Your Brain on Creativity
I was in Santa Fe recently to be part of a working group on “Creativity in the Brain.” The night before the start of the conference, I visited the home of some very serious art collectors who have a James Turrell Skyspace in their home. Turrell’s architecture of light is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Sitting underneath this stretched square hole in the ceiling of one of the rooms in their home is like lying on the floor of a museum and watching a painting emerge, evolve, and transform above you, before your very eyes. How else to describe this but as an idea and an art that reflects the highest form of creativity?
In April of 2013, President Obama announced the Brain Initiative—a $100 million challenge to scientists to give them the “tools they need” in order to “better understand how we think, learn, and remember.” Since Obama’s announcement, a lot of people are thinking about the ways that initiative will impact our thinking on brain science. The neuroscience of the brain is a hot topic—you see articles all over on the growing field of neuroscience and the study of the brain. The working group I was invited to be part of, brought together by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Santa Fe Institute, is a direct attempt to make sure the study of creativity is included in this burgeoning field of brain research. Most of the working group was composed of neuroscientists, social scientists, and educators with various kinds of expertise in the relationship between creativity, identity, learning, and the brain. Several things emerged over my two days of meetings that I’m still thinking about.
1. We don’t actually know that much about creativity that feels definitive, even though there has been a lot of study on the subject. The thought, even amidst this elite group, that we could create a functional definition of creativity, or create a working group dedicated to such a task, didn’t make much sense. There are, however, many theories that attempt to get at the characteristics that make someone creative. Mark Runco, the E. Paul Torrance Professor of Creativity Studies at the University of Georgia and the editor of the Creativity Research Journal, started our gathering by giving us an overview of current theories of creativity that include:
Divergent thinking: being able to come up with multiple responses to a single question—this requires flexibility and originality.
Two-tiered creative cognition: some combination of knowledge and motivation that intersects with problem finding, divergent thinking, and critical thinking.
Insight: protracted Aha! moments.
Overinclusive thinking: often associated with mood disorders—seeing connections where others don’t, a combination and recombination of disparate ideas and imaginings.
In one of the articles that Dr. Runco gave us, there’s this definition of creativity, “the ability to derive novel, excellent, and relevant ideas and products.”
Words that circulated throughout the two days—novel, divergent, original, flexible, inclusive (overinclusive), excellent—created a kind of nondefinitive word cloud around our subject matter of creativity.
Where does creativity live in our field or is it inherently creative? Who gets called creative within our theatre institutions?
Over the course of the gathering and at many other times in my career, I’ve thought a lot about what defines creativity in the theatre. Did the word cloud at the conference fit with my sense of theatrical creativity? Is it “novel” for example, to master a craft or more “original” to blow it up? Is a truly compelling story one that is “overinclusive” in its ability to connect ideas and actions in a way we hadn’t considered before? A recent New York Times article connected creativity to a kind of dialectic between pairs of thinkers rather than individual genius. Is collaboration in our practice where the creativity lies? The article points out pairs like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, even Einstein and engineer Michele Besso. Are there great pairs of collaborative genius in the theatre? Does the theatre expand the notion of pair to ensemble as the locus of genius? Is it clarity of storytelling that matters most in a creative play, or is the artist’s task to make the space for audiences to create their own narratives and paths through the work? Where does creativity live in our field or is it inherently creative? Who gets called creative within our theatre institutions?
Some neuroscientists and psychologists talk about the difference between big “C” Creativity and little “c” creativity. Little “c” creativity is looking at average folks and seeing how creative they are within their work and personal lives. It considers things like how often someone uses divergent thinking, or demonstrates flexibility in approach to problem solving. Big “C” Creativity is more rare, “It occurs when a person solves a problem or creates an object that has a major impact on how other people think, feel, and live their lives.” Those who study the big “C,” research creative people and make connections to the shared narratives among them. Neuroscientists are interested in ways that the brain imaging of big “C” people demonstrate similarities.
(It’s important to note here, that Dr. Runco finds this “big C/little c “ distinction highly problematic because it is a dichotomy that fails to account for “the functional connections between the two”—the ways they are interrelated.)
How do we identify and reward creativity in the theatre? Are we most interested in identifying those who demonstrate the big “C?” Where do we put our resources in relationship to the creativity quotient? I think it’s curious that a lot of our awards go to successful artists or “makers” but our biggest salaries go to administrators. Is one’s creativity determined in inverse proportion to one’s bank account? And what about all of this talk of participation? As a field are we beginning to see that our future may hinge on playing to the little “c” in all of us as a way of creating the most expansive and vibrant future possible? Can a lot of engaged little “cs” equal a big “C” moment for our field?
