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Mindful : February 2014
26 mindful February 2014 Collisions of Creativity The capacity to generate original ideas is, arguably, the most important cognitive trait that human beings possess. No wonder more neuroscientists and psychologists are working to understand it better. By Sharon Begley Sharon Begley is the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Even Sigmund Freud, the modern world’s best-known investigator of the mind, admitted he was befuddled by human creativity. His colleagues and those who fol- lowed in his footsteps ag reed that creativity was something mysterious and out of reach. But today ’s scientists are not giving up so easily. Neuroscientists, psy- chologists, and others are probing as never before the mechanisms that underlie those “eureka!” moments of creativity. These range from the most momentous, like the moment when some unknown Paleolithic genius discovered how to light a fire, to the most routine, such as when your third-g rader announces he needs a dinosaur costume for school tomorrow and you come up with a bedsheet-and- ha nger T. rex. Early research on the neural basis of creativity focused on what scientists call “small-c creativity,” the kind that allows you to crush that dinosaur assig nment. To probe small-c creativity, researchers monitor people’s brains when, for instance, they search for a word that goes with sauce, pine, and crab. (That would be “apple,” by the way.) But that kind of creativ- ity isn’t necessarily predictive of “big C creativity,” the kind that brings forth math proofs and maps of Middle Earth. Big C had long been out of reach, scientifically: it’s one thing to put someone in a brain-imag- ing device and ask her to come up with 20 uses for a brick; it’s quite another to ask her to toss off a Keats-quality sonnet. But with the growing recog nition that the capacity to generate novel and original ideas “is perhaps the most important cognitive trait that human beings possess,” as neurosci- entist Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa has put it, → mind/body Illustration by Malin Rosenqvist