Art Works Blog

Lessons Learned from talking about the Nature of Creativity in the Brain

Sunil Iyengar (NEA Director of Research and Analysis) and I had the privilege of attending a Nature of Creativity in the Brain working group at the Santa Fe Institute earlier this month. We co-organized the event with Jennifer Dunne, the Institute’s faculty chair. The purpose of the meeting was to “evaluate the legacy of creativity research and to look for ways to mine new knowledge at the intersections of cognitive psychology, neurobiology, neurotechnology, learning, and the arts.”  
The Santa Fe Institute is a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center dedicated to bringing together leading scientists from across a broad range of disciplines to collaboratively grapple with compelling and complex issues. This event afforded us and them an opportunity to expand their established trans-disciplinary approach to include artists and artistic inquiry in that effort.
The idea of assembling this group to grapple with this theme in this venue seemed like incredibly fun and important work. But as my favorite author Mark Twain once said, “In order to get the full value of a joy, you have to have someone to divide it with.” So without further ado, here are five of the most compelling lessons I learned in Santa Fe.
Lesson 1: 15 Heads are way, WAY better than one.
As a theater guy, I know that 99 percent of the success of your production depends on your casting. And this was a killer cast. The purpose of the meeting was to "evaluate the legacy of creativity research and to look for ways to mine new knowledge at the intersections of cognitive psychology, neurobiology, neurotechnology, learning, and the arts." The Santa Fe Institute's complex systems approach aggregates a set of distinct intelligences, methodologies, and "ways of knowing" in an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackle a common problem or issue. For example, our meeting brought Marc Runco, who has for 20 years edited the Creativity Research Journal (which captures a range of study from realms such as behavioral, clinical, cognitive and social) together with Robert Bilder, director of the Tennenbaum Center for Biology of Creativity, who brings a neuroanatomic and neuronsychological lens into the investigation. This event afforded us an opportunity to expand the institute's trans-disciplinary approach to include artists and arts inquiry perspectives from likes of theater-maker and HowlRound Editor Polly Carl and multidisciplinary Artist/Technologist Doug Aitken. Fifteen people in all contributed to the conversation from across a broad spectrum of expertise. (Stay tuned: This fall we will be releasing an executive report from the meeting with more information on the attendees and what they discussed.)  
Lesson 2: The brain is buzzing!
The group was particularly energized by all the commotion currently being raised around brain research and by the prospect of inserting a focus on “creativity and the brain” within these larger contexts.  This conversation was hot to begin with, but all the heightened interest and investment currently being harnessed by the Obama administration’s BRAIN initiative, the European Union’s Human Brain Project, and similar efforts added even more fuel to the fire. Over the next decade or so billions of dollars will likely be poured into these efforts. It was almost impossible to wrap our minds around where all this might lead, but the possibilities were tantalizing to consider--and added a sense of urgency to the entire proceedings.  
Lesson 3: There is no agreed upon standard definition of creativity (or is there?).
While it makes intuitive sense that the study of creativity will require originality, good science tends to naturally require the subject to be pursued in a manner that allows research to build upon and to validate previous research. This creates natural pressure for a standardized definition--so the conditions around the thing we are testing can remain somewhat consistent. Mark Runco noted that articles in the Creativity Research Journal, which publishes scholarly research that captures a wide range of approaches to the study of creativity (behavioral, clinical, cognitive, developmental, educational, social, etc.) have been tackling this problem for some time. In these sectors a candidate has emerged over time that suggests a definition with two criteria; creativity requires both originality and effectiveness. But even within these fields questions remain on whether two criteria are necessary (maybe more, maybe less?).  And if so, whether these are the right ones. When you step outside of these realms things get even trickier. The artists in the group did not feel confident that this was the most effective way to frame an examination of arts-based creativity. This also proposes challenges for people considering ways to measure creativity from a molecular-biological standpoint. Imagine if we are able to capture what’s happening at the molecular level in the moment of an “a ha!”--one could imagine that there may soon be a way of tracking how neurons that hold together one idea are able to connect with neurons of another to form a new meaning or association--but how then to factor into that measurement whether or not the association was deemed to be”‘effective.” According to whom? These and similar concerns combined to form one of the most complex and vexing problems encountered by the group, but there was agreement that this is a matter that demands further investigation. Good science tolerates a limited amount of improvisation. As Charles Limb (a surgeon and an accomplished jazz musician) pointed out, a patient coming under his scalpel would not tend to feel that now was the time for the good doctor to “get creative.”   
Lesson 4: Artists can contribute a great deal to this investigation.
Sir William Osler, a founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital frequently credited as being “the father of modern medicine,” famously said, “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.” It would be foolish to presume that artists hold a monopoly on creativity; there are creative people working in every field making advances across every sector. But creativity is at the core of artistic method and practice and the artistic disciplines create natural platforms for creativity to be explored, exercised, and expressed. With this in mind it would seem only natural that listening to the artist in any effort to advance our understanding of the nature of creativity could play an integral role in the investigation. This certainly proved to be the case in Santa Fe. Polly Carl’s turn on the agenda took the form of a narrative that created a resonance for how sustained artistic pursuit can lead one not only to a deeper understanding of one’s self, but of everyone. Doug Aitken’s personal perspective as an arts-maker helped ground the discussion as well, and through his recent project The Source, he was also able to summarize and present selections from his interviews with creative pioneers from various disciplines around the creative process--from ideation through the generation of a final product. At one point of the conversation, the group discussed the idea that art and artists may have more to offer science than the other way around. 
Lesson 5: Creativity matters.
Concerns around creativity are emerging across all facets of society. In industry, creativity and imagination are becoming more and more valued as key competencies for the 21st-century workforce.  Parents want to ensure their kids will develop the necessary skills that will enable them to fully participate in these future economies. These sensitivities combine to create new pressure to advance our ability to foster creativity and innovation as educational priorities, as evidenced in the energy gathering around STEAM learning. The role that creativity and the arts can play to advance health and well-being are also gaining traction. And of course, the role that arts and creativity have always played in helping us to understand ourselves continues to be a core concern of the human endeavor, perhaps even more so now as we navigate our way through a shifting and disrupted human condition.
Despite all this growing interest, our ability to understand the nature of creativity in the brain is still not well understood. However, the potential to advance these efforts through new methodologies and new technologies looms large. The biggest lesson I learned in Santa Fe is that trans-disciplinary synergies that bring artists and artistic inquiry into the broader effort have the potential to shed new light on the investigation. And that these efforts may illuminate new pathways to bring us to a better understanding of how creativity in the brain can be more effectively researched, nurtured, and optimized.  

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