The Paradoxical Creative Brain

January, 2006

To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing, must be competitive while afflicted by self doubt. These and other paradoxical ideas about creativity and the brain were explored by a panel of two leading neuroscientists and two nationally known creative artists during a public meeting Nov. 14 at the Dana Center.

Tackling the question of what creating is like and whether brain science can explain it were, for the science perspective, Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa, author of The Creating Brain, and Pierre J. Magistretti of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Michael Kahn, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, and Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance, offered artist’s views.

Although few neuroscience studies have targeted creativity itself, the scientists said, research into cognition, neural plasticity, memory, and mental disorders are shedding light on how creative brains work.

Magistretti cited the need for a creative person to deeply know his or her subject, a requirement met by the brain’s capacity for plasticity—the increase and strengthening of synaptic connections that occurs when we learn. But then comes the paradox, he said: “You must free yourself from knowledge. … Creativity is the process of looking at all things with a creative eye. The main question is how plasticity that allows knowledge to accumulate coexists with creativity.”

“It’s the association cortices in the brain that are just running wild,” Andreasen said, referring to areas of the cerebral cortex that seem to be devoted to bringing order to inputs from around the brain. “Something emerges from this very deep process.”

The scientists said that exactly how the process results in the creation of an original work is far from clear, but they agreed with Kahn’s judgment that creativity “is the experience of getting out of my head.”

Similarly, Janet Eilber cited the dictates of her mentor, Martha Graham. “She was insistent that we work instinctively. … She would insist that we stop thinking,” Eilber said. But, she added, “You must have the knowledge to forget the knowledge.”

A more controversial question is whether a creative person is born that way or can be taught creativity.


Michael Kahn and Nancy Andreasen share a laugh during a panel discussion on creativity.  Photo by Ellen Davey/Dana Press

“They’re born with something that is special and unique,” Andreasen argued. “They couldn’t help but want to create something.”

Belief that creativity is inborn rests popularly on examples of well-known families of genius in music, performing arts, or other endeavors. But Andreasen, in research with students of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, found a darker aspect to the family connection. In one of the few studies to tie creativity to mental illness in families, she found an increased prevalence of mental illness among creative people, with those in the arts more vulnerable to mood disorders, and creative individuals in science “perhaps” experiencing schizophrenia more commonly.

The personalities of creative people may contribute, she pointed out. “Creative people take risks,” she said. “And often they draw on a reservoir of personal suffering.”

Andreasen warned against “romanticizing” mental illness, saying that creative people with mental illnesses almost always become disabled by the illness at its nadir. They accomplish most of their work in health, she said, although some do extract creative gains at the onset of an episode of depression or psychosis. She said some creative people do feel their creativity is inextricable from their illness, but most “welcome some treatment,” especially if it is done “sensitively, delicately.”

All four panelists asserted that creativity needs a nurturing environment. In her book, Andreasen’s model for what she calls “cradles of creativity” is the city of Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance. Characteristic of such environments, she said, are relative economic prosperity, competitors and mentors for the artist—“to make them push their limits, to think and perceive in new ways”—and a societal setup that favors their art.

In modern dance, Eilber said, “Martha Graham was the right genius in the right place at the right time.”

The speakers shared a negative assessment of modern life and education for fostering creativity, naming as twin malefactors lack of time and pressure for novelty.

Each stressed the role of “doing nothing” in enabling thoughts to spontaneously take unexpected directions, but, said Kahn, “I think we live in a world now where actually the need to be novel is killing creativity. The time lacks for creativity to flourish.”

Education is failing creativity as well. “I think it is mostly inhibition of creativity that we see,” Magistretti said.

Andreasen agreed: “Boundaries are created artificially that shouldn’t be there. We need to train kids to see fewer boundaries, more integration across things.” 

The full discussion is available in Webcast and podcast.