out in search of adventure and love, featuring women who were suddenly depicted in a new role, as able to choose their knight, sometimes even before or outside of the bonds of marriage, as in some versions of the tale of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. During the question portion of her presentation, Archibald commented that the sudden burst of romance narratives in about the twelfth century might be partially attributable to the sudden increase in need for literacy, following the Norman conquest and the establishment of new administrative processes and controls, in a new language.

This concludes my notes from Saturday’s program. My notes from Sunday’s program will follow.


Etienne de L'Amour said...

Many thanks for this, Jay. I couldn't get to the seminar so this is really useful. Hopefully they'll post videos to the ICRTube channel at YouTube.

Was anything mentioned (eg by Saira Shah or Kalima Shamsie) about playing the role of scribe when writing creatively, with the words "arriving" without pre-vocalized thought? Or is this just me?

Jay Einhorn, Ph.D. said...

Not that I remember, Etienne, sorry. One of the presenters referred to Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow," which I think is related to the experience of "scribing" as author, but if someone focused on it more directly I didn't catch it.

Alice Graubart, LCSW said...

Jay, two thoughts come to mind after reading your notes, and thank you so much for posting them.

1. The interaction of culture and brain activity is so powerful, I suspect that's why context is so important. Anyone who's tried to change within one culture, or helped clients to do so -- to broaden, can attest to the difficulty, since none of us live within a vacuum.

2. Helping people, including ourselves as therapists, to articulate/scribe that which used to be known as primary process, the essence of creativity, is a worthy goal that lends significance to life, increases flexibility, helps people learn new ways of being, interacting, and coping with and in the world.

Again, thank you,

Alice Graubart, LCSW said...

Jay, two thoughts come to mind after reading your notes, and thank you so much for posting them.

1. The interaction of culture and brain activity is so powerful, I suspect that's why context is so important. Anyone who's tried to change within one culture, or helped clients to do so -- to broaden, can attest to the difficulty, since none of us live within a vacuum.

2. Helping people, including ourselves as therapists, to articulate/scribe that which used to be known as primary process, the essence of creativity, is a worthy goal that lends significance to life, increases flexibility, helps people learn new ways of being, interacting, and coping with and in the world.

Again, thank you,
Alice Graubart, LCSW