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by Nancy C. Andreasen
Plume, 2006
Review by Anthony R. Dickinson and Claire Kan on Aug 18th 2009

The Creative Brain

Andreasen offers a great sourcebook introducing the history of research concerned with the nature and nurturing of creativity and genius. Written in clearly accessible language for the average reader, this volume explores what is known (and currently knowable ?) about famous artists, musicians and scientists, the possible environmental circumstances facilitating their creative genius, and the putative neurological brain developments which supported their creative behaviours. Perhaps a little disappointing in its inability to truly reveal the underlying neural basis of creativity, the book is nonetheless valuable for its concluding chapter's inclusion of several 'mental exercises for adults', and the even better section concerned with 'tips for teaching tots', with a view to parents and teachers enhancing the individual creativity of very young children.

The early historical reviews and landmarking of the key writings concerned with hereditary genius was welcome (and well referenced for those unfamiliar with this literature), but surprisingly, does not greatly extend Galton's claims and conclusions of 100+ years ago to become within easy reach of a new and detailed understanding of the neural basis of creative genius. The author's own 'clinical' research contribution to the empirical parts of the thesis presented in this book would appear to be largely confined to her finding of a significant correlation to exist between creativity and instances of hereditary mental illness, and in particular, with both personal and familial mood disorders. That experience itself, plus proactive sensory and motor opportunity combined with the autoregulatory cognitive processing that supports determination of the significance of objects, event and experiences gives rise to changes in brain structure (and thus the potential development of individual brains capable of increasing levels of creativity), is an important omission and left to the reader to work out for him/herself.

More transparent perhaps are the listed correlate personal characteristics and lifestyle opportunity choices found common to many an acknowledged creative genius. Plotted biographical information as available from previous accounts (although often anecdotal), have afforded Andreasen to compile a useful, if non-exhaustive, typical creative personality profile, and some correlate environmental opportunities and circumstances often seen to support its expression. Many readers will undoubtedly enjoy identifying the existence of their own genius potential as determinable by their possession of certain identifiable personality-trait indicators, the most significant of which appear to include clearly abnormal social lives, sustained attention to differential detail, prolonged and self-motivated concentration, good working memory, which, together with a wealthy patron/funding body (if not poverty) and the ability to work alone for protracted periods of time with little/no sleep may well help you towards your first novel product or discovery !

The author's attempts to outline the neural basis of creativity and genius begins with a great primer on neuro-anatomy (Ch.3), but unfortunately is not extended to describe what she believes 'the creative brain 'to look like (in contrast to those of less creative people, which the current reviewers predict will show quite different patterns of neural connectivity, plasticity potential, and network density distributions). A further irritation is seen with Andreasen's allowing the language of early stimulus reception to become confused with the language of experiential perception (and other conceptualisations of cognitive processing), when describing neural circuit activity transmission pathways. A similar effect occurs again in the later functional neurobiological section when returning to discuss 'building better brains' (Ch. 6). For example, we read that in certain parts of the cerebral cortex "the sounds and words are connected to their associated memories and given meaning", and again later that "Because the eye was unable to see, the visual cortex did not grow properly". Although perhaps wishing to avoid the more technically-correct vocabulary and conceptual conciseness of modern cognitive neuroscience, the choice of relatively colloquial language employed here may serve to confuse rather than elucidate the functional brain mechanisms underlying an especially less well defined behaviour such as creativity. The very few extant neurological imaging data studies discussed here showing clear brain-structure differences with expertise will be familiar to many readers (London taxi-drivers are possessed of enlarged hippocampi with increasing experience and use of memory related to spatial-awareness, and male professional orchestral musicians showing increased grey matter in their Broca's area), but the specific way(s) in which the brains of creative genii differ from those less profligate in their output, remains elusive, both in terms of gross descriptive functional detail and developmental ontology. We would at least expect to have found Andreasen's predictions with respect to the kinds of brain connections and pathway developments that might conceivably result from exposure to particular learning strategy experiments, perceptual affordances, personal interpretive experiences, and/or environmental exploration opportunities as may correlate with creativity and giftedness (if not genius).

Still wishing to recommend this book, we applaud the section in the final chapter concerned with providing a selection of helpful tips and environmental enrichment ideas for fostering the increased likelihood of a given child attaining (if not actually demonstrating) enhanced creative talent, as may be expressed in any number of significant ways. To list a few as based upon the personality profiles and associated environmental opportunities available to the historical geniuses previously discussed in the earlier chapters, such simple tips include, for example, not stifling curiosity (otherwise highly correlated with creativity), engaging collaboratively with your child in investigatory projects, visibly modeling (as a parent) the activities of reading and engaging in homework-like behaviors within the home, and using 'direct observation' of nature (rather than relying solely on book and video/TV-based reference materials) for fact-finding missions.

Indeed, these and many other attributes of the life histories of the creative geniuses of past eras have much to exemplify for us all, as role models, the potential significance of life-style choices and our sensitivity to observable/discoverable environmental opportunities that may result in the development of the kinds of brains likely to support each our own enhanced creativity. This is all the more interesting given that we currently remain largely in the dark with regards the way(s) in which the specific brain structures required to support extraordinary creativity can, and do, develop and change their structure within the span of an individual human lifetime.

 

© 2009 Tony Dickinson & Claire Kan

 

Dr. Tony Dickinson & Claire Kan, Academic Research Laboratory, Global Choice Psychometrics, People Impact International Inc., Hong Kong




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