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Mindful : February 2014
February 2014 mindful 29 unconscious, almost drea m- like, resting mental state. This state is officially called the “default mode.” When the brain is in default mode, not processing anything in particular, its association cortices—located along the surface of the cere- brum—step up their game. These regions bring together seemingly unrelated memo- ries, facts, thoughts, images, and other mental flotsam into something original, or at least unusual. Asked to come up with a word that goes with mother, most of us will settle for father, while pa rticula rly creative people a re more likely to say something like earth. When Andreasen gave creative artists a nd scientists this word task, the association cortices were intensively acti- vated in both the scientists and artists, suggesting to her that the neura l mechanisms of creativity are the same across disciplines. How do the raw materials of a creative leap wind up in the association cortexes? Cre- ative people, finds psychol- ogist Shelley Carson of Har- vard University, have leaky “mental filters.” These built-in censors screen thoughts, images, memories, and per- ceptions, allowing only some into conscious awareness. That keeps us focused—but it also keeps “burrs” and “zipper” far apart, at least in most brains. In Georges de Mestral’s mind, however, the filter didn’t keep thoughts that “don’t belong together” from mingling in the association cortex. The Swiss engineer did put burrs and zippers together. Result: Velcro. To study the filtering mechanism—called latent inhibition—Carson had volunteers listen to strings of nonsense syllables while background noise bla red a nd lights flashed. Those who noticed the most background noise a nd lights (evidence of low latent inhibition) had achieved musical or artistic success at a young age, an indication of creative power. Their brains, Ca rson con- cluded, were very forgiving. They allowed unrelated “bits and pieces in the cognitive workspace” to come together, yielding connections a nd associations that might, in less creative brains, be still- born. Low latent inhibition, then, allows a brain to access and combine mental elements from disparate domains, in other words to be open to new ideas—the essence of creativity. Short of a personality or brain transplant, you can ma ximize your inherent creativity by sheer persever- ance. “Original ideas tend to be remote,” Runco argues, which means that the first 10 uses of string you think of will likely be commonplace, but if you push yourself, the next 10 will include some quite creative ones. If original ideas come late in the creative process, he points out, we should give ourselves time and space to come up with those “remote” ideas—time for our leaky filters to allow notions that have never made each other’s acquaintance to come together and undergo a kind of alchemy. Easing off on the latent inhibition a nd allowing thoughts to leak out of their tight containers and collide in interesting ways is what seems to form novel ideas. It’s prob- ably what allowed Seurat to combine painting and atomic theory to arrive at Pointillism, Einstein to merge flying and keeping pace with a beam of light to end up with the theory of relativity, and Mark Zuckerberg and friends to put together school yearbook and internet to give us Facebook. It’s astounding what a leaky brain can get us into. ●