It’s Easy If You Tryby Joshua J. Friedman ’08JRN
“The Proust madeleine phenomenon,” wrote the great journalist and gastronome A. J. Liebling ’25JRN, “is now as firmly established in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s steam kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book.” Had Proust a heartier appetite, and fueled his talent with a full menu of oysters, steamers, scallops, lobster, and duck, Liebling ventured, “he might have written a masterpiece.”
The workings of genius fascinate us, not least because we secretly believe that if only we could arrange our lives just so, we would yet prove geniuses ourselves. If we woke up early, exercised, ate the right breakfast, found a quiet room and an attractive notebook, we might all emerge Shakespeares, Mozarts, and Picassos.
Are we right? Jonah Lehrer ’03CC, a science journalist and, as of June, a New Yorker staff writer, seems to want us to keep hope alive. In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer sends dispatches from labs where neuroscientists are charting our creative brains and tours companies where managers are manipulating work conditions to boost innovation. Splicing together research studies with anecdotes about artists and inventors, he makes a nebulous case for the notion that there is plenty we can do to make ourselves more creative.
Lehrer begins the hunt for the neurological mechanism of insight with Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University. By studying patients with right-brain damage, Beeman concluded that the right brain, once considered the junior partner of the analytical left brain, is responsible for the vague but crucial job of finding “subtle connections between seemingly unrelated things.” But how do the two hemispheres interact during moments of insight? Beeman, with his colleague John Kounios, used fMRI and EEG readings to map the brains of people as they solved language puzzles. Beeman and Kounios found that their subjects worked as hard as they could, then got stumped, then complained about getting stumped. Finally, in a flash (and sometimes aided by a hint), the left brain deactivated and the right brain lit up with high-frequency gamma waves in a small fold of tissue called the anterior superior temporal gyrus. Insight had struck.
How can we coax our brains to make this leap from frustration to epiphany? According to the research of a British psychologist named Joydeep Bhattacharya, Lehrer tells us, neural alpha waves are an essential precondition. Alpha waves are associated with relaxation, so it should be no surprise that taking a warm shower or going on a long walk can stimulate creativity. Daydreaming, too, can help us stitch together our more rational thoughts, according to the work of another scientist, Marcus Raichle, who conceived his research after noticing that the brain was strikingly active while subjects’ minds were drifting off. During these periods of reduced outward stimulation, it seems, the mind turns inward and begins sorting and reordering its previous thoughts. The challenge for those hoping to channel their daydreams into creativity is to maintain just enough attention to harness these new connections.