And I asked, after watching a number of interesting PowerPoint presentations on the brain that were brilliant but not as gripping as they might be, how might theatre artists help scientists tell their stories of creativity in the brain?
2. The conference made me personally ask, “What is the role of artists in contributing to the study of creativity?” I felt very respected and listened to throughout the conversation even if my level of understanding of fMRI brain imaging is limited. (I was one of the only people without an image of the brain in my presentation!) And I also felt a bit like the subject matter. This made me think more concretely about the role of theatre in shaping science. And I asked, after watching a number of interesting PowerPoint presentations on the brain that were brilliant but not as gripping as they might be, how might theatre artists help scientists tell their stories of creativity in the brain? What is the artist’s role as citizen in shaping the narrative of our national story on why creativity matters? How can we as experts in storytelling specifically inform the stories science is telling about creativity? The stories neuroscientists will tell over the next decade will have an enormous impact on the kind of respect, attention, and funding creativity receives as a legitimate field of study—how creativity will be perceived as a necessary trait to cultivate in order to enhance our humanity, our self-understanding, our educational systems, and our arts institutions.
One of the many highlights of the conference was getting to better know the work of Doug Aitken, a filmmaker who has made an important contribution to the study of creativity through his interviews with a variety of kinds of creative people, called The Source. His work challenges me to think about how as a theatre field we can document and track the creativity of our artists in ways that might be useful to the study of creativity.
As a side note, his interview with Tilda Swinton provided one of the most personally provocative moments in my meeting preparation. Doug asks her, “You went from poetry and literature and somehow you moved into the moving image.” She responds, “The thing that keeps me being a performer is my interest in society’s obsession with identity, cause I’m not sure that I really believe identity exists.” This single sentence, “I’m not sure that I really believe identity exists,” momentarily freed my own creative impulses and intellectual preoccupations to imagine what a world without identity might look like theatrically. How might the theatrical form free itself from the preoccupations of identity as the basis for storytelling?
3. The conference also made me think a lot about REST—random, episodic, silent thought. One of the articles we read in preparation for the conference points to a brain study that suggests, “When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.” Dr. Nancy Andreasen reminds us that the “eureka” comes from the famous archetypal story of Archimedes who was supposedly in the bathtub when he realized he could measure density through the displacement of water. As a studier of the big “C” she says creative people say the same thing about the eureka moment:
I can’t force inspiration. Ideas just come to me when I’m not seeking them—when I’m swimming or running or standing in the shower. It happens like magic. I can just see things that other people can’t, and I don’t know why. The muse just sits on my shoulder. If I concentrate on finding the answer it never comes, but if I let my mind just wander, the answer pops in.
This made me think a lot about our obsession with busyness. I’m not sure the “I’m so busy” problem is unique to theatre, but I personally find it a maddening part of institutional culture. Everyone is simply too busy to find time where those random eureka moments might occur. We rarely just hang out or create the kind of down time for ourselves that make a creative life possible. Have our theatres and their creativity suffered for a lack of REST? Is the business of theatre antithetical to its creative soul?
I restarted long morning walks with my spouse instead of getting overwhelmed with email first thing in the morning.
4. Finally, I had a personal eureka moment that came over dinner with a neuropsychologist who teaches a course at UCLA on “Personal Brain Care.” He asked me a simple question (I shared this with many of you on Facebook, which by the way, he considers to be the equivalent of cocaine but maybe even less productive) about where my current brain activity has been focused: “Do you check your email?” I answered in the affirmative, not really understanding the question. He responded, “never check your email, only do your email.” He told me that our brains are now overwhelmed by all of the things we’re not doing, and by checking our email we add to that chaos of things left undone. By not checking email, but only sitting down to do it, we leave more space to be focused on the present moment, for focusing on what we can do/are doing.
This little tip from a neuropsychologist has turned my life upside down in the best possible way. I stopped checking my email. In only a couple of weeks, I’m stunned by the amount of brain space this has freed up. Stunned. In two weeks time, on top of my usual work, I’ve read a piece of nonfiction, and started a new novel, and I’ve I had time to write this brief reflection. I restarted long morning walks with my spouse instead of getting overwhelmed with email first thing in the morning. I only check Facebook once a day, if that. This morning my spouse said to me as we headed out to our walk, “I saw the most interesting thing this morning—your phone abandoned on the dresser underneath some magazines—who are you?”
I’ll be thinking about this working group for a long time and just know that if you email me or send me a message on Facebook, and I don’t respond within fifteen minutes, I’m either RESTing and hoping for a eureka moment, or focused on the current task in front of me.