Sunday, February 24, 2008

Biological Perspectives on Creativity

Chapter 3 from Ronco’s text is entitled Biological Perspectives on Creativity. Ronco delves into discussing and describing the work and research that has encompassed this biological area of study. This chapter reads very much like an anatomy text so if you have forgotten what and where the Corpus-Collosum, Amygdala, or even your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is located, hang on for the ride!

One section of chapter 3 speaks of work around creating virtual lesions on the brain and monitoring their impact on the individual’s performance. I was very intrigued when reading this section, because I can speak to the effect of real lesions in, and on, my brain.

My personal interest is grounded in the fact that I am a person who lives with Multiple Sclerosis. This disease is a chronic autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. In M.S., gradual destruction of myelin occurs in the brain and/or spinal cord. As you can see on my MRI, the “white, light bulb-like” areas are lesions, areas of demyelination, within my brain.

These lesions, or demyelination, disrupt nerve pathways within the central nervous system (CNS) and can lead to a variety of symptoms. Some symptoms include, but are not limited to, those that can be ‘noticed’; as in speech, coordination, gate or muscular weakness. Still other symptoms are not as noticeable to others as in forgetfulness, confusion, emotional ramifications, memory difficulty and so on. I wonder will these lesions have an effect on my creativity.

Thanks to the early work of Roger Sperry, we now know that people that have had their brain hemispheres surgically separated will be unable to be creative in a meaningful way. It was determined that these commissurotomy patients lacked the physical structures, in the brain, to allow emotions to develop and navigate within the creative arena. This information was crucial in establishing arguments against the Split Brain Theory.

Emotions, also known as the “affective” domain, have overwhelming demonstrated a role within the world of creativity. Feelings or emotions, components of the limbic system, are just as important as physical brain features for fostering creativity. Biology, or genetics, can help determine that the physical structures are available to the individual, but the person’s emotions and feelings will play off of these structures in very individual ways. Nature and nurture are equally important.

As stated earlier, I am a person living with Multiple Sclerosis. Throughout my time dealing with this disease, I have come to know many individuals dealing with M.S. as well as other neurological diseases. I attend M.S. Support Group meetings and several members in these groups demonstrate a condition known as Ppseudo bulbar affect. Pseudo bulbar affect, or labile affect, refers to the excessive expression of laughter, crying, or smiling. This is also known as emotional lability.

People dealing with labile affect may find themselves laughing uncontrollably at something that is not so funny, and being unable to stop themselves for a period of time. These episodes are typically mood-incongruent. For example, a person might laugh uncontrollably when angry, frustrated, or sad.

Labile affect is most commonly observed after brain injury, but is also observed in people that have a disease of neural degeneration. Up to 50% of M.S. patients will encounter this labile affect. This fact is interesting to me as it relates to Chapter 3. If people are overactive emotionally, or cannot contain these emotions, how will this play off of their ability to be creative.
Ronco’s work has demonstrated that both cognition and emotion have definite roles in the creative process. Again, both nature and nurture are equally important. In regard to my M.S. friends, and even John Sharon from V. S. Ramachandran’s video (Secrets of the Mind), the hyperactive nature of the emotions can certainly shape an individual’s reality. Their reality is something other, thus creativity is stymied.

On the other hand, a lack of emotions can also be a detriment to the creative process. Ronco describes folks that suffer from alexithemia. Simply put, this is the inability to have feelings around words. A person suffering from alexithemia cannot adequately describe their feelings to other people. These people will not get excited, or emotionally moved, under situations that otherwise would warrant emotion. Granted, alexithemia is not only the lack of emotion, but a cognitive problem putting words to feelings or emotion.

I contend that a person needs to have the correct balance of cognition and emotion to allow for the “proper” expression of creativity. The ingredients need to be in the right balance for a meaningful outcome. Too much raw cognition or too much raw emotion is detrimental to the process.

An individual that is too emotional will have a hard time being creative. In the case of Mr. Sharon, a minuscule grain of sand was truly important and meaningful. To my M.S. friends dealing with labile affect, conversation around a menial topic can turn into quite a drama. One can only imagine a C.P.S. session involving these people. A warm-up asking for ways to improve the bathtub could very well turn into a counseling session for these people. After all, why would the bathtub need anything else, it’s nice the way it is. Why tamper with such a beautiful and useful thing?

There is no doubt that specific parts of the brain have deliberate purpose or function as it relates to creativity. Tools such as EEG, MRI, PET, and cerebral blood flow have been able to identify areas of the brain that become active while performing certain tasks. However, these tools, or measures, are also substantiating the fact that there is not a “creative seat” within the brain. The correct mix of physical brain function and a dash of the emotional realm is the ideal creativity recipe!

-by Gene Pohancsek
Graduate Student

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Birth Order, Creativity and Me: A Response to Chapter 2 in Creativity by Mark A. Runco

I am the second of four children.  I am also the only girl - the rose among thorns, so to speak. My brothers and I are each two years apart.  So what does that mean in relation to my potential for creativity?  Possibly nothing and possibly everything.  Birth order, sibsize (the number of children in a family), sibling constellation (the closeness in age of each child), and gender differences all play a part in shaping a person as he grows from childhood into adulthood.  Therefore, it seems that these factors might also play a role in the cultivation or deprivation of creativity that occurs as a person matures.

A variety of research studies have been conducted on this polar issue - some resulting in the conclusion that birth order and other family factors are appropriate to use when predicting creative potential in a person and others coming to the opposite conclusion.  Within the debate are conflicting  results from the collected data - are the most creative people only children, eldest, middle, or youngest siblings? 

To find out what this and other studies say and how they relate to you, look for articles on creativity and birth order or sibling constellation.  Here are two articles I found:

A study done by Baer, Oldham, Hollingshead, & Jacobsohn (2005) concluded that "growing up with a large group of opposite-sex siblings or with a large group of siblings relatively  close in age seems to positively affect the creativity of firstborns."  I am not a first born, but the rest of the conclusion is in my favor.  I guess I have my brothers and my mother who raised us so close in age to thank for part of the creativity I experience today.  

To find out what this and other studies say and how they relate to you , look for articles on creativity and birth order or siblings conselation.  here are two articles I found:

Baer, M., Oldham, G. R., Hollingshead, A. B. (1986).  Birth-order and divergent thinking.  Journal of Genetic Psychology, 148, 119-125.

- Mary Beth McCune, Graduate Student